Erenlai - Focus: Challenges for Higher Education
Focus: Challenges for Higher Education

Focus: Challenges for Higher Education

Challenges for Higher education in Asia

Higher education (HE) has grown from being the sole preserve of the elite to a global industry. Throughout Asia and the world, universities compete to attract the most talented students both from at home and abroad. Increasingly it is more than just good grades that will get high school graduates into HE, rich students who might not quite have the academic record but do have the capacity to pay tuition fees are proving alluring for cash-strapped HE facilities. But beyond being trained to judge the Pareto efficiency of an economic decision or how many newtons of force a bridge should be able to withstand, what exactly are HE students being trained in and how prepared are they for the workforce? Perhaps more importantly, how does HE prepare graduates for the 'real' world?

Wednesday, 03 March 2010

What are the challenges facing higher education in Asia?

Higher education (HE) is an ancient institution. Generation upon generation of students have graduated from all manner of HE institutes trained in the skills required to serve society. While fields such as biology, philosophy, religion and mathematics have long been taught, advances in technology, breakthroughs in research and societal change constantly challenge HE. In order to respond to the needs of society and reflect contemporary thought, HE must forever be adapting. Globalisation and the growth of information technology are two rapidly evolving forces that that HE must not only just respond to, but also influence.

In considering HE in the early 21st century, it is important to question what benefit it should provide. Is HE nothing more than a transition between school and the workforce, a repository of technical information that if absorbed correctly, makes graduates alluring to employers? Or do the (sometimes rarefied) halls of knowledge train students in more abstract disciplines, that while stimulating for the mind, are less focused on equipping students with the skills to work in a modern office? Being the broad church that it is, there is no reason why HE can’t do both, and then some.

HE has the ability to train students in life skills. Beyond problem solving and critical, independent thought, these skills should extend to the interpersonal realm (communication, negotiation) and even the personal (stress management, self awareness). Furthermore, ideally HE should assist in the creation of a modern civil society - the layer of interface between public and private interests. In shaping graduates who have both knowledge and the ability to reason, HE aids the creation and maintenance of a healthy civil society.

While globalization may appear to have ironed out many long held differences between cultures and nations, significant differences remain, both in opportunities and expectations. In HE, this difference is manifested in university rankings. These influential indexes are eagerly examined each year and are dominated by universities in America and Europe. Foreign students are courted by universities and HE is proving to be a boon to domestic economies. In the rush fill lecture halls with students, administrators must be cautious not to compromise that quality of education that their faculties deliver.

How far do HE institutions in Asia go in educating students, both academically and as people? How does education vary between China, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and the West? Where do institutions fall short and what space is there for further development? Is there gender equality in Taiwanese education system? We ask foreigners studying in Japan, Taiwan and Singapore to talk about their experiences of higher education in Asia.

As always, we invite you to reflect on these issues and offer your own opinions.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Foreign students in Asia: Comparing identities in Northern Ireland and Taiwan

Conor Stuart is currently a Masters student at Graduate Institute of Taiwan Studies at National Taiwan University (NTU). Sitting pensively in front of NTU’s infamous Drunken Moon Lake he discussed study at Taiwan’s number one university,  not only as a foreign student, but also  the sole representative at NTU of his homeland, Northern Ireland.

How do you compare your experiences of British and Taiwanese education systems?
We often hear that the Asian system is learning by rote but in my experience that is not necessarily true. They are aware that they need to have a huge mass of general knowledge. I remember once professor Li Oufan was teaching at our institute and requested that the students hand in shorter essays than normal but included a solid argument when they handed them in. The students here have excellent all round knowledge and flair when expressing themselves and analysing if you are talking on an individual basis; however, one problem I found here is that when writing an essay they tend to be pleasing the teacher rather than consciously having a dialogue about a subject.

How about the teaching?
The teachers have all made excellent progress in making this graduate institute and dealing with the problems of creating Taiwanese literary theory. One problem I’ve encountered here is that it seems very difficult to get feedback from your professors in Taiwan, whilst where I was studying in Leeds it was very much encouraged that you spent more time with your teachers.

And the students?
The students I have come across are very well prepared; they’re confident, able to express themselves, can intake loads of information in foreign languages as well as Chinese, they can process and are so capable at what they do. Thus, for a foreigner coming here, and studying in their language with the best of the best, it’s very intimidating. The standard is kept so high that it is difficult to keep up.

In terms of social life?
Subcultures are very strong here. I think that Taiwanese are much more interested in cultural activities, perhaps because they don’t drink so much. In the UK most university socialising revolves around drinking.

Differences between Taiwanese and foreign students?
I think it’s easy to feel that you have an insight into some kind of analytical theory that they might not have. I think it’s a fallacy that western students are more this or Taiwanese students more that. It’s all on an individual basis. Generalising on upbringings is negated anyhow as every individual has such a different cultural upbringing. There are some students here I cannot communicate with, not because of language, or even culture & upbringing. It’s just because we’re on a different wavelength. There are also some students here with whom I have great mutual understanding. It’s all about wavelength.

In my own department the teachers have created a Taiwanese literary theory however it’s difficult as a foreigner to totally see through the eyes of the other. I’m more familiar with western literary theory so I still tend to analyse from a western point of view.

Why did you choose to study Taiwanese literature?
I think it’s great opportunity as it focuses on modern literature in contrast to the Chinese department, where the breadth of what you can study is so vast. Chinese literature has stemmed from such a wide area, but everywhere in the Chinese sphere has a local identity. In Taiwan the local identity is particularly strong. Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese and American influences have all played a part in influencing who people think they are over here and as such have all influenced the literature.

What about Northern Ireland and Taiwanese identity?
There are similarities and differences. Obviously, the losing of local languages in postcolonial identity, the pushing out of Gaelic and the Taiwanese languages is important. I think it’s even harder for Northern Irish people to have an identity, as you’re questioned on both sides. You can’t claim you're Irish as the people from the Republic of Ireland have claimed that identity, and you can’t claim you're English…even British is also taken by the English, who don’t care about our identity to mean English.

Initially this drove me to try and identify with non-violent nationalism and thus deciding to study Taiwanese literature. Eventually you end up realising the futility of drawing borders. For instance, I love the UK and I have lots of friends there. I’ve prospered much from being a part of the UK. However, the living standards and modern culture and society in NI and England are very similar and has been developing interlinked, here in Taiwan, it’s a bit different, as the Mainland and Taiwan have been developing separately and under completely different governments and two contrasting identities have emerged.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Snapshots of campuses in Taipei

These photos from Hubert Kilian capture the cadence of campus life in Taipei.  For many students class is of primary importance at university.  However the moments between classes can be just as enriching. Walking, chatting, day-dreaming, sleeping, sharing, cuddling or stressing.  These are often the memories that stay with us into the future.

Friday, 26 March 2010

My hopes for higher education in Taiwan

Taiwan's Deputy Minister for Education discusses his hopes for higher education in Taiwan.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Be back by midnight: Equality in Taiwan's higher education?

Nina Chen is a student at Taiwan's third (and Taipei's first) gender studies graduate institute. She lets us know about gender discrimination in Taiwanese universities and in society in general.

Monday, 08 March 2010

Foreign students in Asia: From teacher to student

Please introduce yourself and what you are doing currently. What is your educational background?
My name is John Perry*. I am a Canadian who has been working as an English teacher and editor in Taiwan for more than 7 years. I received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Canada studying marketing and psychology.

How do you regard the quality of your courses and universities?
I was quite pleased with the quality of the education that I received in Canada, however it was quite a long time ago, when I was very young, so I believe I had a different outlook then. Finishing school and getting good grades were more the priorities when I was doing my undergrad rather than getting the best education I could get. All in all, I thought the professors generally did a good job, it was challenging and I certainly got something out of it after graduating.

I have mixed feelings with the experience as a MBA student in Taiwan. With regards to the professors, I feel that most did a good job at trying to educate us. The lectures were generally well prepared and the professors showed that they cared about their students’ performance. However, I question the way in which they held students accountable for their performance. I recall when I started my program that it was required for first year students to maintain an 80% average or otherwise students could be taken out of the program; for second year students, 70% was a passing grade. I was a bit nervous at first thinking that attaining an 80% would be challenging while holding a full time job. After the first year though it became clear that grades were given out arbitrarily and that passing was almost a given provided that I did most of the work and showed up for class. I took my studies seriously and received very high grades. Most of my grades were above 90%, some even over 95%. After a while this came to be expected on my part. This was never the case when I studied in Canada where getting over an 85% required a lot of work and was never taken as a given. I found that there were a lot of open book tests or adjusted grades in my Masters program, something that I never experienced in the past. There were even cases where it was obvious students plagiarised and they were never penalised for this.

Your class is 1/5th foreigners. How do Taiwanese students differ from foreigner students? Are there areas where they could learn from the foreigners? Do you think the Taiwanese system provides a good academic setting for foreign students?
A major difference between Taiwanese students and foreign students (western) I found, was that Taiwanese students were not willing to participate in class, even if the professor specifically expressed that participating was part of the grade. Participating here means voluntarily sharing ideas, asking questions or debating with the professors or other students. I think part of this is due to the fact that the program that I studied was in English and some students were reluctant to speak out, fearing that their English was not good enough but I also feel that the teaching method in Taiwan is didactic; where the teacher tells students what is what and students do not question it, or it is seen as disrespectful to do so. In fact, in some courses that I studied even though participation was part of the grade on the syllabus, professors seemed frustrated with the way that western students would speak out, but this is the way that we learn. It is accepted, and expected in our culture to learn this way. There also seems to be a lot more comradery among Taiwanese classmates than the foreign students. Foreign students seemed to have no problems debating with each other out in the open when they disagreed with comments made. I never saw this happen with the Taiwanese students. Taiwanese students seemed more willing to help each other out with assignments, be it individual or group, and develop a social network more easily simply because they were classmates.

I do feel that Taiwanese students would benefit more from more open participation or dialogue in class. Lectures at times seemed very passive. Many students were busy using their notebook computers rather than listening or interacting with the professor. But again, I believe that this kind of ‘listening’ has been encouraged from earlier education. There is so much emphasis on getting high scores on exams and students find ways to do that, and if listening in class does not contribute to attaining a high score then students probably won’t do it.

I think that there are pros and cons about the Taiwanese system and some things about it I found beneficial as a foreign national. Primarily, I felt that getting the opportunity to work in a multicultural environment was a definite advantage. Even though Canada is a country with people of different ethnicities, it sort of is a melting pot. Working in a classroom setting in groups with people from different nationalities provided me with the opportunity to get a real understanding of what working in a global environment would be like. It was challenging and even frustrating at times, but I definitely think that it was a positive experience that foreigners could definitely benefit from.

hub_kilian_fujen_uni_03_2010From your experiences and knowledge, how do you evaluate the Taiwanese education system? Do you think there are any areas for improvement and how do you think they could be improved on?
I have had quite a bit of experience with the Taiwan education system both as a teacher as well as a student. The education system in Taiwan certainly is different from what I experienced in Canada. I think it is well documented that in Taiwan generally there is an emphasis on rote memory learning. As a teacher of primary and secondary school age children I have found that in comparison to Canada, Taiwanese get an overwhelming amount of homework, spend more time in class both in compulsory schools and private cram schools and there is an overemphasis on testing. There also seems to be more pressure on students to achieve higher grades. One of the first surprises I encountered as a teacher was that students were expected to get grades higher than 90 or 95% and anything less was unacceptable to parents. This is far different from what I experienced in Canada where getting an 80-85% was considered a reasonable score. That being said, the testing in Taiwan seems to be designed so students can easily achieve high grades if they memorize bits and pieces of information (there is much more reliance on multiple choice-questions where the answer is provided and does not require the student to reflect on what they have learned and express themselves). When I started teaching English I would often ask open-ended questions giving the students a chance to use what they have learned and explain themselves. This did not go over well. A lot of the times the students thought I was being unfair, complaining that I did not teach them the answer or often asked me how many sentences they need to write to answer the question and when I gave them a minimum number, that is exactly what I got. When I gave scores of 80 – 90% and complimented them for good performance, students, school administrators and parents were less than pleased. This I believe is a disadvantage and results in students either lacking the confidence or ability to express themselves or make any attempt at deviating from what the teacher or texts have taught. Some call this “thinking outside the box.”

I do admire Taiwanese students’ dedication to their studies and the seriousness with which they do study. I am amazed at how some students, as young as 4 or 5 are able to speak sometimes more than 2 languages and the knowledge they have at that age. What is also amazing is that they enjoy learning. I have seen this with the young kindergarten and grade school age children but this enthusiasm seems to change once they get into secondary school. In my opinion I really don’t see the need for so many cram schools (math, science, English etc.) but it seems that it is the norm here. As an English teacher I was quick to realize that ‘cram’ schools are exactly what they are. The curricula at most schools involve numerous books and teachers are told to pile on homework, even though students often don’t have the time to finish or do it correctly. Accountability again is an issue here because how often does a student get held back for not performing up to standard and completing the expected work? There are problems but at the end of the day students usually learn English and progress as they continue which I guess is the goal. It just seems strange with all the bells and whistles that go with it that make it look like more than what it is.

Do you think the Taiwanese education system does enough to produce well rounded members of society; tools for a strong democracy; the creativity, hard work and enterprise to progress civil society and develop the country in an equal, fair manner?
As mentioned already, I feel that the education system should emphasize more open expression rather than right or wrong. This would encourage students to be more willing to deviate from the norm and contribute to more creative thinking. I am not saying that the western style of educating is the right way. I admire Taiwanese students’ work ethic and diligence, but I think an education system that was not so fixated on quantifying and measuring (test scores) would promote more willingness to come up with individual ideas. With my experience working in Taiwan in both schools and in an office environment, although limited, I found that organisations are very centralised and managers are not as willing, compared to western organisations, to delegate responsibility. Employees work long and hard hours, much like students, but do as they are told and deviating is not an option even if going off the path would be beneficial. Taiwan certainly has prospered and companies are doing well, especially in the IT industry but I feel that if company policies encouraged their staff to contribute more and gave them more discretion, the situation could be even better and the work environment would be better for many. This of course is coming from western eyes, and how I would prefer things to be. In the end, I think that the education system should do more to encourage individual creativity starting at a young age.

*John Perry is not the interviewee's real name

(Photos provided courtesy of Hubert Kilian, taken at Fu Jen University, Taipei county, 2010)

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Remnants of the Japanese colonial period in Taiwan's education system

Roy Berman, scholar in history of education in Asia and specialist in Japanese colonial period textbooks, talks about the legacy that Japan left in Taiwan's education system.

The first democratically elected president of the Republic of China, Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), received his Bachelors degree from Kyoto University, Japan. Tsai Pei-huo (蔡培火), who flourished as a scholar under the Japanese, tried three times to create a writing system for the Taiwanese language using Zhuyin (bopomofo), Romanisation and Japanese. Furthermore the first universities in Taiwan were established by the Japanese and according to Roy, the buildings and campuses a lot more traditional than most in Japan.



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Thursday, 25 September 2008

Human Capital Contracts for Asia

During the last summer I conducted research on the viability of the implementation of Human Capital Contracts in a developing country. As I am Colombian and  was familiar with the information available, the obvious start was to focus on my country. However, as I have been living in Asia and have been in contact with developing countries in this part of the world, I would like to develop a similar analysis here. In this article, I try to explain to Asian readers what Human Capital Contracts are; maybe some readers will want to follow me or join in the research presented here.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Reflections on a decade of higher education in Australia

Paul Farrelly from eRenlai reflects on his experiences of higher education in Australia.  In particular, he talks about the changing role of information technology, student life and some of the skills he learnt.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Wildhares and pheasants

Chun-Yen Huang is a student at Hualien's Dun Hwa University. He prefers a natural and relaxed study environment to the hustle and bustle of west Taiwan. At his campus, which rests between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean, he takes time in the mornings to watch the animals...and not only the squirrels...

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Thursday, 18 March 2010

Foreign students in Asia: Japan

Here, Roy Berman, who is familiar with top level academia in both the US and Japan, talks about his experiences at Kyoto University and more generally the Japanese higher education system.

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Thursday, 18 March 2010

Meeting up to standards

Annie Lai's path to university was a very different struggle to the normal one. She explains her tough route to Providence University in Taichung, Taiwan. Furthermore, she explains why she feels that despite the struggles it's worth the effort.


Thursday, 18 March 2010

Foreign students in Asia: Singapore

Alice Lin has spent time all around the world. How does she evalutae education in Singapore?

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