A graduate of New York’s Cornell University and the London School of Economics, Tsai taught international law at two universities in Taipei prior to her political career. One of her first actions as President of the Republic of China was to drop criminal charges against a number of student protesters dating from the 2014 Sunflower Movement.
Although President Tsai has highlighted domestic education reforms as being high on her agenda, the exact nature of any such reforms has yet to be announced.
“There is also a big appetite for more international links, research partnerships and collaboration”
International education isn’t central to her plans, but educators in Taiwan said it may be beneficial to downsize the country’s higher education offering, improve relations with China and attract more overseas students.
Shelley Young, professor and chair of Taiwan’s National Tsing Hua University’s Institute of Learning Sciences, did not however predict any major changes in government policy towards Taiwan’s large higher education sector, although she said: “We need to merge some universities”.
Boasting 160 universities and colleges, the country has been struggling with low enrolment due to an ageing population, and the first order of business for any government will be to attempt to consolidate the field. This follows on from plans announced by the Ministry of Education prior to Tsai taking office that up to 52 universities would be merged or closed.
Susana Galván, the British Council’s director Taiwan and regional director of education for North East Asia, agreed with this view, and added: “Another measure to address the declining domestic student population is a stronger push to internationalise the HE sector and to attract a larger number of international students to come to Taiwan to study.”
“There is also a big appetite for more international links, research partnerships and collaboration.”
The use of English in many courses in the island’s higher education institutions undoubtedly contributes to its strength as an attractive country for international study.
But despite the change of guard, Galván doesn’t expect to see any major education policy changes any time soon.
“The change of government in 2016 might see a shift in priorities, but we believe that the key challenges and issues will remain the same: the decrease in domestic student numbers, a brain drain and efforts to nurture, retain, and attract domestic as well as international talent,” she said.
One area that has dominated talk around President Tsai’s election is the issue of cross-strait relations with mainland China.
Although Tsai herself is considered a moderate on the issue, the election victory of her party, many of whom support Taiwanese independence, has proven controversial with Beijing.
“I’m hoping she’ll open up because the government still doesn’t recognise credits from China”
The outgoing KMT administration had sought better relations with mainland China, opposition to which was a driving issue for the 2014 Sunflower Movement protestors.
Susan Fang, CEO of UK-based agency Academic Powerhouse, said she would like to see Taiwan improve relations with China. “I’m hoping she’ll open up because the government still doesn’t recognise [academic] credits from China,” she said.
Allowing more students to take courses on the mainland would be a good thing, said Fang, particularly for courses such as medicine which are oversubscribed on the island.
Fang said she doesn’t actively promote China as a study destination to Taiwanese students but said demand is there, seen in a trickle of students requesting Chinese higher education courses at Academic Powerhouse’s Taipei office.
She doesn’t however expect to see the country opening up to Chinese influence in the near future, due the same popular support opposing cross-strait relations, particularly among the younger generation, that brought Tsai and the DPP to power.
She also expressed concerns that if relations with the PRC deteriorate, the political situation might make many Taiwanese students think twice before going abroad.
Despite these issues facing Taiwan, Young remains positive. “We have policies to encourage students and scholars to go abroad,” she said.
“I think the new president, with her learning experience, will know the value of this kind of policy. We need to set good connections with the international market.”