New guidance on university tie-ups with mainland China

New guidelines are to be drafted by Taiwan’s Ministry of Education for university agreements with institutions in mainland China after a controversy erupted recently over universities signing agreements not to teach 'sensitive' subjects that criticise Beijing policies as a condition of taking in mainland exchange students.

Taiwan’s Education Minister Pan Wen-chung said last Monday that the ministry is reviewing a range of existing agreements that have been drawn up by Taiwanese universities without proper regulations in place.

The guidelines would be a reference for university agreements for student exchanges so that cross-strait educational exchanges could continue “without concerns over sovereignty or academic freedom”, Pan said.

Taiwan’s Premier, Lin Chuan, said while Taiwan respects freedom of speech and academic freedom on campuses and wants to continue exchanges with China, “we hope there will be no political interference” in academic exchanges.

Keen to stress that Taiwan was not under pressure to curb political discussions on campuses, Lin insisted that political views, including calling for Taiwan’s unification with China, or Taiwan’s independence from the mainland was “within the boundaries of freedom of speech” in Taiwan.

The issue first came to light recently when it emerged that Shih Hsin University’s school of lifelong learning had signed an agreement in December with three mainland universities that classes on offer to mainland exchange students would not include politically sensitive subjects.

Although not specified in the university’s agreements, excluded topics could be Taiwanese independence or the mainland’s ‘one China policy’, which holds that countries with diplomatic relations with Beijing cannot also have diplomatic ties with Taipei.

Drop in student numbers

Katherine Chang, minister in Taiwan’s cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council, said the request from mainland universities to limit classroom discussions is “unnecessary, inappropriate and unreasonable” and would not be good for cross-strait academic exchanges.

The Taiwan ministry denied reports that such agreements with the mainland are widespread. However, universities are keen to convey to the ministry that any new rules should not unduly limit universities’ ability to recruit from the mainland, or subject institutions to undue political pressure.

Academics said the Taiwan government is keen to resolve the issue without disrupting university exchanges as short-term exchanges had declined since Tsai Ing-wen, the Democratic Progressive Party or DPP politician became Taiwan’s president last May. The DPP refuses to acknowledge 'one China', leading to political pressure from the mainland.

The number of university students coming from China to Taiwan for non-degree programmes, often lasting a single semester, fell from 34,114 in the 2015-16 academic year to 32,648 in the current year, according to Taiwan Ministry of Education figures. The number had risen steadily from 823 just 10 years ago, and more than doubled from 2011 to 2013.

The number of mainland students on degree programmes in Taiwan had not been affected, however, at 9,327 for the 2016-17 academic year, up from 7,813 the previous year, according to the ministry which is keen to increase student numbers from overseas.

Reflection of political relations

Although government agencies in Beijing insist the policy on exchanges with Taiwan’s universities has not changed, university administrators in Taiwan admit privately that several mainland provinces have been restricting exchanges amid uncertainty over broader political relations.

Taiwan’s universities said such agreements were not common in the past but had been requested by many mainland universities in the past few months.

National Taiwan University or NTU Secretary-General Lin Ta-te told local newspapers that demands by Chinese institutions that NTU sign a letter of agreement as a precondition for exchanges increased after Tsai Ing-wen took office. However, he said NTU has stopped signing such formal agreements, concerned it might not be able to “fully adhere” to China’s demands.

NTU instead issues “a statement” to Chinese institutions declaring it will not discuss cross-strait relations in the classroom.

National Chiao Tung University in Hsinchu has also issued letters, which it says are not a legal agreement but rather an “explanation” for faculty members and students. The letter states Chinese students will not participate in political discussions while at the university.

Six universities issued statements on 3 March saying they had formal agreements with mainland institutions but that these were not in breach of Taiwan’s Act governing relations between the people of the Taiwan area and the mainland area, which allows only the government to negotiate political agreements.

In Beijing, Ma Xiaoguang, spokesperson for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said it is the duty of both sides to provide “a good environment for study” to mainland students in Taiwan and that there would be no “political interference” in students’ lives.