Eat? Or be eaten? Taiwan’s universities face a messy choice.

Ever since Mao took over in China, an island about 40 per cent the size of Ireland has been irritating the powerful in Beijing. The reason, of course, is that instead of surrendering, Chiang Kai-Shek, Mao’s big rival, cleared off to Taiwan, which he declared was only one of the provinces of The Republic of China, which was not to be confused with the upstart People’s Republic. Oh, and he was the real ruler of the whole lot.

In normal circumstances, he would have had as much chance of success as, say, Bonnie Prince Charlie would of being invited to be King of England in about 1750. But in the world of the Cold War, he could hardly miss. Especially after the Korean War got going, he was able to convince Washington that he was exactly the person to stem the red tide. The US kept up the pretence that he was the true ruler of China until the Nixon era, a little like the descendant of Bonnie Prince Charlie who lived in Paris in the 19th century and styled himself Henry IX.

Nowadays, things are a little different. On my immaculate desk as I type this are a pair of binoculars, a smartphone, a landline phone, a pair of speakers, a laptop and a big computer screen. They were all made in China, although none bears the name of a Chinese company. (I also have a dongle from Huawei.)

You might think that China’s economic rise would be fatal for Taiwan as a separate state. You’d be dead wrong. In fact, much of this Chinese gear is made by Taiwanese contractors, most famously the controversial Foxconn, or even for Taiwanese clients, most notably HTC. Nowadays you can fly to the mainland from Taipei, and the airport is now called something more tactful than the old

Chiang Kai-Shek International. Business links are getting denser and deeper by the day.

Most Taiwanese politics, to the casual reader, seems very normal, and today’s noisy democracy is a far cry from the repressive 80s. You have to love a nation whose proposed ambassador to Washington is having to deny (a) being gay and (b) participating in being gay with the President. Indeed, all things lesbian and gay seem to loom large, and there is vigorous debate about same-sex marriage. (Thanks to Ali at Fu Jen for this reference.)

Indeed, Taiwan seems to have two sorts of politics: the usual stuff of most nations (the economy, pollution, transport) and a parallel universe called Cross-Straits. This is the wacky world of dealings with the mainland. These dealings are inevitably tricky. Indeed, the

big parties differ mainly on how matey Taipei should get with the new regime in Beijing.

Now this complexity is being felt by Taiwanese higher education. The problem is a simple one. 165 universities for 22 million people (some pretty awful): falling numbers of school-leavers: an over-powerful Ministry of Education: and no scope for domestic expansion, given that 90 per cent of high-school graduates already go to university.

Like every university from Norway to Australia, the Taiwanese plan is to fill at least part of this gap with more overseas students. This idea

is not as unoriginal or improbable as it might sound. If twinned with a merger plan to cut the number of institutions, it could mean fewer, better universities. Taiwan is also a low-cost nation – important to students – and offers a gentler way into Chinese culture than full immersion in the mainland.
However, the obvious place to get lots of students fast is the Chinese mainland itself, as universities around the world can attest. At the moment, only about 2000 mainland students are allowed on the island at a time, for fear of, well, nobody quite knows what.

Universities are lobbying for an increase, and a key part of the plan is to get in graduate students as well as undergrads. That means accepting people with first degrees from the mainland. One plan is to recognise any degree from the 122 Chinese universities involved in Beijing’s excellence initiatives as a valid ticket to higher-level study in Taiwan. This sounds sensible enough and might have other collateral benefits, like increased cross-straits appreciation.

However, there are risks. Recognition might well have the opposite effect to the one intended. It could tempt Taiwanese students to study in the mainland, in the knowledge that their degrees would get them back into the Taiwanese academic and employment systems. But less obviously, it also gives Beijing the ability (hard to rescind once it starts) to dictate what entry standards to Taiwanese universities should look like. So in a word, this wrangle is a microcosm of many lively and growing debates on this always-interesting island.

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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