The presidential candidates have finally touched on the issue of university education in their campaigns, although most of the attention has been paid to subsidies for short-term study abroad programs and student loans, not the deeper crisis facing higher education in Taiwan.
At a time when half of the universities face closure within the next five years, many private universities are prioritizing students over teachers for the sake of student retention, and the Ministry of Education is merely kicking the can down the road.
The ministry held an industry-academia seminar, during which officials obsessed over flipped higher education and innovative vocational education, while private university presidents were saying that the most urgent task is to attract enough students to survive.
For organizations that have fallen on hard times, vision and mission statements are noble, but unlikely to save the day.
Despite being nonprofit organizations, universities essentially operate as businesses, and this is particularly true for private universities, which lose not only income, but also ministry subsidies when they fail to recruit enough students.
However, while schools have been counting heads and making every effort to recruit and retain students, they have tolerated students neglecting their studies. As a result, professors either do not dare or are unwilling to be tough on students.
Even if every senior and vocational high-school student applied to a university, there would still be a shortfall in student numbers.
Many young people who should not have gone to college have done so, wasting school resources and their own time, when they could have found jobs more suited to their personalities and skillsets straight out of high school.
Unfortunately, enthusiastic parents force them to attend college against their will, causing ridiculous world records, such as university admission rates as high as 90 percent or more.
Despite the seriousness of the situation, and even though it has legal tools such as the “sunset clause” and the university withdrawal mechanism, the government has failed to find a solution.
However, the sunset clause takes time and universities must transform themselves to withdraw from the market.
The ministry demands that poorly managed universities withdraw from the market, but it also refuses to allow schools to change their land and building use.
Despite its attempt to terminate schools with poor enrollment rates through “mercy killing,” the government is delaying the termination process.
The delay harms society, the government, universities and the students, but indifferent officials care only about themselves.
The number of Taiwanese of college age is expected to fall below 110,000 next year.
The numbers are forecast to continue to drop by 6,000 to 7,000 students per year, until it only totals 75,000 by 2025.
By that time, public universities are likely to pick up 50,000 Taiwanese of college age, while nearly 80 colleges and universities fight for the remaining 25,000.
Ultimately, that could mean that at least 50 schools would end up with no one to teach.
Maybe part of the ministry’s wishful thinking is to confiscate barren campus properties one after the other as these universities close down. It is a worrying thought.
Andrew Huang is a visiting professor at Finland’s Aalto University.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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