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Taiwan is seeking to boost the use of English in its higher education sector, with growth in international student recruitment seen as a way of combating local demographic decline and the loss of Chinese applicants.

The Ministry of Education is seeking to recruit leading universities to join a $35.5 million program that seeks to make half of all graduates from participating institutions bilingual over the course of the next decade.

That would be a steep climb, given that only a fifth of both school leavers and full-time university lecturers have the ability to engage comfortably in English teaching and learning.

The new funding will support the hiring of new faculty and the development of new curricula.

To qualify, universities will need to be teaching 5 percent of undergraduate and 10 percent of graduate courses in English.

Currently only 4.5 percent of university courses in Taiwan are taught in English, but that figures rises to 20 percent among elite institutions, The Taipei Times reported.

Academics expressed hope that the plan could support the recruitment of more international students from countries with high levels of English use across Asia.

Taiwan is contending with the same historically low birth rates that have hampered the sustainability of higher education systems across east Asia.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 100 master’s and Ph.D. programs failed to attract a single candidate in 2019, local media reported. Meanwhile, undergraduate recruitment rates are already maxed out.

“Taiwanese higher education faces dwindling student numbers due to demographics,” John Chung-En Liu, a sociology professor at National Taiwan University, told Times Higher Education. “Already, lower-ranking and smaller private schools are closing, and more universities may shut later.”

Last year, Beijing barred mainland Chinese students from applying to Taiwanese universities, because of both COVID-19 fears and what it called the “current relationship,” a common way of referring to strained relations.

Liu saw potential for increased student recruitment via Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, which aims to boost mobility between southeast Asia, south Asia and Australasia.

“We need to engage more on a person-to-person basis, and education is a good way to do that,” he said. “It’s a worthwhile effort, to be global and attract international talent.”

He said Taiwan looked to Hong Kong and Singapore as two “benchmarks for becoming HE hubs.” However, English has been a part of daily life and university administration in those former British colonies for decades, whereas Taiwan still has substantial “bureaucratic hurdles” for non-Chinese speakers.

Chia-Ming Hsueh, a higher education researcher, told Times Higher Education that “while the enrolment rate of higher education in Taiwan is as high as 90 percent and almost all high school graduates can go to universities, the problem of English learning among high school graduates has not been improved for a long time.”

“The main purpose of this policy is to help universities upgrade or transform from an institutional perspective, so as to establish a more friendly environment for foreign scholars and students, improve the ability of local faculty to teach in English, and therefore provide a gateway for local students to use English more fluently,” he said.

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