Renewed push to attract international students

Taiwan has started the year with a renewed drive to attract more overseas and mainland Chinese students. The government also wants the island state to become a higher education hub in East Asia by encouraging the establishment of branch campuses of overseas universities.

The aim is to internationalise as well as to bring in foreign students and counter the effects of its own declining population in higher education.

“The talent needed for a revitalised economy has to come from higher education,” Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou said early last month. Speaking to a national conference of university presidents in southern Tainan City, Ma said internationalisation was important for higher education.

“The world’s universities are competing fiercely to attract the best students. [We are] aiming to attract 150,000 students by 2020, that will account for 10% of the total college and university student population.”

He described this as fulfilling an election promise made in 2008 to increase student mobility both to Taiwan as well as Taiwanese going abroad as a way to strengthen international ties and the country’s “soft power.”

The Ministry of Education’s department of higher education announced on 14 January it was planning to facilitate increased collaboration with overseas universities, including setting up foreign branch campuses under new regulations currently being drafted by the government

To boost the number of foreign students, the department’s director-general, Huang Wi-ling, said education innovation would be achieved by “encouraging collaboration between local and foreign institutions, beginning with degree-granting classes and professional programmes”.

Because these do not require amendments to existing laws, Huang said he hoped for “concrete results by year-end.”

But the establishment of branch campuses would require revisions to Taiwan’s University Act which regulates higher education, as well as new laws setting up so-called Free Economic Pilot Zones or FEPZ which would attract foreign academies and institutions. Ministry officials said it could take three years to clear the legislative process.

“After promulgation of the proposed FEPZ statute, local institutions can cooperate with foreign universities to set up branch campuses and independent colleges in Taiwan,” Huang said, citing the example of New York University’s branch campus in Shanghai as an example Taiwan wants to emulate.

Foreign students

President Ma told the national conference of university presidents the new target of 150,000 additional foreign students built on a previous target to attract 95,000 foreign students by 2014.

Last year, there were 78,000 international students in Taiwan, just short of the 2014 target. When Ma came to power in 2008, Taiwan had fewer than 30,000 foreign students and this had more than doubled, he said.

“Many countries have chosen Taiwan as a top place for training their educators. India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam provide government scholarships for academics and teachers to study in Taiwan.”

Taiwan has also provided funding to universities to help them recruit more international students. The government agency that offers scholarships to students from developing countries announced that 2014 would be the first year that programmes taught in English and Mandarin would qualify for scholarships: some 180 are available for developing countries.

Previously, only a limited number of English-taught courses qualified, said Lee Pai-po deputy Secretary General of Taiwan’s International Cooperation and Development Fund.

The government has said it will establish more language centres to attract foreign students interested in studying Chinese, who may also go on to further studies at Taiwan’s universities. It is competing with China’s language centres which have been expanding within China and outside through its Confucius Institutes.

China teaches in simplified characters which are easier to learn, compared to the more traditional characters used in Taiwan.

Taiwan’s Executive Yuan, the executive branch of government, has drawn up an eight-year plan to increase the number of language centres operating independently of the government. Those accepting foreign students will grow from three to 25 by 2020.

Mainland students

Ma also repeated a pledge made several times in the past that restrictions on mainland Chinese nationals studying in Taiwan would also be reviewed, with a view to attracting more students.

“Allowing Chinese students to study in Taiwan is a policy that has more advantages than disadvantages,” he said.

Some 20,000 students have come from China in the past three years since Taiwan’s universities began to admit Chinese nationals, under certain restrictive conditions. But changes will depend on the opposition parties which have frequently clashed in the country’s parliament over allowing more mainland Chinese students into Taiwan.

One scheme underway is a two-year undergraduate degree programme for mainland junior college graduates from China’s Fujian province across the Taiwan Strait, and from southern Guangdong province close to Hong Kong.

A ‘pilot’ scheme commenced last September with 73 public and private institutions in Taiwan offering courses to almost 1,000 mainland Chinese students. It is to be expanded this year.

Ma has also said he would like to see more young Taiwanese people pursuing higher education in the US, which he said would strengthen cultural and educational exchanges between the two countries.

The number of Taiwanese students studying in the US is now just 25,000, "half the number when I pursued my graduate studies there over 30 years ago", Ma, a graduate of the Harvard Law School, said.