A few months back I was asked to report on my experiences with the Taiwanese education system as an international who studied there for a year. Since I wrote quite a lot about the positive side of my experience as living in Taiwan I get quite a few emails with questions regarding pursuing a degree in Taiwan. My reply is usually very short saying that the end result was that I decided to stop my studies in Taiwan and restart my degree at Hong Kong. I don’t believe I’ve ever said much about the other side of my experience as a student at Taiwan.
Disclaimer : It should be noted, that the following is based on my own personal experiences alone and is perhaps only representative of a single department at a single university in Taiwan. I was part of the first experimental English based PhD program as part of an internationalization attempt driven by the Taiwan government and I do believe that it is not reflective of the general Taiwanese education system conducted in Chinese which seems to be climbing up the world rankings and doing quite well – especially in exact sciences and engineering.
(in bold are the points that were a source of real shock and disappointment to me)
Q: Were there specific strong points and/or problems with your experience, especially regarding foreign (Western, Asian, Latin American etc) students?
The main strong point to me personally was that the program was in Taiwan. The cultural experience, learning about the local ways, getting to know how business is conducted and becoming familiar with the Taiwanese business models, science parks and general competitiveness overwhelming many other countries of similar size/resources and of much less complicated political situation.
As for the academic experience, the main strong point I could think of is the willingness of the top management at the university to engage me as a student. I’ve had direct ongoing contact with the senior executive vice president and the vice president of student affairs and the international office. I’ve corresponded with the president and have presented in meetings with five different VPs who wanted to hear what I have to say. Never, in all my experience with academic programs world-wide have I had such willingness to learn and improve. During my time at that university I’ve tried what I could to make the change I thought was needed, and to an extent the decision to leave was despite and not because of the university management.
With that said, the specific international program I was in had problems. I think most of those could be overcome with the right approach and overtime, but for now – I’ll summarize the core issues by saying that the problems were a winning combination of the following factors:
Program / Department
- Strong dissonance between what the university says and what the department does.
- Disorganized administration in all domains mostly made of student part-time staff.
- As it was experimental, things were made up as they went along. Rules changed by the day, majors omitted (my OB field, for example), students did not know what was going on.
- Certain things promised turn out as false due to lacking competences at best and intentional deceptions at worst – course of study and courses needed ‘ requirements for a qualifying exam, conferences and publications ; process of mentoring ; the real status of the AACSB accreditation (for MBAs) ; the amount of scholarship given ; what “free” Chinese courses are given ; what dorms are provided ; etc.
- Lacking willingness or ability to construct a culturally sensitive and understanding environment. Unwillingness to engage and converse with the students.
- Generally looking down at international students as a trouble-making, problematic and over-demanding community.
- Cultural frictions – There were endless cultural frictions between local faculty and international students during courses. These mainly revolved around the following:
- Faculty-student hierarchy/status/formality.
- The type of interaction expected in class.
- The role of the student, the role of the professor.
- The teaching style (reading off PPTs, putting it all on the students with zero feedback).
- Willingness – Some of the faculty in the international programs simply did not want to teach international students but were forced to by administration. Sadly, this attitude has been repeatedly conveyed to us by some of the professors teaching us.
- Work load – Faculty in Taiwan is generally overwhelmed with work, senior professors sometimes working with 5-6 PhDs, 20 masters, 2 administrative roles and 4-5 courses a week. But this a more general problem in Taiwan than that specific program or university.
- Size – no program, anywhere on this earth, can absorb 20+ PhDs in a single year, especially not in an experimental first-trial program.
- Verification of skills
- Essentially – Almost anybody who wanted to got in. Acceptance rate for internationals was at 50% with a very low criteria for who should be accepted.
- Very little is done to verify sources of submitted documents and references.
- Internationals recruitment – There’s a strong selection bias, especially for westerners who are usually from the English teaching expat community already in Taiwan. With all due respect to the expat English teaching community in Taiwan, this had consequences for the quality. This is related to the recruitment moto I realized the school had once I got there -“It’s basically a free degree with free money attached to it” tends to attract the wrong type of students.
- Developing countries – While one needs to be open to recruit high-quality candidates from developing countries, one should also be careful not to accept all regardless of quality. Taiwan sometimes does. Generally speaking, students from countries Taiwan maintains diplomatic ties with proved an especially curious problem, as well as some from southeast Asia. This is not because of the country they come from but simply because they did not live up to the required standards expected from a student in a program like this.
- Taiwanese students – the Taiwanese students generally pay a lot more in tuition for those “international programs” than the international students, and I would generalize to say they mostly chose this program over others for the face value. Some of them are very qualified, but some not as much. I would note that the inequality in pay and recruitment process between internationals and Taiwanese caused friction between the two groups on more than one occasion.
- The general level of some of the students recruited seemed to me like it’s an embarrassment to Taiwan, the university and the program. Some students could not even pronounce an entire sentence in English, some showed the academic thinking level of an elementary school child, and in the MBA we shared classes with – many came without a working experience of any kind.
So how has it been since the move to HK? Though I’ve read and researched about the university in HK and even paid a personal visit to see things first hand, while transferring to Hong Kong I really wasn’t sure what to expect. To summarize the differences between that university in Taiwan and the university I transferred to in HK, I’d conclude that – to my relief – things in HK exceeded all my expectations. I consider the school and the department I am with right now as truly being world-class top school in my field.
Following are all the relevant posts I wrote on the Taiwanese education system and my experience as an international student:
- Taiwan’s Business Education : Taiwanese universities Management schools and AACSB accreditation
- International students in Taiwan and NCKU : Considerations, attitudes and impressions
- A western perspective on teaching Taiwanese students – cultural differences in higher education – Part 1
- A western perspective on Taiwanese education : cultural differences in higher education – Part 2
- Reaching for the leading 100 world universities : Taiwan’s Aim for Top University Program
- Scholarship information for international students interested in the Taiwan scholarship and studying in Taiwan
- International students stats : NCKU, Taiwanese universities and Taiwan scholarship
- Statistics and Figures for Foreign Students Studying in Taiwan
Following are some of the relevant posts I wrote on the HK academic system and my experiences in HK :
- The International Student Experience in Hong Kong (& HKUST)
- Study in Hong Kong : More on HK International Students
- Study in HK : Hong Kong PhD Fellowship Scheme 2010/11
- Hong Kong Global Education : Local, Mainland and International Students
- Academic Rankings, Ratings, Impact Factors and Top Tier Journals
Hope that helps. If you have any further questions or comments on the topic, I’m interested.