Cross-strait harmony boosts student exchanges

The rapprochement across the Taiwan Strait has enabled more mainland students to study in Taiwan. Whereas before President Ma Ying-jeou took office in May 2008, exchanges were mainly one-sided (Taiwan to China); the recent improved relationship between the two countries has resulted in an influx of mainland students. As with increases of tourist numbers visiting from China, Taiwan hopes to reap similar rewards by allowing Chinese students further access to the island’s universities.

A win-win situation

The increase in the numbers of mainland exchange students is a direct result of the relaxation of travel regulations by the Taiwan’s Ministry of Education (MOE) and the lengthening of study times from four months to one year from October 2008. With island-wide college enrollment waning to match Taiwan’s declining birth rate the increase in student enrollment from the mainland is a boon for Taiwan’s universities.

The Taipei-based China Times reported that the opening of Taiwan’s colleges to mainland students could be worth NT$20 billion (US$615 million). There are at least 30 million Chinese seeking higher education degrees, including 3.8 million students this year who failed to pass China’s college entrance examination, 25 million vocational school graduates, and those who are working but without college degrees. Lengthening the allowable study time will allow Taiwan’s schools to tap this underserved population.

Three waves of mainland students

Yuan Chih University president Peng Chong-ping has witnessed previous waves of students arriving from mainland China. He divides the previous waves into three periods. The first was in the 1980s when a small number of mainlanders came to Taiwan for a short period of academic exchange. The second wave was around 1998 when Peng was dean of Studies at National Tsing Hua University. He helped to realize the first academic exchange between his school and “Chun-tsung Endowment” which provided funding for mainland students to visit Taiwan for six to eight weeks. The third period began in 2008 when mainland students were allowed to study for up to one year, enough time to achieve something meaningful.

According to statistics from the MOE, there were 857 mainland exchange students enrolled for at least four months in Spring 2009. Together with those who stayed for shorter periods of between two to four months, making a total of 3000 in the first half of 2009, an increase of 50 percent over the same period in 2008.

“Virtuous competition”

In studying this new trend, the Global View Monthly uses the term “Virtuous competition” to describe the increased student population from the mainland. At National Taiwan University in Taipei, there were 62 mainland Chinese students enrolled for the Spring 2009 semester. Among them was Wang Zhercheng, a biology student from Fudan University, Shanghai, China, who studied in Taiwan for two months. While in Taipei, he traveled extensively and enjoyed the inexpensive dining available in the Gongguan area. Indistinguishable from any other video-obsessed local boy, Wang enjoyed his stay in Taiwan very much. He likes Taiwanese web fiction, listens to songs by pop star Jolin Tsai, and plays e-games developed in Taiwan. With a workload of only eight units, he spent the remainder of his free time learning about and experiencing Taiwanese culture.

Zeng Hua is another student from the mainland. Hua, a graduate student of interdisciplinary studies in the Sculpture Arts Department at Chongqing University, Sichuan, China came to study at Yuan Chih University. There he switched his major and began studying under a fluid dynamics professor in the mechanical engineering department. Under this professor he began to create new fluid sculpture with flow patterns.

I Shou University president Fu Shen-li points out the admission of mainland students to Taiwan’s campuses has created “virtuous competition” between Taiwanese students and their Chinese counterparts. For example, mainland students are usually punctual to arrive in class. They take the front seats and raise their hands quickly to ask questions. Taiwanese students are very different. They arrive late, take the middle seats and are shy to ask questions. However, Fu has observed a subtle rivalry between the Taiwanese students who have no wish to fall behind their Chinese counterparts.

According to China’s MOE, there were 180,000 students studying abroad with their own funds last year. This number is expected to increase to 200,000 in 2010. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), there are about 20,000 Chinese students in South Korea, and roughly that many in Japan as well.

Exchange not about money, but peace making

The former chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Shih Ming-te told the United Daily News that he does not see this as a NT$20 billion (US$609.8 million) business opportunity. Rather, the young students from the two sides of the Taiwan Strait should learn the political and economic systems of one another’s countries to help pave the way for a more peaceful co-existence.

In an editorial, The Economic Daily stressed that education is an expression of a nation’s soft power, because it combines the social system, lifestyle and values. In short, education reflects the core of a culture. After exchanges of business, trade and tourism, the logical progression is cultural interchange, with higher education exchanges forming an indispensable part.

Three restrictions and six nos

Despite lowering some barriers, Taiwan still imposes many restrictions on mainland students coming to Taiwan. According to Taiwan’s MOE, it maintains a “Three Restrictions, Six Nos” policy toward mainland Chinese students. The “Three Restrictions” sets a quota so only top tier students are allowed to study in limited subjects. The “Six Nos” means they are not eligible for scholarships, extra points on applications and work off campus. Their admission should not affect current school enrollment. Furthermore, mainland students cannot take license exams or seek employment in Taiwan after graduation. At the same time, Taiwan currently allows Chinese students to study at any public or private graduate schools, but undergraduates can only go to private universities or colleges.

Also, for students who study for more than six months in Taiwan, they must enroll at a college/university with “sister relations” with a school in China. According to Chou Yi-shun of Taiwan’s MOE, currently 115 out of 147 Taiwanese schools have signed “sister school relations contracts” with 302 Chinese counterparts, resulting in 1039 sister school contracts. Based on the enrollments, the top five schools are I-Shou University, National Taiwan University, National Cheng Kung University, National Tsing Hua University and Feng Chia University.

According to the China Times, other countries in Asia offer far greater latitude for mainland students studying aboard. Countries like South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong offer Chinese students scholarships, work opportunities, permanent residence, and even citizenship. Talented Chinese students, according to the paper, are not interested in coming to Taiwan for advanced studies.

Mainland luring Taiwan’s students

Meanwhile, the United Daily News reported that the China’s MOE has created a groundbreaking rule by allowing Taiwanese high school graduates who have passed Taiwan’s college entrance examination to apply directly to mainland colleges. Taiwanese colleges not only face internal competition, but also competition from the Chinese mainland now.

The paper said some of the Chinese schools that have excellent reputations in science and engineering are listed as top tier universities and get high budget allocations from the government. Besides having excellent professors, their software and hardware facilities are competitive. They also have exchange programs with well-known universities in Europe and America. If offered a scholarship, it might prove too tempting for Taiwanese students to resist. However, some students interviewed by the paper said they would stay with National Taiwan University if admitted instead of going to Beijing University.

Dual recognition of qualifications

Both the United Daily News and the Economic Daily urge the government to take more initiative in leading mutual academic exchanges, including recognizing the diplomas issued by some of the distinguished mainland schools and increasing the quota of Chinese students allowed to study in Taiwan.

In order to avoid being swallowed by China, Taiwan has to find the solutions to these complex issues and not allow talented Taiwanese students to be lured away, according to the paper. How the government responds to the issue of student exchange is likely to impact further exchanges in the airline industry, banking and other sectors.

Taiwan currently enjoys little advantage in trade and business over China, but it does have greater freedoms and democracy on its side, these are perhaps Taiwan’s best assets. Allowing greater educational exchanges is a winning strategy that can only lead to greater understanding on both sides. Taiwan has no reason to be afraid of coping with the challenges from China. College campuses on both sides are new platforms where reason and idealism can prevail, creating a new civilized model for a peaceful, democratic and prosperous society.

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