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Warning issued to Taiwan’s ministries over int’l student exploitation

Taiwan’s government watchdog has accused three ministries of failing to protect foreign students from exploitation, following a string of scandals.
July 10 2023
3 Min Read

Taiwan’s government watchdog has accused three ministries of failing to protect overseas students from exploitation as the island sets out plans to attract 10,000 more international students over the next four years.

The Control Yuan, which acts as a government ombudsman, issued a statement in June criticising the ministries of education, labour and foreign affairs for failing to protect international students from exploitation.

In a statement the body said that Taiwan’s “well-intentioned international student enrolment policy” had been “distorted by unscrupulous elements”.

A 2022 investigation by a national newspaper uncovered that Ugandan students at Chungchou University of Science and Technology were being forced to work long hours in factories as “interns”. 

According to the report, the students were promised scholarships to cover their university fees but these failed to materialise. Instead, students were forced to work to pay off debts to the institution for tuition and accommodation.

Students also said they couldn’t understand lessons as they were taught in Chinese, despite enrolling in English-taught courses.

The ministry of education subsequently banned the university from recruiting overseas students and the Control Yuan said this incident had “damaged” Taiwan’s international reputation.

This was the latest in a string of scandals related to foreign students. In 2018, 40 Sri Lankan students were discovered having been forced to work in slaughter houses. One year later, Indonesia halted its university internship program in Taiwan after reports of students being forced to work long-hours in factories.

In its 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report, the USA’s state department found that traffickers “take advantage” of the New Southbound Policy which makes it easier for students from South East Asia to study in Taiwan.

The report said “a large number” of for-profit universities in Taiwan “aggressively recruit foreign students and subsequently place them into exploitative labor conditions under the pretense of educational opportunities”.

It recommended more screening for trafficking among vulnerable populations, including international students.

The Control Yuan found that the ministry of foreign affairs had rejected 379 student visa applications since 2015 due to suspicions of human trafficking. The education ministry was subsequently asked to look into the issues but failed to carry out a full investigation.

The watchdog also discussed the deeper issues affecting Taiwan’s universities including waning student numbers due to the island’s falling birth rate and low levels of international students. International recruitment by universities has further suffered after a ban imposed by China in 2020 on Chinese nationals studying in Taiwan. 

Data released in July by the ministry of education suggests that Taiwan’s universities will see another dip in enrolment next year to under 900,000 students, 20% down from 2012 levels. 

Taiwan is keen to attract more international students both to prop up the island’s universities and to help plug the labour shortages the country is experiencing.

Government officials recently announced plans to work with the private sector to recruit an additional 10,000 international students over the next four years, in part through offering more scholarships. To be eligible for scholarships, students will have to agree to work in Taiwan after they graduate, president Tsai Ing-wen said.

The ministries criticised in the Control Yuan’s report will have to respond to the issues raised but Dafydd Fell, director of the Centre of Taiwan Studies at SOAS, said the structural problems facing Taiwan’s higher education system “will be challenging to resolve”.

“The negative publicity generated by such Control Yuan reports in combination is seemingly pushing universities to change the way they recruit and treat foreign students,” he added.

“Universities are only likely to take action if this affects their enrolment”

Brian Hioe, a Taiwanese editor and political commentator, said, “The Control Yuan can issue reprimands, but whether there is follow-up ultimately demands on public scrutiny of such issues and broader pressure for change.

“Ultimately, though there is more public attention on the issue, universities are only likely to take action if this affects their enrolment or has other consequences for funding, otherwise such incidents are likely to continue to occur.”

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