As competition for international students heats up, it is no longer just the US, UK and Australia, or the Europeans, who are in the race. Asia too, is competing strongly, to attract the best and brightest from abroad. China now enrols more than 260,000 international students, and has set ambitious targets to double that over the coming years. Malaysia now has more than 60,000 international students enrolled, both from within the region, and beyond. Singapore, with a population about the same as Sydney, now has around 90,000 international students.
Now Taiwan is seeking to enrol thousands of international students, and is mainly targeting the South East Asian market. Its Minister has announced that Taiwan’s higher education system has key features that should be used as a basis to attract international students. Already 4,847 international undergraduates were enrolled in Taiwan last year, as well as 3,603 Masters students and 1,497 Ph. D candidates. Many are on Taiwanese scholarships. If all international students are counted, including those on short courses (mainly language and culture), the figure rises to 48,000, a number that Lin Wen-tong (林文通) Director of Taiwan’s Bureau of International Cultural and Educational Relations, wants to raise to 120,000 by 2020.
There are at least two reasons behind Taiwan’s move. On the one hand, it seeks to project its distinct culture through exposing more and more international students to its higher education system. For years now, mainland Chinese intellectuals have been debating the significance of Joseph Nye’s notion of soft power, and how China can deploy it to its advantage. Nye’s soft power centres on how to co-opt or attract, rather than coerce, as a means of persuasion. The burgeoning Confucius Institutes, China’s versions of France’s Alliance Francaise, or Germany’s Goethe Institutes, are an obvious example. Now Taiwan wants to project its own brand of Chinese culture, through its higher education system. This includes offering numerous scholarships to students from Indonesia, Viet Nam and elsewhere. While Taiwan can’t compete on size with mainland China, it believes the quality of its courses, and the ability to teach both traditional and simplified Chinese scripts, constitute its advantages. Mainland China uses the simplified form, while Hong Kong and Taiwan use the traditional form.
The second reason is demographic. As Taiwan’s population, currently about the same as Australia’s, plateaus and then declines, pressure to find students will increase. Supply is already outstripping demand, and at least a quarter of Taiwan’s colleges could face closure by 2020, for lack of students. It is already the case that almost any Taiwanese who finishes high school, can gain access to higher education.
There is another target market that some in Taiwan are keen to exploit. Across the Taiwan straits, barely 130 kilometres away, lies the huge mainland Chinese market. With almost 30 million students enrolled, China is easily the largest higher education system, worldwide. But quality varies greatly, and not all can gain admission to their chosen institution, or major. Taiwan can offer instruction in Mandarin, well-stocked libraries in the language, and access to many teachers with degrees from US or UK universities. (Rather fewer have their degrees from Australia).
But cross-straits relations are never simple, and Taiwan has been slow to open the door to mainland students. Taiwan allocated 2,000 places to mainland students in 2011, but less than half were filled – only 928. This is partly because China only allows students from a handful of provinces or cities to enrol in Taiwan – Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong. By contrast, as pointed out by Ye Kedong, of mainland China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, China allows Taiwanese students to enrol in 215 mainland universities. 4,700 Taiwanese students took up these opportunities last year.
At least as important are lingering political reservations in Taiwan, which make it complex and difficult for mainland students to enrol in Taiwanese institutions. Some Taiwanese, too, argue that mainland students are there to rob Taiwan of its educational resources. The press is also not entirely supportive. Provision of health insurance, and allowing mainland students to take up internships after graduating from Taiwanese universities are further issues to be solved, although rules on the latter were recently relaxed by the Ministry of Education. But the warming of cultural and economic relations since Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was elected President in 2008 makes solving these issues somewhat easier. His re-election in 2012 also augurs well.
Talking to international students, and local and international professors, last week, highlighted internal issues that may be a bigger barrier. All point to the apathy of many local Taiwanese students, who regularly turn up late to class, bring their breakfast which they consume in class, and then spend time on their iPhones or iPads, to the neglect of their academic work. Such attitudes do not make for a lively academic atmosphere. Some Indonesian students, too, lament the lack of understanding of their needs, in particular for prayer rooms on campus, and provision of Halal food.
With more than a million Taiwanese now living on the mainland, growing economic integration, and tensions at their lowest ebb in decades, there are more and more reasons to ease student flows across the Taiwan Straits. Perhaps it is time to put aside political considerations, and ease restrictions on mainland students coming to study in Taiwan, as the former (Taiwanese) Minister of Education Wu, Ching-chi (吳清基) recently argued. President of National Chengchi University, Wu, Si-hua, agrees. Injecting more rigour into local study habits would enliven the student experience. Greater recognition of the cultural needs of a more diverse student cohort would also help. If Taiwan can seize the initiative, its university system is likely to prove attractive to more and more international students.
Anthony Welch is Professor of Education at the University of Sydney, and author of Higher Education in South East Asia (2011) and ASEAN Industries and the Challenge from China (2011). He was recently a Keynote speaker at a conference at Southern Taiwan University.