Taiwan’s Struggle to Internationalize Its Higher Education System

In the latest edition of Batten Expert Chats, two political scientists discussed why Taiwan finds it difficult to send scholars abroad, welcome foreign students and faculty, and promote the use of English.

The government of Taiwan says it wants to internationalize Taiwanese society. So why is the island still struggling to engage with the rest of the globe?

Syaru Shirley Lin and her husband, Harry Harding, have been investigating this problem, especially as it pertains to the Taiwanese higher education system. During the latest edition of Batten Expert Chats, the two political scientists discussed their ongoing research, which they are conducting for the Talent Circulation Alliance, a joint initiative of the Taiwan government and the unofficial American embassy there. 

Harding, who is a public policy professor and the founding dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, described what he calls “the Taiwanese paradox.” Taiwan is often called the first Chinese democracy. Its government was the first in Asia to legalize gay marriage,  and it has one of the world’s first transgender cabinet members. Taiwan also possesses a high-income, globalized economy that produces some of the highest quality computer chips in the world, he said. 

But despite all this, “Taiwan remains largely local, even parochial in outlook,” Harding continued. “It's rich and progressive, and it’s diverse—but without being really international.”

As an example, he described Taipei’s public transportation system, which announces bus stops and subway stations in five different languages. “That sounds pretty impressive, but only one of those languages—English—is a foreign language,” he said. The rest are all languages natively spoken in Taiwan, including three dialects of Chinese and a Taiwanese aboriginal language.

Lin, who is the Compton Visiting Professor in World Politics at the University of Virginia Miller Center, said that this is partly because Taiwan has been cut off from the international community. Although the island democratized 30 years ago and has proved that it can both govern independently and sustain economic growth, Taiwan lacks membership in key international organizations because most countries do not recognize it as a state separate from China. 

“All this puts Taiwan in a very grim position, even though it has become a wealthy society,” Lin said.

The appearance of wealth can also be deceiving: In 2019, household debt in Taiwan had reached almost 87% of the island’s gross domestic product—far above the international average, Lin noted. 

In Taiwan, “it is not every person's goal to study abroad and to learn English and to become more cosmopolitan simply for the sake of it,” she explained. “Getting a job, contributing to one's family, or saving towards eventually having your own family have become priority. Learning English is seen as optional, not mandatory.”

Many students who do study abroad go to China because it shares their language and culture, Lin said. Traveling to other foreign countries, particularly in the West, can be daunting for Taiwanese students, especially since English (subway station announcements aside) is not thoroughly integrated into their society. 

Not only does Taiwan have no English television stations, Lin and Harding have found that even professors trained in the U.S. and Britain hesitate to teach courses in the language, concerned about their own levels of English proficiency and uncertain if they will be compensated for the extra effort. In addition to shortchanging Taiwanese students, this creates issues for international ones, who must choose, often at the last possible minute, from “a grab bag or a smorgasbord of courses [in English],” Harding explained. Both students and faculty from foreign countries face further problems in the form of strict policies that make it difficult for scholars to work in Taiwan for long periods.

English alone doesn’t equal internationalization, of course, but Lin pointed out that encouraging its use will prove important if Taiwan wants to reduce dependency on China. She noted that fluency in English is vital from an information literacy standpoint as well: Some reports indicate that the percentage of fake news in Taiwan is higher than any other country in the world, and much of that fake news comes from China. 

“For Taiwan, therefore, learning English is not about going to an English-speaking country, per se,” Lin said. “There's a part of internationalization that is about trying to move away from the Chinese-speaking world in terms of information and perspective.”

Although Taiwan’s efforts to internationalize might feel distant to many members of the UVA community, Harding noted, the University has similarly struggled to engage with the wider world.

“Every strategic plan at UVA since I came to the University in 2009 has set globalization as a high priority,” he said. “But the curriculum has been largely centered on the United States so far, and the number of students studying abroad is far from where we would want it to be.” 

In other words, “Taiwan’s problems are distinctive,” he said. “But they’re not necessarily unique.”

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