Raising the Bar for Education in Taiwan

Fulbright Taiwan's English Teaching Assistant (ETA) program sends recent graduates of U.S. universities to assist local public school teachers in remote areas around the island. Photo: Fulbright

Growing opportunities for foreign students in Taiwan and Taiwanese going abroad.

Taiwan has a generally excellent educational system. The main challenge is to make the rest of the world aware of its quality and to enable education in Taiwan to be more easily accessible to foreigners.

At the primary and secondary levels, Taiwan’s education system delivers impressive results. In 2018, Taiwanese students placed in the top 10 in mathematics and science in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide evaluation of 15-year-old students carried out every three years by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

In higher education, Taiwan is a world leader in medical research and its engineering graduates are popular hires with the world’s most advanced technology companies. In addition, Taiwan is among the countries in the Asian region most committed to academic freedom. 

Taiwan has become a highly attractive place for foreigners to study. According to the Ministry of Education, last year 130,417 foreign students (including those from Hong Kong, Macau, and China) were engaged in some form of study at Taiwanese tertiary institutions, accounting for 10.75% of total enrollment. 

To better nurture young talent, however, further internationalization of both the student body and faculty is regarded as important. In the Talent Circulation section of the 2020 Taiwan White Paper published by AmCham Taipei, the Talent Circulation Alliance proposed that Taiwan begin offering English-taught degree programs in subjects such as semiconductors, biomedicine, artificial intelligence, and others. Doing so, the TCA said, would attract students from all over the world who either cannot afford to attend or cannot gain admittance to U.S. or European universities.

However, the comparatively low salaries paid to professors in Taiwan presents a significant obstacle to internationalizing the educational environment. The large income gap – even when local salaries are adjusted to Taiwan’s lower cost of living – has resulted in a massive exodus of Taiwanese academics to nations such as Singapore and China, as well as Western countries.

In Taiwan, all instructors at public educational institutions, plus faculty members at private universities, are compensated according to a pay schedule issued by the Ministry of Education (MOE). The compensation of a Taiwanese university professor does not differ substantially from that of elementary and high school teachers with the same seniority, and the system leaves Taiwanese universities with little autonomy to significantly raise the salaries of exceptional professors. 

Yen Chen-shen, a research fellow at National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations, estimates the average salary of a Taiwanese professor at around NT$100,000 (US$3,300) a month, while an associate professor may earn NT$75,000 monthly and an assistant professor NT$65,000. 

Yen also notes that the MOE’s salary schedules do not account for the popularity or usefulness of the subjects taught, nor do they factor in the higher living costs in some parts of Taiwan. 

For example, a professor teaching Chinese language at National Taitung University in rural southeastern Taiwan will receive the same pay as a professor teaching information science or finance at prestigious National Taiwan University (NTU) in Taipei, even though tuition at NTU is much higher and Taipei is a much more expensive place to live. Yen says he knows many scholars who have moved out of Taipei to teach in order to save money. 

Randall Nadeau, executive director of the Foundation for Scholarly Exchange (Fulbright Taiwan), agrees that academic salaries in Taiwan are too low – and therefore not competitive enough to attract international scholars to teach and do research over a long period.  

Scholars who do come to Taiwan need extra financial support from their home institutions, Nadeau explains. For universities in countries such as the U.S., Australia, and the UK, that usually means use of sabbatical leave. “Typically, they will receive some sabbatical support at home, which might be a year’s salary at half pay, and that is supplemented by what they are paid in Taiwan,” he says. Fulbright often offers these scholars additional financial grants.

While this approach is a workable arrangement, Nadeau says, it is not without its own issues. For one, when university administrations abroad offer a scholar a sabbatical, they usually expect the recipient to devote time to research. “That’s fine if they are coming here, say, to work in a laboratory at a leading research institution,” Nadeau says. But if there is a teaching component – as is often the case – they will sometimes face resistance from their home institutions. 

Fulbright, he says, tries to help by encouraging the foreign home institutions to recognize the value of teaching overseas, both in broadening the scholars’ cultural understanding and in enabling them to contribute to internationalizing their home institutions after their return. 

Fulbright ETAs help local teachers develop lesson plans that encompass language and cultural learning. Photo: Fulbright

U.S. university administrators usually end up appreciating the importance of these exchanges after hearing an explanation, Nadeau says, though some traditionalists still insist that sabbatical time be used purely for research. 

To improve the situation, the TCA is suggesting that the Taiwanese government promote increased cooperation with foreign universities through academic exchanges, as well as relax the current restrictions to enable colleges and universities to offer compensation packages that meet the expectations of foreign scholars. This objective could be accomplished through public-private partnerships such as donations from private companies or alumni, or through creative scheduling, such as intensive winter break or summer programs.

Making Taiwan Bilingual

Another issue in Taiwan’s education system is the lack of bilingualism. William Stanton, former director of the American Institute in Taiwan and now vice president of Yang Ming University, says that insufficient English-language instruction is a major reason why Taiwanese education fails to stand out internationally, despite its strengths. He observes that although many Taiwanese professors hold doctorates from American universities, they tend not to use English when lecturing in Taiwan.  

Experts consider that the most effective way to make Taiwan bilingual is to start with early and secondary education. Kelly Chang, program director of Fulbright’s English Teaching Assistant (ETA) program, says the foundation fully supports Taiwan in its plans to become a bilingual society by 2030. But she and Lisa Lin, program director of Fulbright’s traditional programs, note that Fulbright has encountered some obstacles when promoting opportunities for Taiwanese teachers to receive training in the U.S. 

While the ETA Program brings qualified Teaching English as a Foreign Language advisors to enhance the local English teachers’ professional expertise, and sends ETA’s co-teachers to have intensive workshops in the U.S. for two weeks, two of Fulbright’s traditional programs – the Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program (FLTA) and Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program for International Teachers (DAI) – provide opportunities for Taiwan elementary/secondary teachers to learn and do research in the U.S. Through FLTA, Taiwanese English-language teachers shift their mindsets from English teaching to Chinese teaching in U.S. universities for one academic year, along with taking relevant academic courses in the host universities.

Fulbright also offers select Taiwanese teachers the chance to participate in the prestigious Distinguished Awards in Teaching Programs for International Teachers program, which entails intensive professional development and research at an American college of education for one semester. 

Lin says, however, that many Taiwanese teachers are reluctant to join these programs, which require they take at least a semester off from their Taiwanese teaching jobs. Doing so extends a teacher’s official retirement age by one year and requires them to forfeit a portion of their pension. They also receive no salary when they are overseas and have no guarantee of being able to return to their old teaching position when they return. (There is an overabundance of teachers in Taiwan, owing to shrinking numbers of young people as a result of falling birthrates).

In some remote areas, the local authorities also hesitate to promote such programs for fear of being unable to replace these instructors while they are away. Chang says that such worries prevent officials from seeing the long-term benefits of such exchanges with the U.S.

For his part, Randall Nadeau urges Taiwan to both increase the number of foreign English teachers and widen the scope of the subjects they teach. One way to do this would be to make fuller use of the more than 100 new U.S. college graduates that Fulbright has been bringing to Taiwan each year as English Teaching Assistants (ETAs). TCA’s recommendation is that following their maximum two-year grant, the ETAs be allowed to teach in Taiwanese public schools without needing to have a teaching certificate or advanced degree. Fulbright also suggests that the Taiwanese education authorities provide opportunities for ETAs to complete post-graduate degrees in Taiwan in the teaching of English as a second or foreign language, possibly in partnership with U.S. institutes. 

Kelly Chang notes that the ETAs are bright young Americans with bachelor’s degrees in a range of fields. They tend to be placed in public schools in remote or impoverished areas, where they work in classrooms together with local English teachers and also engage in other projects. 

Chang says the program has been extremely popular with local city and county governments. “We have 128 ETAs this year in nine cities and counties and 147 ETAs planned for next year,” she says, adding that there is potential demand in Taiwan for even more.

In its White Paper submission, the TCA further suggests that experienced foreign teachers of English who possess a bachelor’s degree and at least one year of classroom experience be allowed to teach in Taiwan’s local public schools without English-language teaching credentials. It also recommends updating relevant regulations to allow foreigners to legally teach English to Taiwanese students so as to begin nurturing an international mindset at an early age. (Fulbright Taiwan is more than happy to assist and share the selection scales.)

The TCA also suggests that the MOE consider more flexible ways to encourage Taiwanese teachers to attend the professional training overseas. For example, the MOE or Education Bureau in the local governments could provide paid or unpaid leave without affecting the teachers’ employment status or extending their’ retirement year.

Overseas Study

Taiwanese students could both improve their English-language skills and broaden their outlook by gaining educational and professional experience overseas. However, the cost of studying abroad is out of reach for the majority of families. As a result of the stagnation in salary levels on the island over the past decade, fewer students now go abroad to study than in the past. 

A Carnegie Endowment for International Peace study found that between 2000 and 2017, the number of U.S.-bound undergraduates from Taiwan declined from 10,668 to 7,003, while U.S.-bound graduate students declined from 15,022 to 9,236. In addition, an increasing number of the students who do go to the U.S. prefer to stay on there after their studies rather than go home. 

The TCA has proposed that Taiwan provide government-backed student loans to cover the full cost of attendance for any Taiwanese student who gains admission to a top-200 university anywhere in the democratic world. Income-based repayment programs could be put in place as an incentive for them to return after their studies are completed. 

“This alone would be the single most important measure Taiwan could pursue to ensure a continuous stream of internationally minded workers circulating abroad and then coming back to build Taiwan’s future,” said a participant at a TCA-organized roundtable in March.  

The U.S., Singapore, and other countries have similar programs. For example, the Stafford Loans available to American students enrolled in accredited U.S. institutions of higher education can be used to finance study abroad. Once students complete their education, their student loans are consolidated into one master loan and gradually paid back in sums that are proportional to their adjusted gross income. 

On the inbound side, Taiwan’s universities face several bureaucratic problems that hinder them from effectively attracting international talent. For example, Lisa Lin, program director for traditional programs at Fulbright Taiwan, notes the frequent conflict among Taiwanese government agencies as they compete for foreign talent. The MOE, Ministry of Science and Technology, and institutions such as Academia Sinica target a similar pool of scholars and offer programs with similar benefits, preventing Taiwan from attracting a more diverse range of academic talent.  The TCA has also noted that better coordination of the various programs operated by different government agencies would bring better utilization of government budgets.

The TCA’s White Paper report advises Taiwan’s universities stop placing so much emphasis on the publication of academic papers and instead encourage professors to launch startups, in effect becoming de facto startup accelerators. It also encourages the creation of joint programs merging business and engineering courses, which would enable closer academia-industry collaboration.

Michael Lin, executive director of the Center of Industry Accelerator and Patent Strategy (IAPS), a tech startup accelerator affiliated with National Chiao Tung University, says the main obstacle preventing such collaboration is no longer hidebound university regulations, an area that has seen marked improvement. Rather, he says, Taiwanese university teachers are frequently not commercially minded enough to imagine how the technology they research can be converted into products or services.

Another problem, Lin says, is that while Taiwan’s universities prefer long-term collaboration between the school and a company, high-tech and other advanced research companies operate in a highly competitive environment and see such collaborations as risky. The companies are concerned that they cannot guarantee having enough financial resources every year to devote to student training and other related program costs. 

In recruiting foreign students to attend Taiwanese universities, the main target areas so far have been Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, the bulk of the region with which the Taiwan government is seeking to develop deeper contacts under its New Southbound Policy. The recruitment program has been broadly successful but has also involved some challenges.

One concern noted by Yen of National Chengchi University is that many of the South and Southeast Asian students are recruited by weaker Taiwanese universities that need more enrollees to fill vacancies and maintain solvency. But the quality of the education is not representative of Taiwan as a whole and could harm the national reputation.

Second, Yen says, much of the recruitment in those countries is done through human resource agencies or other middlemen to navigate the complicated bureaucratic procedures involved. In the case of Southeast Asia, these agencies are generally the same companies that recruit manual labor and domestic helpers. Use of these channels makes it more difficult for the Taiwanese universities to assess the quality of the applicants.

Although one semester at a Taiwanese university may cost these students only US$2,000, they often end up paying double this amount, with half going to the middleman, Yen says. To meet their daily expenses, they may then have to spend much of their time at university working at outside jobs.

Despite these shortcomings, Taiwan has much to gain by internationalizing its educational system, raising its overall competitiveness. Growing government recognition of those benefits is reason for optimism that the future will bring an increased flow of academic talent into Taiwan, and from Taiwan to other countries.