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EL Asia Pacific: Taiwan looks southwards

pang yu liu Taiwan

Matt Salusbury reports how the country is using more English-medium courses for international students to lessen its diplomatic isolation.

Taiwan has launched ‘a strong push’ to recruit more international students from other South East Asian countries, with an increasing proportion of these expected to study on courses that are partly or fully English-medium.

The New Southward Policy, launched with its own office by President Tsi-ing Wen in June, envisages student exchanges and international student recruitment as part of a strategy of ending Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation. (The island nation, which styles itself the Republic of China, is not fully recognised by many countries.) New scholarship schemes for incoming South East Asian international students are part of the New Southward Policy.

New Southward Policy Office director James Huang told the Taipei Times in August that Taiwan’s low birthrate had led to ‘skewed’ student–teacher ratios, meaning that the nation’s universities weren’t operating at capacity – there were spare places that could be filled by recruitment from other Asean countries or from India. Indonesia’s government already funds its ‘finance officers’ to study in Taiwanese higher education, while Taiwan’s representative to the Philippines Gary Lin reported that there have been many enquiries from recent graduates there about taking an English-teaching diploma in Taiwan.

The National Taiwan University ranks in the top 160 of the World University rankings, which gives Taiwan the edge over many South East Asian nations. Its medical school in particular has a good reputation internationally, and its universities have a greater degree of autonomy and greater use of English language materials than their counterparts in the People’s Republic on mainland China.

Postgraduate courses in Taiwan are often English-medium, while Taiwan’s university teaching staff have a reputation for being prepared to explain in English for the benefit of international students if needed.

Not all of Taiwan’s academics are so enthusiastic about more English-medium teaching though. The News Lens reported back in March that National Chengchi University’s announcement that ‘all new recruited teachers should offer English Taught Courses (ETC) every semester’ was vigorously opposed by some staff. Communications professor Fen Chien-san was quoted as saying the move ‘adds too much burden to the faculty’ and discriminated against those international students who did not have English – presumably Chinese speakers from other Asian countries. He questioned also whether a student of Chinese literature or Taiwanese history would benefit from learning in English.

The Star national newspaper in Malaysia reported Taiwan’s deputy education minister Chen Liang-gee as saying that Taiwan is now becoming a popular destination for Malaysian students, with just under 15,000 of these in Taiwan – up from under 10,000 in 2012.

While most university undergraduate courses on the island are delivered in Chinese, there has been more demand from Malaysia for university courses taught in English, including enquiries from ethnic-Chinese Malaysians, while Taiwanese universities exhibiting at the Higher Education Fair in Malaysia were ‘encouraged’ to promote their English-medium offerings in particular.

Five Taiwanese universities have signed agreements for courses for Malaysians to train to teach in independent schools in Taiwan, a sector currently facing a teacher shortage. A Taiwan Education Department official also highlighted the availability of prayer rooms and halal-friendly canteens at many Taiwanese universities to suit the many Malaysian students from Muslim backgrounds.

This international student recruitment drive is backed by 1 billion Taiwan new dollars (£239,000) in Taiwan Fellowship scholarships from the education ministry for international students annually, and is also open to foreign university teaching staff. The figure includes grants for Taiwanese students to study in India or in other Asean countries. Students from Vietnam in particular are expected to benefit from the Taiwan Fellowships. According to the China Post, they have been unable to afford to study in Taiwan up until now and have had to study in the People’s Republic instead.

In recent years Taiwan has seen more students enrolling from mainland China on Chinese-medium courses, although there are ‘security restrictions’ in place which prohibit mainland Chinese studying subjects with a ‘military application’ such as medicine. Study in Taiwan for mainland Chinese is a way round the highly competitive gaokao entry exam for the People’s Republic’s universities. (See the October 2010 Gazette.)

While formal contacts between Beijing and Taipei were recently ‘suspended’, as we went to press a Shanghai–Taipei forum was opening in Taipei. Shanghai Mayor’s Office representative told the Taipei Times that ties – including higher education exchanges – between the two cities were ‘strengthening’ and that there were already 1,000 Taiwanese students studying in the city of Shanghai each year.

Pic courtesy: Pang Yu Liu