Taiwan copes with brain drain, again

It is hard to believe, but the Economics Department of  National Taiwan University (NTU), Taiwan’s top university, is unable to recruit faculty staff. Yet, this is the sad truth. Wang Hung-jen, the department chair, told Taiwan Panorama that “We had six assistant professor positions open in 2010, but only one was filled. In 2011, we mobilized recruitment through the department’s alumni association taking advantage of various salary incentives and subsidies available at the school to issue five contracts but only hired three staff in the end.”

“Global demand for talented new economists is very high. Taiwan is losing the battle due to offering a low level of pay,” said Wang. He cited NTU as an example, noting that the starting salary for an assistant professor is about NT$1 million (US$33,300) a year. While in China, many universities offer better salaries and include a housing subsidy, bringing the total annual compensation to NT$2 million (US$66,700) or more. In Hong Kong and Singapore, salaries are four to five times those in Taiwan.

Samuel  C.L. Chen, associate dean of the College of Commerce at National Chengchi  University (NCCU), said that even though his college is ranked 41st in the world and first in Taiwan by the UK’s Financial Times’  2011 list of top MBA programs, this international acclaim is of little help in recruiting faculty staff. In fact, there are currently more than 20 positions open in 10 departments at his college. They had six positions open this past semester, and succeeded in filling only two by the end of the term.

Chang Ching-fong, deputy minister of the National Science Council (NSC) said that their data has shown that at least 100 professors and researchers have been poached from local universities and Academia Sinica over the last five years, and not just to China, Hong Kong or Singapore. Non-Chinese-speaking countries such as South Korea and Saudi Arabia have also come to Taiwan in search of talent.

From 1970 to 1990, large numbers of Taiwanese students studying in the US chose to stay in America after graduation, contributing to the island’s first brain drain. Later, with the encouragement of the Taiwan government, many of these people decided to return to Taiwan to start businesses, breathing life and success into Hsinchu Science Park, Taiwan’s Silicon Valley.

Morris Chang is a typical case in point. After serving as a group vice president at Texas Instruments and the president and chief operating officer at General Instrument, Chang returned to the island to establish Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation (TSMC) in 1987. The company played a pivotal role in  laying a strong foundation for Taiwan’s semiconductor industry.

In recent years China has become a magnet for Taiwanese talent, especially given the improvements in cross-strait relations and greater job opportunities there. With the advantage of having the same language and culture, it is estimated that one million Taiwanese business personnel, corporate executives and their families are now permanent residents in China.

According to the Institute of International Education, Taiwan had 24,818 students studying in the US in 2010-2011, ranking fifth in terms of foreign student numbers. Taiwan ranked No. 1 in the 1980s, but the number of Taiwanese students in the US has dropped by 34 percent from its 1994 peak of 37,580. However,China has surged ahead with 157,558 students studying in the US in 2010-2011, who will go on to become the backbone of China’s economic development.

It is reported that there were 84,281 international scholars in the US in 2003. Taiwan accounted for just 1,241 of them (1.5 percent), versus China’s 15,206 (18 percent) and South Korea’s 7,286 (8.6 percent). The dilution of Taiwanese talent in the international sphere and the decline in the number of Taiwanese graduates holding teaching positions at American universities is almost certain to reduce the number of scholars able and willing to “speak for Taiwan” at international forums.

Wu Se-hwa, president of NCCU said, “We should encourage more Taiwanese students to study abroad while also ensuring the quality of locally trained PhDs. Such an approach would likely resolve more than half of Taiwan’s talent shortfall.”

Lo Ching-hua, NTU vice president for academic affairs, said that whereas Hong Kong and Singapore are urban states with little room for research, and China is a totalitarian state, Taiwan, as a liberal and diversified society, still enjoys some advantages. It offers a rich and unrestricted research environment and is highly visible and influential for scholars.

“Taiwanese people who take jobs overseas don’t cut ties to their homeland. Most conduct research related to Taiwan and end up on the frontline of academic discussion and international cooperation,” noted Taiwan Panorama.

Leave a Reply