Higher ed­u­ca­tion is not a zero-sum game

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

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.

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