Higher education is not a zero-sum game
Public access to higher education in Taiwan once served as an equalizer for people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. In recent decades, however, money has trumped merit as the nation’s higher education system has bowed to the dictates of the market, not only destroying a public good, but also perpetuating the nation’s social inequalities.
With the institution of higher education reforms that kicked off with the revised University Act in 1994, the government has continually enforced deregulation that has increased the private autonomy of profit-prioritizing institutions at the expense of an egalitarian system that promotes a foundation for equal access. In helping to create the surge of private universities in Taiwan that peaked in the mid-2000s, successive Taiwan governments have acquiesced on principles of fairness in terms of acceptance rates and tuition costs on the one hand, and the employment practices that have provided fewer guarantees to adjuncts, lecturers and new professors on the other. Both detrimentally affect the quality of education provided and both must be addressed in order to make higher education work for the greater public good.
Taiwan’s higher education is facing a paradox in that prestigious, lower-cost public institutions are being attended by students with higher socio-economic means while the majority of lower income students are attending private institutions that charge more for tuition. Not only are underprivileged students paying more for education, they are less likely to gain access to opportunities that may promote upward social mobility. Prestigious universities are also ensuring the perpetuation of a two-tiered society according to their admissions practices. This year, less than 1 percent of admitted students of National Taiwan University (reputed as Taiwan’s most elite university) came from lower-income families.
Government enforced deregulation has also driven down the quality of education as institutions in their pursuit of applicants attempt to entice recent high school graduates with course offerings that “meet competitive standards,” “include marketable skills” and “increase job prospects.” While posteducation employment is important (especially if one is paying off student loans), when academic exploration is confined to what is deemed profitable by corporations linked to industry-designed programs, Taiwan’s society loses an important opportunity to cultivate diverse interests and expertise that are not immediately calculable by profit margins. It also closes off research possibilities as entrepreneurial acumen is substituted for pursuits and explorations of truths.
As government spends less on public funding, existing institutions are also more susceptible to market standards in education that include a dubious “race to the top” when it comes to competitiveness rankings. Public funding on the other hand is being misallocated to create ivory tower institutions that prioritize the recruitment of global gurus, paying them exorbitant salaries but in large part keeping research and development sectioned off to a privileged elite. In this game, there is no enlargement of the pie, but a tightening squeeze against future entry-level scholars, part time faculty and research associates who are engaged in a very real race to the bottom in terms of stagnant wages and scant or nonexistent health benefits, to say nothing about a sustainable professional career.
Future government leaders need to pay real attention and not just lip service to our nation’s education system. Not only are our politicians skirting the issue by prioritizing ideological conflicts that divide our attention toward more pressing concerns, they have failed the nation’s youth by subjugating them to a system that does not reward critical thinking and creativity, but rather corporate definitions of innovation and profitability.
As a nation we need to put a greater focus on the lopsided orientation of our academies, making them centers of learning rather than experimental research labs of dominant industrial and corporate value chains.
As we consider the current faltering economy fueled by long-established practices of financial speculation and the inability of the dominant parties to address the problem, the boons of a functioning higher education system become readily apparent. Not only can it foster a generation of thinkers who can move us away from public austerity in a blind favoring of unsustainable competitiveness, it may pave the way toward bringing back the greatest social equalizers of our society: our schools.