TAIWAN: Bid to attract more overseas students

In a major speech last week Taiwan's President Ma Ying-Jeou (pictured) outlined the country's bid to become a higher education hub, and said some universities could begin to teach in English - a move that could draw students from mainland China and elsewhere in Asia away from universities in Britain, Australia and the US.

Taiwan's universities are currently suffering a downturn in enrolments for demographic reasons, but the new policy is more than an attempt to fill seats in lecture theatres.

"The tertiary education sector brings not just lucrative income, but it also expands a country's soft power and influence in the world," Ma said in a speech at the Commonwealth Economic Forum in Taipei on 10 January.

It would not only help the development of Taiwan's universities but also promote Taiwan in Asia through 'student ambassadors' who would maintain an attachment to Taiwan even when they returned to their home countries, Ma said.

He said the ministries of foreign affairs and education, as well as the Overseas Compatriot Affairs Commission under the country's parliament, the Executive Yuan, would draw up a plan to attract more students to Taiwan.

Universities already employing English-speaking lecturers "may soon offer curricula taught fully in English", Ma said. "I have been told, on more than one occasion by officials from Southeast Asian countries, that if universities in Taiwan provide more programmes taught in English, the country will be very attractive to their high school students."

Citing estimates by international consultancies, he said Taiwan had the potential to attract some 160,000 foreign students, mostly from Chinese-speaking countries. However that target could be difficult to meet.

Mainland China is itself attempting to attract more international students, investing in major new facilities to house foreign students at top universities including Peking University in Beijing and Fudan University in Shanghai.

Peking University, the most prestigious in mainland China, launched a major recruitment campaign in Hong Kong last month. Hong Kong also attracts large numbers of top mainland students.

Meanwhile Hong Kong and China have also been developing joint programmes, with the first joint masters degree in law between Peking University and Hong Kong expected to begin soon.

With a nod to the emerging competition from China, Ma said: "We cannot compete with mainland China in terms of market size, but we have an edge over [them] in terms of the quality of our courses and our ability to teach both traditional and simplified Chinese."

Traditional Chinese characters are used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and many overseas Chinese communities, while simplified characters are in use in mainland China and Singapore.

Taiwan faces stiff competition from Hong Kong, whose universities are ranked among the highest in Asia, although students from the mainland are restricted to a small percentage of the student body.

In addition Hong Kong has been drawing students from Taiwan and also attracting Taiwanese academics with higher salaries than they can get in their own country. That will have to be reversed for Taiwan to compete as a higher education magnet.

Singapore also has more than a decade-long head-start as an education hub in Asia, attracting some 91,000 foreign students with a stated aim of increasing this number to 150,000 in the next five years.

A declining birth rate in Taiwan has led to predictions that almost 28% of the island's 164 colleges of higher education could close by 2021 for lack of students.