The Continuing Attraction for Taiwanese of Study Abroad

A mother and student receive counseling on study abroad opportunities in the United States. (Photo: Oh! America)

Increasing numbers of Taiwanese students are going abroad for higher education, but they are no longer necessarily headed for U.S. universities, as was once usually the case.

Over the past five years, according to Ministry of Education (MOE) data, the number of Taiwanese studying abroad has increased by about 9.3% to reach 54,106. Although the United States continues to be the number-one destination for Taiwanese students going overseas, it no longer dominates the market as it once did. In fact, the number of Taiwanese students in the United States has been declining gradually ever since it peaked in the mid-1990s. The current level of some 21,000 students is about 19% below that of a decade ago, even as the presence of international students from such countries as China, India, and Korea has grown rapidly in recent years.

More and more Taiwanese students are looking at options other than the United States for study-abroad opportunities. Some of the main reasons are economic. The cost of education in the United States is substantially higher than in most other locations and keeps going up, leading many students and their parents to question whether the eventual payoff is worth the investment. In addition, longer-term employment visas in the United States have become harder to obtain, making it more difficult for students to stay and work for long after graduating.

Mark Hsu, founder of Envision Recruit, an educational marketing agency, notes that for students whose families are among the wealthiest 5% of the population, the study abroad pattern has not changed significantly over the years and remains U.S.-centric, particularly for graduate study after receiving a bachelor’s degree from a Taiwanese university. But students from middle-class families are now more likely to consider possibilities other than the United States to reduce the cost.

Growing numbers of Taiwanese students are also choosing to study abroad for their bachelor’s degree, and finding cheaper ways to do so. According to the MOE, the number of high school graduates going overseas for their undergraduate studies has more than doubled in the last five years. The two countries responsible for the bulk of the growth are Japan and Australia – partly due to the indirect effect of the increasingly popular working holiday programs they have been offering in recent years. Japan alone saw an increase of 1,083 Taiwanese students from 2014 to 2015.

“Working holidays, broadly speaking, are more for the middle class [than the very affluent],” Hsu explains. “If you have a working holiday visa, you’re allowed to work for up to a year and then, of course, travel. This leads to a spillover effect in that after people spend time in a country and begin to understand the culture, some will want to stay longer, and one way to do that is to study for a degree.”

Another factor influencing study-abroad trends is that the quality of education in some Asian countries has been improving considerably, with Singapore and Hong Kong in particular emerging as important centers for international education. According to MOE data, the number of Taiwanese students who study abroad within Asia has increased by a whopping 43% over the past few years (from 6,948 in the 2011/12 academic year to 9,934 in 2013/14). The actual figures are certainly much higher than those numbers would indicate, as the MOE only tracks the top five study-abroad destinations (Japan, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam), while excluding China, also a popular destination. [Data on the number of Taiwanese studying in Chinese universities does not appear to be readily available].

The Role of Globalization

For reasons ranging from declining domestic populations to the influence of globalization, many Asian universities are now offering more internationalized curricula in order to attract more foreign students. Japan, for instance, has been carrying out ambitious plans in this regard, ramping up efforts to expand student exchanges, international recruitment, and overseas collaboration. The Japanese government is currently implementing its “300,000 International Student Plan,” which aims at more than doubling the number of foreign students in Japan to reach 300,000 by 2020. Abundant scholarship opportunities are being made available for those willing to go to Japan for educational programs taught in English.

In a number of countries around the region, joint programs have been set up with prestigious institutions of higher learning from Europe and the United States. An example is the Newcastle University Medicine Malaysia, which opened in 2011. Singapore has perhaps the most extensive history of establishing ties with leading foreign universities. The National University of Singapore (NUS) operates a Graduate Medical School together with Duke University and a liberal arts college in collaboration with Yale; the Singapore Institute of Management runs cooperative programs with Britain’s University of London, University of Birmingham, and University of Manchester, and with the University of Buffalo SUNY from the United States.

“I applied to 10 colleges in the U.S. and one school in Singapore, but in the end I chose to commit to Yale-NUS College in Singapore,” says Lucy Kuo, a recent graduate from the International Bilingual High School (IBSH) at the Hsinchu Science Park. “One reason is because financial aid is extremely hard to get for non-U.S. citizens applying to U.S. colleges. On the other hand, students of all nationalities are eligible for both academic scholarships and need-based aid at Yale-NUS. I also feel that Yale-NUS will be able to provide me with a truly international experience, as 70% of the students are international students.”

Today, many schools in Taiwan, such as IBSH, have expanded their curricula and established counseling programs to serve students who plan to go abroad for college. Taipei Fuhsing Private School, for instance, established a bilingual elementary school department in 2007, junior high school in 2009, and senior high school in 2010. According to the Dorcas Juan, dean of the Bilingual School, the bilingual department has been constantly adding to its English-language courses, including Advanced Placement classes, and has been attracting transfer students from Taiwan’s local high schools.

Most public schools do not have bilingual departments or provide counseling on college study abroad. Nevertheless, Cindy Wang, director of the counseling department at Taipei First Girls’ High School, regarded as one of Taiwan’s premier secondary schools, says that the number of students at the school applying to overseas colleges has more than doubled over the past five or six years, and is now about 30 or 40 annually. She notes that Taipei First Girls’ has implemented several programs to help students broaden their horizons to consider studying abroad, including foreign college information sessions and school-sponsored college visits to Singapore, Japan, and Germany.

Bob Yao, a recent graduate from Kaohsiung Municipal Senior High School, was among the few in his school who completed an application to a U.S. college (although to its overseas campus). Many of his friends had also considered applying to American schools but ended up dropping the idea, mainly for financial reasons. Yao applied only to NYU-Abu Dhabi, because it was the only good school he was aware of that grants merit-based scholarships to international students.

Although he is the president of his school’s English Debate Club and runs the Model United Nations Club, he put in many hours at cram schools and did thousands of reading practices to improve his English in preparation for the TOEFL and SAT exams for U.S. colleges.

“Local schools, especially in the South, don’t have enough resources for students,” Yao says. “My English-language ability is probably within the top 1% in my school, but there isn’t a lot of opportunity to speak and improve your English. Our counselors also know nothing about U.S. colleges, and applying for U.S. schools takes a lot of time. You need to sacrifice a lot. Because the deadline for the Common Application is only several months before the GSAT (Taiwan’s college entrance exam), you also run a very big risk trying to prepare for both.”

In comparison, applying to schools in Hong Kong is much easier for Taiwanese students, according to Yao. GPAs and extracurricular activities are not as important for schools in Hong Kong, he says, noting that as long as you do well during the interviews, you will have a good chance to be admitted. Scholarships are also widely available, which is very important for a lot of students, Yao adds.

He plans to enroll at Hong Kong University, as he views going abroad as a chance to change one’s learning environment and become more internationalized. Along with several friends, he recently founded the GLFY: Formosan College Journals Facebook page for students to share their experiences and insights regarding the process of applying to schools abroad.

The value of studying abroad

Living and studying in another country can bring broader benefits than just improving one’s language ability, stresses William C. Vocke, Jr., executive director of the Foundation for Scholarly Exchange (Fulbright Taiwan). “It enables you to get outside your own culture and look at things from a different perspective. Everyone’s education should include significant time abroad – not two weeks or a month, but long enough to become immersed in the local culture and understand how local people think.”

He cites the particular advantages of studying in the United States. “The American education system overall is still one of the best – if not the best – in the world, and one of its key characteristics is its focus on innovation and creativity, with much less rote learning and memorization,” he says. Instead the focus is on honing students’ ability to think analytically and creatively, and to effectively communicate their ideas.

Speaking at the AmCham Taipei luncheon for the launch of the 2016 Taiwan White Paper in early June, Deputy Minister Kung Ming-hsin of the National Development Council stressed the importance of study abroad in cultivating the internationally minded talent that Taiwan will need to ensure its smooth future economic development. He said the government has plans to expand programs to provide financial assistance to enable high-potential students to attend foreign universities with the commitment that they will return after graduation to contribute to this society.

The Work-holiday Phenomenon

Brian Hockertz, founder of the Oh! Study Education Center, expresses concern that more students and young adults are looking for short-term programs abroad, such as academic exchanges and work-related programs, than seeking higher degrees. He refers to them as “academic tourists.” Indeed, according to MOE, over the past decade the proportion of Taiwanese going to the United States for non-degree, short-term programs rose from 12.2% of the total to 25.4%. In other words, one out of four Taiwanese students in the United States is not pursuing a degree, whereas a decade ago it was only about one out of 10

Fewer people are entering Master’s or doctoral programs, notes Hockertz, and instead the growing trend is to look for work-study opportunities in hopes of earning some money. “They think they’re going overseas to learn English, but they usually don’t pick up much English or any very useful skills,” he contends. “After a few years they have nothing to show for it, but now they’re a bit old to go on to get a Master’s. The whole experience deprives young people of the chance to develop themselves, and if it continues for the long run, Taiwan is going to have a problem.”

Considering that many young people cannot afford the high cost of education abroad, Hockertz argues that more incentives are necessary to assure that Taiwan continues to have a sufficient pool of talent with genuine international experience to meet the economy’s needs. He urges the government to provide more scholarships for overseas study and companies to offer sponsorships with the assurance of better-paying positions on their return.

The top destinations for working holidays for Taiwanese are Australia, Japan, Britain, Canada, and New Zealand, with Australia the most popular because it does not set a quota. According to Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Taiwan ranked second in the number of working holiday visas granted in 2014/15; the 26,648 visas were more than four times the 6,138 issued in 2007/08. Most of the participants have at least finished high school, and more than half have university degrees. But still they are willing to work in a variety of low skilled and low paid jobs that are unconnected to their longer-term career aspirations. The most common work-holiday duties are as farm hands (27%), waiters (13%), cleaners (8%), and kitchen hands (5%).

“It all comes down to what you really want to get out of the experience,” says Stella Li, who left college after freshman year last year to join her boyfriend in Australia for a one-year working holiday. “You may earn more than you would in Taiwan, learn lots of life skills, and get to explore the country and the culture. But to me, the working holiday was kind of useless in terms of professional development. I worked on farms, picking cherries, strawberries, and tomatoes.

Street sign showing directions to various locations.
Street sign showing directions to various locations.

“Then after work, I would go home and take English courses online. You can definitely learn conversational English just by living in Australia and talking to locals, but to me that’s not enough. I wouldn’t really recommend the working holiday experience to others because life is actually really tough there.”

York Shih, who also recently returned from a working holiday in Australia, says “going abroad helps you focus on yourself so that you know what you really want.” He went when he was 30 after quitting his job at a coffee company. “How much you are able to learn and see, and how much of a worldview you gain, is all up to you,” he says. “Studying or working abroad and getting to know different people is valuable in giving you the awareness that the outside world is so much bigger than Taiwan.”

Providing a Human Resource perspective, Emily Teng, HR Director at Corning Display Technologies, says the company is looking “for more talented and skilled people who can think broadly and strategically to meet the competition and business needs,” adding that “what matters is that the candidates have the critical skills sets, competency, and language proficiency, not where the candidates studied or whether they had done [an academic] or working holiday program.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *