Higher education has long been considered a key to promoting industrial development and changing the nation’s economic fortunes, or at least, to cultivating talent and enhancing Taiwan’s competitiveness.
For the younger generation, higher education has also been understood to lead to reliable employment and an improved quality of life over the long term.
However, in the past several years, some private colleges and universities have seen enrollment shortfalls, which some people link to oversupply and the nation’s low birth rate, while others blame a slowing economy and the government’s restrictive educational policy. Critics have called for the government to solve the issue, including the establishment of a merger or exit mechanism for private institutions.
Last week, Kao Fong College of Digital Contents in Pingtung County said it was disbanding after years of student shortages and financial difficulties, making it the nation’s first private college to shut down. Another Pingtung-based private college, Yung Ta Institute of Technology and Commerce, was told by the Ministry of Education to halt admissions for a year to focus on restructuring. Several other private schools, including Kaomei Junior College of Health Care and Management in Greater Kaohsiung and Hsing Kuo University in Greater Tainan, are on the ministry’s radar.
Problems faced by private schools have continued to grow since the number of higher education institutions ballooned from 99 in 1972 to 162 thanks to a government policy to promote new schools.
Yet according to a white paper on education released by the ministry in December last year, the falling birth rate will have the most severe impact on school enrollment in 2016, with 55,000 fewer students for colleges or universities — almost a 20 percent decline from 1997. The economy will suffer, as the white paper also says the total productivity of graduates in 2028 will need to be double that of last year’s graduates to maintain the nation’s development, if the birth rate remains low and the proportion of elderly people continues to increase.
There are more people than ever seeking higher education, alongside growing concern that the number of colleges and universities has led to an oversupply of graduates, high unemployment among young people and lower starting salaries. As the quality of higher education has not grown accordingly, worries over the nation’s educational competitiveness increase, too.
A vicious cycle stalks poor-performing schools: The lower their performance, the less attractive they are to students, leading to lower enrollment, rising financial difficulties and reduced faculty and staff numbers, which spark labor disputes, which in turn fuel academic underachievement and hurt graduates’ employment prospects.
The government should take full responsibility for this oversupply and poor quality because it encouraged the establishment of private institutions, but did little to ensure quality control. The ministry initiated its reform plans in 1999 and offered exit guidelines to institutions, but the problems remain, with the ministry planning to reduce the number of colleges and universities to about 150 this year.
A responsible government must tell the public that they have a path to prosperity through higher education or other alternatives, instead of talking about institutional exit mechanisms without guiding schools toward success. The ministry intends to close or merge schools with lower enrollment rates, but is only pushing schools to focus on recruitment, rather than on other efforts to stay competitive.
Moreover, not understanding what challenges face private schools — whether their tuition is inadequate, why most of them lack unique characteristics and whether the government’s unfair resource allocation affects them — poses a real crisis in the future of higher education.
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