For Taiwan’s Universities, COVID-19 is a Double-edged Sword

The pandemic has hit the bottom lines of struggling schools reliant on foreign students. Yet Taiwan’s ability to contain the coronavirus is also making it a more attractive place to study.

Taiwan has long had a surplus of universities, the legacy of well-intentioned if myopic education reforms in the 1990s. The island nation is home to 156 higher education institutions for a population that is currently 23.8 million but is expected to begin contracting this year. The National Development Council calculates that the population will fall to 20 million by 2050. 

The problem has no easy fix. Taiwan’s government has tried boosting the birth rate, to no avail. Enrolling more foreign students is a better strategy. Taiwan’s universities compare favorably to those in China and Southeast Asia (excluding Singapore). About 130,000 foreign students studied in Taiwan last year, up from roughly 127,000 in 2018, according to the Ministry of Education (MOE).

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown a monkey wrench in the works. Travel bans caused many students to miss the spring semester. Taiwan began allowing international students to return in August, except for students from China. The government cited “cross-Strait-related considerations” as the reason for not relaxing entry for Chinese students.

According to the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), Beijing is causing the impasse. The PRC objects to the use of the word “national” on IDs given to Chinese students who study in Taiwan, the MAC said in a statement.

In April, China said it would no longer permit new students to apply to Taiwan’s universities, citing the pandemic and cross-Strait relations. Students currently enrolled in Taiwanese universities must receive Beijing’s permission to continue their studies.

2020 has been the worst year for cross-Strait relations since the mid-1990s, when the PRC conducted missile tests in the Taiwan Strait to express anger with then-President Lee Teng-hui and intimidate voters ahead of Taiwan’s first fully democratic presidential election. This year, Beijing and Taipei have been at odds over China’s initial failure to contain the pandemic, its obstruction of Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organization, and Taiwan’s rising global profile. Since the pandemic began, Chinese military aircraft have threatened or entered Taiwan’s airspace regularly.

Given the tense cross-Strait situation, the government’s cautious approach to Chinese students is understandable. However, since China is Taiwan’s largest foreign student market – 25,000 Chinese students studied here in 2019 – some universities are feeling the pinch.

The schools most affected are private and considered less competitive than the top public universities, one reason they need to look abroad for students. Those schools also enroll more international students because as private institutions, they have fewer constraints on their recruiting, says Hsu Mei, assistant dean of National Taiwan Normal University’s College of Management.

“They cannot get any students from mainland China and that has had a big impact on them,” she says of the universities dependent on that market.

William Stanton, vice president of National Yang-Ming University and a former director of the American Institute in Taiwan, calls China’s actions “political warfare.” Beijing “knows that these universities are starving,” he says. 

Both China and Taiwan currently have COVID-19 under control. The risk of Chinese students bringing the virus to Taiwan is relatively low, and they have a near-zero chance of being infected here.

Elsewhere in Asia, the virus is still raging. Many of the 3,000 international students who formally declined to enroll this semester are based in Asian countries struck hard by the pandemic, including Indonesia, the Philippines, and India. “The pandemic situation in these countries is severe and there are few outbound flights, which has caused many international students to simply give up studying in Taiwan,” Deputy Education Minister Liu Meng-chi told The China Times in October.

For universities already in dire straits before the pandemic, the situation is grim indeed. For instance, in 2019 Toko University in Chiayi County had an enrollment rate of just 37%, St. John’s University in Tamsui 43%, and the Tatung Institute of Technology in Taipei 46%.

Opportunity in a crisis

The pandemic could last well into 2021, stymieing the flow of international students into Taiwan. Unlike the tourism sector, universities cannot turn to increases in the domestic market for a reprieve. Rather, they have to accelerate their transformation.

In some cases, that may mean calling it quits. “A lot of these universities probably shouldn’t exist anyway,” says Stanton of National Yang-Ming University, referring to the overcrowded field.

Since 2010, 10 Taiwanese universities have shut down or merged. The most recent merger occurred in 2018 when three schools in Kaohsiung consolidated to form National Kaohsiung University of Science and Technology. That school is now Taiwan’s largest institute of higher learning dedicated to technology.

When feasible, merging is a good option, says National Taiwan Normal University’s Hsu. “It allows universities to combine resources, boost competitiveness and achieve economies of scale.”

She points to the MOE’s approval of the merger between National Yang-Ming University and National Chiao Tung University, which will take effect in February 2021. Yang-Ming is known for its strong medical school, while Chiao Tung excels in information and communications technology. The new school plans to facilitate interdisciplinary research, especially in bio-ICT and digital biomedicine.

The MOE will provide about NT$400 million (US$13.5 million) to subsidize the cost of the merger, according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency.

At the same time, Taiwanese universities must reduce their dependence on the China market. Under strongman Xi Jinping, Beijing favors coercion over compromise in cross-Strait relations. Cutting off a key income stream for Taiwan’s universities is one more way for Xi to pressure the Tsai Ing-wen administration.

“It’s like an unofficial economic sanction,” says Ralph Jennings, an adjunct professor of journalism at National Cheng Chi University (NCCU).

Beijing may also want to limit the exposure of Chinese students to Taiwan’s vibrant democracy and civil society, lest they wonder why they cannot enjoy the same freedoms at home.

“They really enjoy being in Taiwan,” Jennings says of the numerous Chinese students he has taught at NCCU. “They’re free. They blend in culturally.” 

Fortunately, Taiwan has been steadily attracting more students from Southeast Asia in recent years. Under the New Southbound Policy, the government is focused on boosting education ties with the ASEAN countries. Jennings, for example, has more Southeast Asian than Chinese students in his classes. Some of the Southeast Asians are here on scholarships awarded by the Taiwanese government.

Stanton cites an increasing number of Vietnamese students studying biotechnology at National Yang-Ming University. He anticipates a growing demand for degrees that combine training in technology with life sciences and/or medicine. Expertise in those areas will be crucial to ending this pandemic and preventing the next one.

As of late October, Taiwan had recorded 550 COVID-19 cases and seven deaths, one of the world’s best virus-containment records. Its economy avoided a shutdown and may well be one of the few countries to experience GDP growth this year.

Having shown its mettle during the worst public health crisis in a century, “Taiwan is at a point where it’s a more attractive place,” Stanton says.

Making Taiwan a bilingual country, a goal the Tsai administration has set for 2030, could further enhance the island nation’s appeal to foreign students. The MOE is reportedly considering a plan under which four universities would transition to heavier English-language instruction over the next few years. By the end of that period, 90% of doctoral degree courses, 70% in master’s programs, and 50% at the undergraduate level would be taught in English.

To be sure, the initiative faces obstacles. The foremost is Taiwan’s lack of an English-speaking tradition. “There is no historical or cultural reason for the bilingual policy,” says Richard DeVries, managing director of Taipei-based Geber Brand Consulting and a resident of Taiwan for two decades.

A native of Canada, where the official languages are English and French, DeVries says that the Canadian government devotes extensive resources to bilingual education. Even then, achieving bilingualism is difficult.

In addition, there is no guarantee that Taiwan’s next administration would carry on the policy, DeVries says. “An administration that sees Taiwan as more culturally Chinese might not be enthusiastic about making English an official language.”

Some observers believe Taiwan could look to Singapore as an example. “Singapore provides a model: English is the primary language of instruction, but ethnic Malay, Chinese and Tamil Indian students also learn their own languages,” The Taipei Times said in an October editorial.

That comparison may miss the mark. Singapore’s success in achieving English proficiency is inextricably linked to its 144-year history as a British colony. “It’s not just engineered. There’s a legacy,” says NCCU’s Jennings.