Late one night in February 2014, officials from Pingtung County’s Kao Fong College of Digital Contents quietly announced that the school would close permanently via a message on the school Web site. It became the first-ever college to close due to the nation’s shrinking student population.
Six months later, another Pingtung school, the Yung Ta Institute of Technology and Commerce, also announced its closure, making it the second victim of the nation’s dwindling young population because of a low birth rate.
A former Yung Ta instructor, who wished to remain anonymous, said his research grants were cut by 25 percent in the last few years before the school’s closure.
He was also forced to teach up to 22 hours of classes per week in the final semester as many teachers had left by then.
“Students used to ask me about the cut in grants, and I would always tell them to just focus on their studies. I did not want the students to be affected by school affairs,” he said.
Nonetheless, the students were affected. Even though they were able to continue with their studies at other colleges, the teacher said that at least one of his students was forced to drop out because he could not afford to travel to another county for school and back to Pingtung for his part-time job.
The closure of the two schools is just the tip of the iceberg.
The Ministry of Education predicts that the nation’s 18-year-old population is going to shrink from more than 320,000 people last year to 180,000 within 10 years.
Tuition fees received by higher-education institutions are set to drop by NT$30 billion (US$897.64 million) over that period, which means between 20 and 40 universities and colleges in the country might go out of business, studies have shown.
There are currently more than 150 universities and colleges in Taiwan, whose population numbers more than 23 million.
Taiwan’s birth rate has dropped significantly since the 1980s. Before 1983, the number of newborns averaged above 400,000 each year.
The fertility rate then began to drop and by 1998, the number had fallen to about 278,000, largely because it was the Year of the Tiger, considered a bad year to bear children in traditional Chinese culture.
Over the past 10 years, only about 200,000 babies have been born each year.
This year is when the “tiger babies” born in 1998 will turn 18. The number of first-year college students this year is predicted to drop by more than 20,000 from last year.
“2016 is when the ‘tsunami’ [of low birth rates] will hit Taiwan’s higher education,” Association of Private Universities and Colleges of Technology president Ko Tzu-hsiang (葛自祥) said.
No school is fully prepared for the drastic change expected this year, and most are still hanging on and do not want to give up until the last moment, Association of Private Universities and Colleges president Lee Tien-rein (李天任) said.
Faced with this crisis, the Ministry of Education set up the Higher Education Innovation and Transformation Office last year to help schools find innovative ways to reinvent themselves.
Office executive secretary Huang Wen-ling (黃雯玲) said many schools are aiming to capitalize on the “aging society market” by offering lifelong learning courses for retirees.
Others are transforming their campuses for other uses. For example, Chung Hwa University of Medical Technology is renovating its classrooms to turn them into postpartum care service and health check centers, Huang said.
Ko Tzu-hsiang and National Alliance of Parents’ Organizations head Wu Fu-pin (吳福濱) have suggested that the government compensate schools to speed up their closure or transformation.
However, Secondary and Elementary School Principals Association director-general Hsueh Chun-kuang (薛春光) said that closing down schools should not be the first option, because once schools are closed, the community around them also suffers.
Schools can be turned into nursing homes, continuing education centers, or cultural and creative parks, Hsueh said, adding that the government should consider the opinions of community residents when assisting schools in their transformation.
Meanwhile, Kao Fong and Yung Ta are also looking forward to changes.
Kao Fong is to be transformed into an elementary and secondary school this year, while Yung Ta will be turned into a social welfare foundation and its 7.6 hectare campus will be used to build nursing homes for seniors and possibly a job training center, officials said.
However, the transformations have not been easy due to outdated regulations that often prolong administrative procedures.
“It is the first time that universities and colleges have had to transform themselves. We have spent a lot of time just communicating with officials and trying to figure things out,” Yung Ta vice chief executive Wang Yi-hsien (王義賢) said.
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