From Studies to Work and Residence

Taiwan is making an effort to attract more international students – and hopes that growing numbers of them will stay on to join the workforce after graduation.

Despite being only a Tier II team, the soccer squad at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology (NPUST) regularly defeats some of Taiwan’s top-division university teams. But what also sets them apart is that there is not a Taiwanese face in the group. All the players hail from Africa, Central America, or Southeast Asia. “Football isn’t popular in Taiwan, so these players are the only ones to represent our university,” says Henry Chen, NPUST’s dean of international students.

At NPUST and around Taiwan, university student bodies have become increasingly diverse as Taiwan has rolled out the welcome mat for students from around the world. African, Latin American, and Caribbean students predominate in NPUST’s 900-strong international student program, attracted to the southern university’s solid presence in agricultural technology, with many programs taught exclusively in English.

At National Sun Yat-sen University (NSYU) in Kaohsiung, French students are the biggest contingent in its 900-plus international student body, drawn by the university’s strengths in business administration, also taught in English – and perhaps by the area’s acclaimed beach, suspects Kuo Chi-wen, dean of the international student program. Fu Jen Catholic University in New Taipei City, a pioneer in international education from its start on the mainland decades ago, continues to expand its increasingly diverse international programs. So has Taiwan’s top institution of higher learning, National Taiwan University (NTU), while German, French, and Spanish are frequently heard on the campus of National Chengchi University (NCCU).

“The number of foreign students has increased rapidly over the years, to the point where we can’t even accommodate all who would like to come,” says Angela Yung-chi Hou, dean of international education at Fu Jen.

Taiwan hosted 92,685 international students in 2014, according to Ministry of Education (MOE) statistics, three times the 2007 figure of 27,000. Of these, 52,607 are registered in short-term programs, including 15,526 students studying Chinese. Among the degree seekers, over half – 20,134 – are classified as “Overseas Compatriots,” which includes both foreign-born Chinese as well as students from Hong Kong and Macau. Another 5,881 are from mainland China (and the MOE separately lists 27,030 exchange students from China taking short-term courses or attending seminars or training programs).

Taiwan has an excess of universities and a shortage of students – with 164 institutions of higher learning enrolling some 1.46 million students. Virtually all high school graduates are now guaranteed a place, and over 95% of them in fact go on to university.

These numbers reflect a policy turnaround for Taiwan, which didn’t actively seek foreign students until about a decade ago when Taiwan established a multibillion dollar budget to improve the quality of its universities. Along with raising the level of teaching and research, attracting international students was an important component of this project.

Increasing Taiwan’s profile in the market for international students is seen as having a number of benefits. First, a diverse multicultural atmosphere on campus helps expand local students’ horizons, giving them a more international perspective as well as a chance to practice foreign language skills. Such an environment can enable Taiwanese students to become more competitive in the global arena.

It is important for young people to develop an international mindset, but not everyone can afford to go overseas to study, explains Angela Hou of Fu Jen. But when they have international classmates, “they mingle in class and outside of class, and do activities together,” she says. “This opens the students’ minds and lets them realize how big the world is.”

Another compelling factor is that Taiwan has an excess of universities and a shortage of students. According to National Development Council (NDC) data, Taiwan has 164 institutions of higher learning enrolling some 1.46 million students. Virtually all high school graduates are now guaranteed a place, and over 95% of them in fact go on to university. But with Taiwan’s population of young people on the decline, many colleges will be unable to fill their rosters with local students.

“Many, many institutions in Taiwan will not have enough students and will be forced to close,” says Hou. “International students can compensate for the decreasing numbers of locals.”

However, the value of running such large international student programs is also being questioned, considering that as many as 40% of the students are on full scholarships and that even for those paying tuition, which tends to be double the amount charged their Taiwanese classmates, the fees hardly cover the entire cost of the education. One of the critics is NSYU president Yang Hung-duen, who contrasts Taiwan’s approach with those of the United States, Canada, and Australia, where foreign students generally pay full tuition without access to financial aid and may be charged up to three times as much as domestic enrollees.

Tuition is highly subsidized in Taiwan, as each student is considered a future contributor to this society and economy. The vast majority of international students, however, return to their home countries to work, meaning that that they contribute to their home countries economies but received their education at Taiwan’s expense.

Proponents of the recent push to internationalize Taiwan’s university system say that these criticisms miss the point. Although the Taiwan government is trying to encourage more of the foreign students to remain in Taiwan to take employment after graduation, even those who leave the island will take with them an understanding and appreciation of Taiwan that could have immeasurable benefits when they go on to take leading positions in government offices, multinational corporations, and global NGOs. “Their contribution can be incalculable in terms of soft diplomacy,” says NYSU’s Kuo, stating that these departing students can serve as unofficial spokespersons for Taiwan.

Part of a broader strategy

To help meet the challenges caused by an aging population, as well as to revitalize an economy that has lost some of its vibrancy over the past decade or so, Taiwan is looking beyond its borders for talented immigrants. But low salaries, high property costs, and the lack of strong brand appeal puts Taiwan at a disadvantage in the global competition for highly skilled immigrants. Rather than taking on the likes of Singapore, Tokyo, or Hong Kong in head-to-head competition, Taiwan is instead targeting international students. By offering high-quality education at attractive prices, along with a friendly environment that is both exotic and familiar at the same time, Taiwan hopes that more and more international students will choose not only to study in Taiwan but also to call the island home after graduation.

Low salaries, high property costs, and the lack of strong brand appeal puts Taiwan at a disadvantage in the global competition for highly skilled immigrants.

“We need to attract talent, but how? A very important resource is students from abroad, especially overseas Chinese,” explains Chang Herng-yuh, director-general of the NDC’s department of human resources.

Accordingly, Taiwan has revised its rules to make it easier for foreign students to stay in Taiwan after completing their education. Previously, they needed to have at least two years’ work experience to qualify for a work permit, and the job had to pay a minimum monthly salary of NT$47,000. Last July, though, Taiwan changed to a point system. Prospective students are awarded points in eight sectors, including Chinese-language ability, educational level, and other experience. A total of 2,000 places a year was set aside under this program, but for jobs paying at least NT$47,000, the point system and quota would not apply.

Only one Taiwanese University – NTU – is ranked within the top 100 global universities, although several others fall within the top 500.

The new system has resulted in a 40% increase – to more than 1,300 – in the number of international graduates who chose to remain in Taiwan to begin their careers. The NDC’s Chang says the program has stimulated considerable interest among both students and small businesses. About half of the new hires have been either engineering or business administration graduates. Chang notes that Taiwan hopes to increase the number of international students to around 150,000, and to continue to raise the proportion who stay on after graduation.

Accommodating the foreign students has presented some challenges for the Taiwan universities, however. Fu Jen found it helped to institute a buddy system, pairing international students with a local classmate to help them adjust to life in an unfamiliar country. Cultural differences have also presented challenges, with many foreign students having far different expectations about drinking and smoking on campus than local universities allow, for example. Language issues also arise frequently, and most universities report that few of their international students graduate with any degree of fluency in Chinese, despite the availability of free Chinese-language training on most campuses. The offering of degree programs in English, in addition, puts a tremendous strain on local professors, and several universities said that they need to offer bonuses to faculty members to persuade them to teach in English.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, is competing for international students in the first place. Low tuition (less than NT$100,000 a year) and scholarships have allowed many people from developing nations to attend Taiwan’s universities. But do Taiwan’s universities have the same level of prestige as their East Asian competition? Only one – NTU – is ranked within the top 100 global universities, although several others fall within the top 500. Many Taiwan universities have entered into cooperative programs with foreign universities, and it is through such partnerships that many of the international students first come here. But quite often those who initially arrive as exchange students for a semester enjoy the experience so much that they return later for Master’s or doctoral programs.