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Taiwan makes regional power play with bold education investment

Last month, Taiwan’s government unveiled a NT$1.3bn ($42m) program to attract and develop talent. In a country where the population growth rate is less than 1% and 70% of people are over the age of 25, setting up strategies to secure a fresh flow of skilled labour will be crucial to its future success.

Taipei Zhongzheng district, TaiwanTaipei's Zhongzheng district, home to most of Taiwan's national government buildings. Photo: The PIE News.

“Almost all of the universities, not only the national but also private universities, are trying to join in these activities”

The New Southbound Talent Development Policy – part of Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, announced last year– will also aim to solidify Taiwan’s influence with its neighbours in the region, with the exception of one: China.

“It emphasises the new thinking of people and connections with Taiwan”

International higher education sits at the heart of the strategy. Though many Taiwanese universities have longstanding ties with their counterparts around the world, a recent circular from the Ministry of Education stressed that the project is “different from the educational industry that has attracted students to come to Taiwan in the past”.

“It emphasises the new thinking of people and connections with Taiwan,” the notice read.

The circular invited submissions from both individual universities and consortia to take part in a seven-pronged plan. The ministry has promised financial support for initiatives ranging from straightforward student recruitment from the region to overseas internships and branch campuses, and expects to spend around NT$430m every year over the next three years.

Why look south?

Known for punching above its weight in the global economy, the New Southbound Policy shows Taiwan is no less ambitious when it comes to solidifying its strategic position in the surrounding region.

Though Beijing – and the rest of the world’s governments – see it as a territory of China, Taiwan is functionally independent from the PRC. President Tsai Ing-wen’s election in January 2016 set back still further Beijing’s ambitions to bring Taiwan under its control, and already tense relations between the two soured even more after the newly-elected US President Donald Trump’s phone call to Tsai in December.

Tsai was voted into power by an electorate anxious about Taiwan’s economic reliance on China, and vowed to bolster trade and diplomatic links with its neighbours.

It was this strategy that led to the birth of the New Southbound Policy: a move to strengthen ties with the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), six south Asian countries, Australia and New Zealand.

“Taiwan is trying to be the hub among Asian countries”

“Since the inauguration of President Tsai Ing-wen, the government has been working very hard to implement several new initiatives in order to revitalise Taiwan’s economy and enhance relations with its neighbouring countries,” reads a statement from the Office of Trade Negotiations at the Executive Yuan, the Taiwanese government’s executive branch.

“With actions ranging from loosening visa restrictions to providing a more suitable environment for businesses looking to expand, the NSP provides a focused approach to enhance the effectiveness of such ongoing efforts.”

Education cooperation and training are an obvious area for these relations to be built. Though only a handful of countries recognise Taiwan’s sovereignty as a nation (mostly those to which Taiwan has provided aid), academic links have long existed where formal diplomatic ties have not.

The Talent Development Policy is divided into three goals: to cultivate a deep understanding of Southeast Asian languages, cultures and industries among university teachers and students; to cultivate professional, practical and Mandarin language skills of ASEAN and South Asian students; and to equip new immigrants’ children with Southeast Asian language skills and internship experience.

“Our government is focusing on the Asian countries because the relationship between Asian countries and Taiwan has a long history dating back to many years ago,” comments Tsai Pei-Shan, dean of Taipei Medical University’s office of global engagement.

“To foster the relationship, Taiwan is trying to be the hub among Asian countries,” she explains. “By procuring students from these countries, they might identify with Taiwan more than with other countries, and hopefully they will have some goodwill to foster the relationship between countries.”

“Like salmon swim back to home, our government looks at this as a way to bring talent back to students’ home countries”

“Sort of like salmon swim back to home, our government looks at this as a way to bring talent back to [students’] home countries, to help them to develop their science and education, and to build a partnership.”

The government’s aims of expanding its soft power in the region is clear in a recent MoE circular. “After graduation, students return to their home country to become a backbone cadre of overseas Taiwan business enterprises,” the document states.

“Taiwanese businessmen in Southeast Asia also have the task of assisting the government to expand economic and trade relations, promote international cooperation and cultural and educational exchanges.”

Seeking new talent

Even outside of this political context, internationalisation in higher education has a critical role to play in attracting foreign talent to Taiwan. The ageing population crisis means the student-age population is rapidly depleting, making international student recruitment a more urgent task than it is for other countries.

But the country has some way to go until it can offer students a lean and high quality higher education system. Taiwan has 168 universities – “way too much”, says Chiang Hsaio-Wei of National Tsing Hua University’s office of global affairs. “Many universities, especially private universities ranking in the second half will have problems, including attracting students,” he predicts. Some will be forced to merge or close in the next few years.

And of course, it’s not just universities that are in need of fresh entrants, but the workforce. “The talent needed for a revitalised economy has to come from higher education,” Taiwan’s then-President Ma Ying-jeou said in 2014, announcing a target to attract 150,000 students from overseas by 2020, accounting for around 10% of higher education enrolments. In 2015, the number stood at 110,182.

Mobility imbalance

In 2015, there were 28,550 students from New Southbound countries in Taiwan. In contrast, only 16,104 Taiwanese students studied in those countries the same year, with the lion’s share going to Australia (13,582), according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

By contrast, 21,127 Taiwanese students headed to the US in 2015/16, according to IIE’s Open Doors data.

“In the past, Taiwanese universities tended to collaborate with universities in the West”

“In the past, Taiwanese universities tended to collaborate with universities in the West, such as schools in the US or the UK, for example,” observes Tsai Pei-Shan of Taipei Medical University. In recent years at TMU, collaboration has also grown with Japanese universities in areas such as pharmacology and pharmacotherapy, she adds.

Despite historic links, building collaboration with countries closer to home – particularly exchange partnerships and student mobility – has come with some challenges, she says.

“Students were often reluctant to go abroad to these so-called Asian countries in the past, because they think that they don’t have anything to learn from these countries,” she explains. “But our government tries to convince students that isn’t the case.”

The New Southbound Talent Development Policy targets not only inbound movement, but also outbound. Universities are being encouraged (through financial support from the Ministry of Education) to form transnational alliances, as well as to set up internships overseas for their students.

“We indeed actively choose to work with Southeast Asian countries, because there will be several advantages: the first is the policy is an encouragement,” comments Liu Wei-te, deputy dean of the office of international affairs at National Yunlin University of Science and Technology.

YunTech already has internship links with Vietnam and Malaysia, and intends to forge more, he says.

“We indeed actively choose to work with Southeast Asian countries: the policy is an encouragement”

But the policy goes further than just telling students to spend time overseas, notes Liu. The MoE is also providing funding for language training to prepare students – both to encourage them to do so and to make sure they get the most out of the experience.

“We need more students who have language skills before they go to Southeast Asian countries,” he explains. “We have opened [courses in] Indonesian, Vietnamese and Malaysian languages for our students – therefore they will have good preparation before they go there.”

New Southbound students in Taiwan

While the outward flow of Taiwanese students to New Southbound countries is nascent, Taiwan has a strong history of attracting students from the region.

Students from the target countries made up just a quarter (25.9%) of the overseas students in Taiwanese higher education in 2015, though this share has dropped slightly – from 27% in 2014 and 28.2% in 2013.

The great majority of students (26,756) come from within ASEAN, and Malaysia is the biggest source of inbound students by a huge margin. It accounted for more than half of New Southbound students in Taiwan in 2015 (14,946) – more than triple the number from the second and third largest cohorts, from Indonesia and Vietnam.

“Taiwan has been very actively recruiting students out of Malaysia”

Research commissioned by Taylor’s University in Malaysia, sourced from the Taiwanese Embassy together with independent data, suggested that this number had climbed to around 16,000 by 2016, more than doubling in five years and making it the third most popular destination for Malaysian students.

“Our research has been showing that Taiwan has been very actively recruiting students out of Malaysia,” notes Perry Hobson, pro vice-chancellor (global engagement) international relations at Taylor’s.

“Where historically Malaysians went to the UK and Australia, Taiwan has now come in as a very strong contender.” Australia is still comfortably ahead as Malaysians’ top study destination, attracting some 21,000 a year, but Taiwan is gaining on the UK, which attracted around 17,000 in 2016 but whose market share has dropped in recent years.

Like Indonesia and Vietnam, Malaysia is one country where a large proportion of the students who come to study in Taiwan are of Chinese heritage – referred to by universities as ‘overseas Chinese’. Unlike Mainland Chinese students, whose numbers are restricted for political reasons by the Taiwanese government, these students are not subject to caps.

In fact, the number of overseas Chinese students studying across all levels of education in Taiwan tripled from 8,343 in 1997 to 24,649 in 2015. The vast majority – 21,782 – were in higher education.

“The so-called overseas Chinese, they may not speak Mandarin but because their parents are from China they like to send their students to Taiwan,” adds Hsiao Wei-Chiang at NTHU, where around 400 foreign students enrolled have Chinese roots.

Widening the net

Of course, Taiwanese universities are keen to increase their student recruitment from across the New Southbound markets – not just those who have Chinese roots.

Universities are building their English-taught offerings to target not only Anglophone markets but also students within Asia who’ve studied English, and others are introducing facilities such as prayer rooms and Halal catering for Muslim cohorts from countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.

“We’ll try, I hope, some structural changes so we can adapt more,” says Chi Lee Pei-Wha, dean of the international and cross-strait affairs office at Tamkang University, Taiwan’s largest private university.

“We can have some specialised course, some Chinese courses for those who don’t speak Chinese; and to have more quality English taught programs,” she suggests.

“Our government would like to enlarge or globalise the viewpoint of our higher education students”

The talent development policy looks to lay this kind of groundwork both in and outside of Taiwan. One of its aims is to set up in-country centres through universities to enable students in the target countries both to learn about Taiwanese culture and to learn the language skills that would help them to study in the country.

This is not an altogether new strategy. Tsing Hua University opened its first Taiwan education centre in India around six years ago with the help of the Ministry of Education, and now operates six across the country.

“That was six years ago and the government at the time was also thinking about Southbound,” explains Chiang. “We can teach Mandarin, we can promote Taiwanese culture, and also recruit Indian students.”

Though not all of the students the centres teach come to study in Taiwan, many do. Tsing Hua now has 200 Indian students enrolled – the most of any university in Taiwan. The initiative has made it “the champion for Indian students”, Chiang says, demonstrating that the Ministry of Education is learning from its past successes by pushing to create more.

The Talent Development Policy arm of the New Southbound Policy’s central aim is “people-oriented, two-way communication and resource sharing”, according to the Ministry of Education.

With the financial backing and political will of the MoE behind them, universities are embracing the policy wholeheartedly.

“Recently, our government would like to enlarge or globalise the viewpoint of our higher education students, especially for Southern Asia,” reflects Liu at YunTech. “So we participate several times in educational exhibitions to Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and also Myanmar, places like that.

“Almost all of the universities, not only the national but also private universities, are trying to join, like us, in these activities.”

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