President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) recently called on local universities and colleges in Taiwan to develop “all-English curriculums” to both woo foreign students and enhance Taiwanese students’ competitive edge in the global employment market.
Ma also said he would urge the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to increase the annual Taiwan Scholarships budget to attract more talented foreign students. Ma called for the globalization of Taiwan’s higher education in response to the declining birth rate in Taiwan.
Here are some personal comments based on my experience with foreign students over many years.
What would induce young foreigners to choose Taiwan as a place to pursue advanced studies? They would first evaluate the potential gains of studying in Taiwan. If the costs of airfare, living expenses, tuition and time are heavy, while gains are little or nothing, they would not come to Taiwan.
This is the bottleneck that local universities and colleges face. Even if the financial cost of foreign students coming to Taiwan for studies could be subsidized with scholarships, the key question of what they would “gain” has not yet been solved.
People in Taiwan tend to believe that we are a high-tech society. However, based on the examples of wafer foundry and biotechnology, the truth is that we are still far behind developed countries.
Why then would outstanding foreign students come to Taiwan to learn non-pioneer technologies?
Over the past 40 years, the only area in which Taiwan has accumulated substantial know-how and now has a bank of human talent is the agricultural sector. However, agriculture never gained the respect of either the government or universities. In many third world countries, half of the labor force is still employed in agriculture. This is the area where we could offer meaningful assistance. These countries are the potential sources of foreign students for Taiwan.
I was authorized by the administration of National Chung Hsing University several years ago to draft a plan to establish an “all-English curriculum” for the International Master Program of Agriculture. It was not an easy task.
Although a number of Taiwanese professors say their courses are taught in English, actual communication in the classrooms is a mixture of English and Chinese. Often teachers and students speak Chinese, while their PowerPoint slides are in English — sometimes, even the slides are a mixture of the two languages.
There are also a few cases in which professors never offered a single course in English, but still recruit foreign graduate students to their laboratories. They seem to have taken on foreign graduate students to impress people. These foreign graduate students, although given many scholarships, have not received quality educations in Taiwan. They became laboratory assistants in exchange for a diploma to take back to their homelands. I have also known a few foreign students studying as undergraduates in Taiwan.
Their stories are more painful than those of foreign graduate students. Some of them have already failed three or four times in calculus and general chemistry — required undergraduate courses — because instructors taught only in Chinese. Apparently not all universities — or all departments — are fully prepared to accept foreign students.
A common question is: Why don’t those foreign students learn Chinese before coming to Taiwan like most of us learned English before we went to the US, England or Australia to study? This is not a practical solution. Why would an African student spend a few years first mastering Chinese in order to study biotechnology in Taiwan? In addition, Chinese courses are not generally available in the same way as English courses are here and in most countries.
European countries such as the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland, where the native languages are not English, have striven hard in recent years to offer all-English curriculums to attract international students. Many prestigious institutions of higher education in those countries have taught a substantial portion of international students. Language is the key.
The Canadian godfather of mass communication, Marshall McLuhan, said: “The medium is the message.”
English language is the medium for internationalizing our local universities. It is also the message to attract foreign students.
Establishing an all-English, four-year undergraduate curriculum in Taiwan is much more difficult than establishing a graduate program, because undergraduate students need to take more than 100 credits in an array of courses, including general courses, general-education courses and professional courses. If we are to implement the Ma’s ideas, we will need many faculty members who can use English as their communication medium in the classroom and in their course Web pages.
Based on our experience of promoting an all-English curriculum in the International Master Program of Agriculture, we should pay close attention to candidates’ level of English when recruiting new faculty members. It should be understood by all involved that a new faculty member should be able to offer courses completely in English. With such a corps of competent professors ready, we will be able to develop “all-English curriculums” to benefit both local and foreign students.
Israel Bau-Jen Jiang is the academic secretary to the dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at National Chung Hsing University in Taichung.
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