Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou, who emerged the victor of yesterday's closely fought elections, has promised to take up a suggestion by local university presidents to open up Taiwan's universities to more students from China. Ma has consistently advocated closer relations with China.
With the Kuomintang party's Ma and his rival Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party neck-and-neck in the run up to the polls, election observers noted that the choices of first-time voters aged 20 to 23 years were critical.
Lin Sheng-siang, spokesperson for the non-governmental organisation the First-Time Voters National Policy Observation Group, said 1.2 million young people were eligible to vote for the first time.
A 28 December poll of students countrywide had marginally favoured Ma, with 21.4% saying they would vote for the incumbent president compared to 18% for Tsai. But almost a third (34.5%) were still undecided, prompting a focus on the student population in eleventh-hour campaigning.
Students were offered half-price discounts to return home to vote on 14 January despite the poll falling during a week of final examinations, local media reported.
National Taiwan University of Science and Technology, National Taiwan Normal University, National Taipei University of Education and Taipei Medical University, urged students to take up cheap bus tickets to return home to vote.
Thousands of students took advantage of the offer organised with bus companies and one transport company Kuo-Kang reported having transported 12,000 students from university areas.
Meanwhile, other voters travelled back to Taiwan from mainland China by air and sea ferry for the poll.
The 50,000 Taiwanese heading back to vote on Friday was the highest number of travellers between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan ever recorded in a single day. An estimated 200,000 Taiwanese living on the mainland returned to cast their votes.
The DPP focused on young voters through the internet and activities on university campuses. Lin Ho-ming, vice-director of the youth division of the DPP campaign, said that just days before the poll older voters had made up their minds in advance, "but the votes of the younger generation are up for grabs".
With rising graduate unemployment, students are concerned about job opportunities. The opposition DPP played on this, saying that allowing more mainland Chinese students in Taiwan could compete with local students for jobs.
However, Ma told a two-day conference of university presidents held at Taipei's National University of Science and Technology in December that he favoured opening up to students from China and from other countries as part of Taiwan's 'soft power' strategy.
A Ministry of Education official Tony Lin said in May that Taiwan wanted to more than double the number of international students to around 95,000 by 2012, or 7.5% of the student population - a rate comparable to Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea.
The largest student pool is likely to be mainland Chinese, for cultural and linguistic reasons. Around 1,000 students from mainland China currently study in Taiwan, only half the number allowed under new rules finally agreed after months of wrangling in the legislative Yuan, or parliament.
At the postgraduate and doctoral level only a third of the allocated spots for mainland students were filled in 2011, according to the Mainland Chinese Joint Admissions Committee (MCJAC) set up by Taiwan's universities last year.
Postgraduate and doctoral students from the mainland were first admitted in March 2011 after legislation to allow students from China passed through parliament in August 2010.
The first undergraduates enrolled in September 2011. They are not eligible for government scholarships and cannot take up jobs on graduation - restrictions demanded by the DPP.
Nonetheless, university leaders said the quota was too low. Many institutions in Taiwan are battling low enrolments caused by a declining birth rate on the island.
High admissions requirements, particularly for top universities such as National Taiwan University, National Cheng Kung University and National Tsing Hua University, was the main reason behind the low enrolment rate, according to Tai Chien, president of Southern Taiwan University and head of the MCJAC.
Tai said another reason for the low take-up of mainland students by universities was that Taiwan's institutions spread their quotas evenly among disciplines, while mainland students applied mainly for finance, economics, business administration, law, Chinese, information technology and electronics.
University presidents said a larger pool of students to choose from would make it easier to fill places.
Ma told university presidents that he would ask the education ministry to find ways to enable more students from mainland China to study in Taiwan under the existing University Act and the act governing relations between people in Taiwan and the mainland.
Education Minister Wu Ching-Chi said mainland China wanted Taiwan to recognise the academic credentials of all of China's top 100 universities. Taiwan currently only accepts credentials from 67 selected universities.
But Wu said negotiations would be necessary with Beijing as China allows only students who have household registrations in six coastal provinces to apply to Taiwan's universities.
TAIWAN: Bid to attract more overseas students
TAIWAN: Top students head for China
TAIWAN: Way clear for Chinese students next year
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters