ASEAN students focus of event

CHINESE TALENT::Premier William Lai said that the number of students from ASEAN nations saw an annual increase of 10 percent last year due to government incentives

By Joseph Yeh  /  CNA

Sat, Sep 08, 2018 - Page 4

On a hot summer day, more than 100 school principals from ASEAN member states gathered in a conference room in downtown Taipei to attend the first-ever ASEAN Chinese language school principals’ meeting from Aug. 20 to Aug. 22.

Organized by the Overseas Community Affairs Council, the agency in charge of liaising with ethnic Chinese communities abroad, the three-day event hosted 108 principals or top managers from seven nations — Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Cambodia.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, Premier William Lai (賴清德) said that the meeting sought to give participants a more in-depth understanding of government efforts in the cultural and educational exchange side of its New Southbound Policy targeting the 10 ASEAN members, as well as India, Bagladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Australia and New Zealand.

Lai said the New Southbound Policy, initiated after President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) took office in May 2016, has had success in improving links between Taiwan and ASEAN countries.

Tourism and trade exchanges aside, Lai said the number of students from ASEAN countries studying in Taiwan last year increased by 10 percent from a year earlier.

The number has seen a significant hike due to government incentives, including more scholarships targeting ASEAN students, he added.

According Ministry of Education statistics, more than 117,970 foreign students attended Taiwanese universities and colleges last year, or about 9 percent of university and college students. Of those, 35,460 came from ASEAN countries, or about 30 percent.

Overseas ethnic Chinese students — mainly from Hong Kong, Macau, as well as Malaysia and other ASEAN members — were another major source of international students last year, totaling 25,290, or 21.4 percent of foreign students, the ministry’s data showed.

The majority of foreign students who study in Taiwan tend to be ethnic Chinese or have some connection to Taiwan, and many of them come from ASEAN countries, the council said.

Another reason ASEAN members are a major source of international students is because the council has long forged close ties with overseas Chinese-language schools in the region, it said.

At the beginning of this year, 2,318 overseas Chinese-language schools were working closely with the government, with 73.7 percent in Asia, the council said.

Despite its limited budget, the council has for decades trained Chinese-language instructors and donated teaching materials to privately funded schools.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the principals’ meeting, Wang Shao-chang (王紹章), head of Sacred Heart Middle School in Mea-ai, northern Thailand, said Taiwan’s high-quality education environment is extremely attractive to his students.

Wang, who is also president of the Chiang Rai area Chinese-language teachers’ association, said another reason is that most third-generation ethnic Chinese in northern Thailand are decedants of Republic of China military personnel who ended up there at the end of World War II.

Lashio Holy Light Chinese Language School deputy principal Lee Ming-chang (李明昌) from Myanmar said that about 20 to 25 percent of his high-school graduates choose to pursue further studies overseas, and for most of them, Taiwan is their No. 1 choice.

However, the decades-long educational exchanges between Taiwan and Chinese-language schools in ASEAN have faced a new challenge in recent years.

China’s Confucius Institute, a non-profit public educational organization affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education, has become a staunch competitor in the promotion of Chinese language and culture, supporting local Chinese teaching in Southeast Asian nations and around the globe.

Nevertheless, Taiwan still has an edge after helping Chinese schools in ASEAN for decades and with its use of traditional Chinese characters, a writing system some prefer to the simplified characters used in China.

“Traditional Chinese characters preserve the beauty of Chinese culture, which is why all of our 68 Chinese-language schools in Myanmar use Taiwan’s teaching materials instead of China’s,” Wang said.

Wang and Lee both called on the government to provide more scholarships and visa privileges for students planning to study in Taiwan.

The government could also do more to allow those students to stay and work in Taiwan after finishing their studies, they said.

In 2014, the Ministry of Labor amended regulations governing work permits for foreign professionals to allow foreign graduates of Taiwanese universities to obtain work permits more easily.

Previously, only an employer willing to pay an average monthly salary of NT$37,619 could sponsor a foreign graduate for a work permit.

According to the new rules, the minimum salary requirement has been replaced with a more flexible system that awards points based on compensation, language ability and experience living abroad.

If a foreign graduate scores 70 points, an employer can sponsor them for a work permit in specialized or technical work.

The Democratic Progressive Party administration plans to take this a step further.

At the opening ceremony, Lai said that the National Development Council (NDC) has drafted an economic immigration act that targets three categories of foreign talent — including ethnic Chinese students.

According to the proposed rules, they and their families would be eligible to apply for permanent residency and naturalization after seven years in Taiwan.

The draft act has been published on the NDC’s online policy platform, where people can post opinions on it until Oct. 5.

After that, it is to go to the Executive Yuan for approval and the legislature for review.

“Hopefully when it officially hits the road, the new bill will help Taiwan retain these talented individuals, and when they ultimately return to their home countries, they can contribute to their economies using the skills and experience learned in Taiwan,” Lai said.

When that day comes, the dream of Yang Hsiao-chieh (楊曉潔) from Myanmar could finally realized.

A sophomore studying electronics at Chung Shan Industrial and Commercial School in Kaohsiung, Wang told reporters that after graduating from high school, she plans to continue her studies at a Taiwanese university before returning home.

“I want to raise money to fund a private school in Myanmar to help the children in my home country,” she said.