When Hsu Chung-hsin (許忠信) went to university three decades ago, he became part of an elite group in Taiwan. Now virtually everyone can enter higher education. That, he thinks, is deplorable.
“It’s become so easy. As long as you’re willing to pay the tuition, you can go to university. That’s no good,” said Hsu, a Taiwan solidarity Union legislator with a PhD in law from Cambridge University. “It doesn’t influence the top universities. It’s the low-end universities that are affected. Their quality is low. The teaching is not serious and the students are not hard-working.”
Declining birth rates and an explosion in the number of universities — there are more than 160 for a population of 23 million — mean the vast majority of high-school students gain entry to higher education.
Taiwan had a total of 1.35 million university students at the end of June this year, according to Ministry of Education figures.
However, the boom has serious downsides for Taiwan — with a polarized system resulting in many people receiving a sub-standard education that does not meet the overall needs of the economy.
The standard university entrance exam — once a dreaded rite of passage — has become little more than a formality. Last year, 90.4 percent of applicants gained admission.
That compares starkly with 1975, when just over a quarter of people made it past the exams, ensuring a Darwinian struggle for survival.
Now the pressure is off and operators of cram schools preparing teenagers for the entrance exam report a relaxed atmosphere in their classrooms.
It means the archetypal hardcore Taiwanese high-school student who burned the midnight oil in an effort to secure perfect grades is probably already in the minority.
“Some high-school students take it really easy. If you just want to make it to university, any university, you’ll be fine no matter what,” said Abby Yao, a 24-year-old psychology student at Fu Jen Catholic University. “It’s totally different from our parents’ generation. Back then it was, like, one in four who could get into university.”
Kuo Wen-chung, a senior manager with the Yu Da Education Institution, a popular cramming school, agrees that youngsters nowadays take it easier.
“Definitely the students are less competitive than earlier generations, even though their parents have lavished more money on them,” he said.
There are still people who study as hard as ever. They are the ones striving to make it into the top universities, which educate roughly one third of the student body.
However, the other two-thirds risk ending up on the wrong side of an increasingly polarized education system, with the good, mostly state-run, universities on one hand and the not-so-good, mostly private, ones on the other.
Many people enter university even though it might not be in their own long-term interests, according to National Taiwan University economics professor Kenneth Lin (林向愷).
“The private universities just take the ones with low exam scores, because if they don’t have enough students, they’ll go bankrupt,” Lin said. “However, the students face poor job opportunities when they leave and in fact they would be better off going to a vocational school and then getting a job in manufacturing.”
According to Hsu, a university system divided into two distinct tiers is the opposite of what Taiwan needs right now.