Can Taiwan Accommodate English-language Higher Education?

Foreign students taking part in a program organized by the Rotary Club at the Taipei Confucius Temple. Photo: CNA

More international students are coming to pursue graduate degrees, but a more global outlook will be needed to capitalize on this trend.

Tomas Swinburne came to Taiwan by way of Beijing, where he found life stifling. “Taiwan is just a lot more pleasant,” says the 25-year-old Irishman, who won a scholarship from the Ministry of Education (MOE) to pursue a Master of International Communications program at National Chengchi University (NCCU).

He finds the quality of instruction high, but too theoretical. “I am learning how to be a researcher, which would be great if I wanted to publish scholarly articles in journals,” he says. “What I want is to find an international marketing job.”

Swinburne is unsure whether he will be successful in his hunt for employment. “The government contradicts itself,” he says. “They talk about attracting global talent to Taiwan, but they make companies jump through a lot of hoops to hire foreign professionals.”

The Taiwan government has yet to make an explicit connection between recruiting the best international students and offering strong job prospects. It’s something that schools in the United States emphasize, and it works. The United States still manages to attract droves of top foreign students even though the global financial crisis diminished the size of its job market.

In recent years, Asia has grown at a faster clip than the West, though English remains the dominant language of international business, diplomacy, and academia. That combination of conditions has spurred the emergence of a wide range of English-language MBA programs across Asia’s leading economies. Some of these programs now compete with prestigious Western schools for students.

That hasn’t been the case for Taiwan – at least not yet. Indeed, not a single Taiwanese university is listed in the Financial Times’ Global MBA Rankings. Among those 100 schools are two each from mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and India, as well as one from South Korea.

To be sure, rankings don’t give a complete picture of a program’s value. But from the standpoint of job prospects – notably salary levels – the FT’s rankings are accurate. Salaries in Taiwan are the lowest among East Asia’s major economies.

“Salaries here are far from international standards for an MBA grad,” says Paolo Lising, a Filipino national who graduated from National Taiwan University’s Global MBA program in 2011. A former journalist, he moved to Taiwan to change careers. He now works for a large technology company and runs his own startup.

Lising urges the government to make it easier for foreign professionals to find work here. “It seems sometimes the government just wants to protect locals,” he says. But to revive the economy and activate industrial transformation, “there needs to be a balance,” he says. “Taiwan needs some global talent to tackle the economic challenges it faces.”

Increasing competitiveness

Some alumni of English-language graduate programs in Taiwan have gone on to found successful businesses. Richard deVries, who earned an MBA from NCCU in 2009, is the co-founder of Geber Brand Consulting, one of the best-known branding consultancies in Taiwan. With offices in Taipei and Shanghai, Geber has worked with some of Taiwan’s largest tech firms over the years.

In deVries’ view, government-mandated pay caps on professors are hampering the development of international education programs here. “NTU and NCCU are prestigious enough to attract top professors but it’s not necessarily the case for other schools,” he says. Without more competitive remuneration packages – one way that schools in China have recruited adept global teaching talent – “Taiwanese universities have their hands tied.”

Changes are afoot, however. Starting next year, MOE is launching its Yushan Project to substantially raise salaries and research allowances for selected outstanding faculty members. Some NT$4.15 billion (US$136.8 million) per year is being budgeted. A number of academic groups have criticized the plan as creating divisions within academia and ignoring the need to reduce teaching loads. But others have welcomed the introduction of more flexibility into the setting of professors’ salaries.

Professor David Chou, director of the National Taiwan Normal University–University of South Carolina dual-degree DIMBA program, told Taiwan Business TOPICS in an interview that the program has “some room to design appropriate compensation.” The one-year program is held for roughly 10 months in Taipei and two months in South Carolina. Faculty from the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina teach on both campuses.

Chou says that the executive international MBA program emphasizes practical business principles from East and West. “We prepare students for global careers,” he says. “Recently, we’ve done company visits in Thailand and Japan, as well as here in Taiwan.”

At the undergraduate level, National Taiwan University is setting up a four-year English-language program on campus which is targeting an enrollment of 120 students a year – 40 Taiwanese and the rest international. The curriculum of the International College will cover four main disciplines: Humanities, Business, Engineering and Sciences, and Life Sciences and Health. “The IC of NTU aims to cultivate graduates with cross-cultural competences and global mobility,” said Kuo Hung-chi, NTU’s Vice President of Academic Affairs, in a statement. “We emphasize analytical thinking and moral ethical reasoning in our liberal arts courses by utilizing project-based learning.”

NTU has yet to announce a launch date for its International College. One problem to be faced is that the proposed annual tuition is US$20,000, more than six times the regular fee and beyond the reach of many Taiwanese families. For those who can afford it, NTU would need to convince them that its International College is superior to programs in English-speaking countries.

NTU professor William Stanton, a former career U.S. diplomat and director of the American Institute in Taiwan, says that improving English proficiency in Taiwan could help attract foreign students to the program and ultimately bolster the island’s competitiveness. “English is the world’s language, but there’s not always a dynamic desire to learn it in Taiwan,” he says.

“Communications is one of the only areas on surveys of the world’s top destinations for expatriates where Taiwan doesn’t score highly,” Stanton adds.

Acknowledging Taiwan’s English travails, Premier William Lai said in October that he will instruct MOE to set up a committee to evaluate the feasibility of introducing English as a second official language.