Taiwan Wants More Foreigners in its Universities. Is a Taiwan College Degree Worth It?

Taiwan really wants to foreigners to come get a Taiwan college degree. The good news. Internationalizing Taiwan universities is a initiative led by the very top, and there’s already 110,000 international students in Taiwan.

“The world’s universities are competing fiercely to attract the best students. [We are] aiming to attract 150,000 students by 2020, that will account for 10% of the total college and university student population.” – past president Ma Jing-Yeou

The education system is strong by any standard I know of, especially on primary and secondary levels. The literacy rate is 98.7%. For college, Taiwan is the 5th most affordable country to study (the U.S. is the most expensive). Schools look more and more like modern institutions. This is Koo Chen-Fu Memorial Library at National Taiwan University, by architect Toyo Ito.

But the trouble with recruiting foreign students is supporting local students is still a big challenge. If Taiwan colleges can’t help Taiwanese students, then what about the foreign students? Now you’re getting it.

Why I’m Writing This Post

A funny thing happens when people start talking and drinking at the same time. They forget when to shut their mouth. I was at FRANK Taipei when a foreigner started saying,

“Have fun now, because when you graduate, you’ll find out your degrees are worthless.”

Dick move! Part of being student council president is having to say, everyone is here to support each other. Bring a productive attitude or maybe you don’t belong with us. It’s not like they’re the first person ever to dump a purse after a few drinks. I completely understand. They did have a point, though. Higher education today has shortfalls. But that’s everywhere. Taiwan has other issues. Some that were worse in the past, many which are similar to the U.S.

Anyone considering a Taiwan college degree should realize it’s a non-traditional track that requires extra persistence.

Me being escorted out of the all you can eat Chinese buffetFor many, the system in Taiwan beats where they came from. Let’s appreciate that. Some of the best universities here are among the world’s top research institutions. Taiwan’s economy is proof of this.

There are also other reasons Taiwan is a great place to hang out for awhile. (Thanks for the laugh, Nick) ->

But the way Taiwan is setup creates under-served college graduates. Foreigners easily fall into this category, like in the U.S. Waiguoren 外國人 sometimes don’t think of the ways tables turn when they leave home. Anyone considering a Taiwan college degree should realize it’s a non-traditional track that requires extra persistence.

Some issues predictably get swept under rugs (and out of brochures) because people want to give a good impression. Taiwan is recruiting students!

If you’re a foreigner looking at college in Taiwan, understanding the system might help you get more from it.

A Numbers Problem in Taiwan Higher Education

Taiwan has a ton of college graduates, and a lot of them are engineers. The 30% becoming engineers feels higher if you’re at one of the 12 universities (out of 160) with an engineering program. HOLD UP. Taiwan has 160 universities? And how did the U.S. get pulled into this?

Imagine 160 universities in New Jersey and you get the idea.

There used to be very few universities in Taiwan. Then, Nobel Prize Winner Yuan T. Lee returned a national hero and talked up how universities are everywhere in America. So all the junior colleges were upgraded to universities. Classic example of a Taiwanese shortcut. Now Taiwan has so many university graduates! #NailedIt

“When everyone’s super, no one will be.” – Syndrome, not a Nobel Prize Winner

Just having a Taiwan college degree no longer makes you super. In some ways, Taiwan has more complex issues than the U.S. Imagine the effect of 160 universities in New Jersey and you get the idea.

Over a period of several years, universities and university students have gradually become hot potatoes. Newly graduated university students cannot find a job, and even when private universities want to donate their institutions to the state, the state does not want them…

There are many, many good colleges in Taiwan, and I know a lot of very talented people who graduated from schools that aren’t considered the very best. There just aren’t 160 of them. Taiwan is now planning to close or merge 1/3 of these schools between 2015-2025. Joining forces is a good move for Taiwan. Going to a school that’s moving in the right direction is good for you.

… At the beginning of this year, Leader University ignited a potential trend toward disappearing universities, a trend 1 million college and university students and their families must confront.  — CommonWealth magazine, vol. 444

Quality is Job No. ??

More students and universities means more choices. But competition doesn’t always improve educational quality in Taiwan.

Many universities today are providing education with more of an eye toward profit than quality. The implications for educational quality and equity of opportunities tend to be less emphasized in the era of market-driven environments (Olssen, 2002; Mok & Welch, 2003)

Because the system is trying to serve as many students as possible, there are gaps. Lowering the university standard means students aren’t as ready — coming in or going out. From the same CommonWealth magazine article:

Another law department professor said he originally wanted to emulate a former teacher of his at National Taiwan University and fail about one-third of his students to force them to work hard. The school, however, blocked the initiative because of the Ministry of Education’s quota system for total enrollment. If too many students are flunked, then a bigger share of the fixed student body will be repeat students, and unlike new students who pay full tuition, repeat students only pay a fee based on credit hours.

Here’s how this affects the better schools. Where I’m from, there’s a saying about being chased by a bear. You don’t have to outrun the bear. You just have to outrun the guy next to you. Since most schools have lower standards, top schools don’t have to push so hard.

Professors and Students Both Lose

More students means educators have their hands full. In general, schools with more academic freedom (to recruit professors) face a common dilemma of uneven quality. They expect things to balance out. Stacking this issue on top makes balance more difficult to achieve. Here’s how it works.

  • Some professors work even harder at teaching (great!)
  • Some teach to an acceptable standard (thank you!)
  • Others say as long as you learned something, it’s good enough (no!)

That’s one hell of a low bar. I learn something from a Uber driver every time I ride. I suspect this is one of the reasons why Professor YouTube is becoming a bigger thing than just digital learning.

Unfortunately, the school may not be preparing (international students) to be competitive in the global marketplace.

Finally, for the international students. Traveling students already come in with a more global perspective. Unfortunately, the school may not be preparing them to be competitive in the global marketplace. Good thing higher education is cheap, because some people are getting what they are paying for.

Sh*t. Is a Taiwan College Degree Worth Anything?

Of course it is! As a foreigner, if you want to work in or with Asia, a Taiwan college degree makes sense. There are a lot of successful and smart people on this island who recently got a Taiwan college degree from all different schools.

On the outside (in my opinion), Taiwan degrees are better regarded than those from most other Asian countries because of its high-tech industries. Also, selective immigration of intellectuals to the West helped the Taiwan brand a lot.

Here’s National Taiwan University (#1) and National Tsing Hua University (#4) on top of the 2013 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) for Greater China. ARWU is “the most widely used annual ranking of the world’s research universities,” says The Economist. Recently, National Taiwan University has fallen a bit, although it’s almost always in the top 5. There’s other schools that don’t show up on their rankings, mostly because they aren’t research-focused.

Getting a Taiwan College Degree: National Taiwan University is Ranked #1

And, Taiwan is one of the world’s most productive economies. Even if wage inequality is rising, so is GDP. Some people are doing some things right.

"Taiwan Is the Success Story, not China" - Cato Institute

But you need to reach the people who are making it happen, at their level. That’s tough to do without connections. Even tougher without skills and smarts. Metrics like an absurdly high literacy rate don’t happen by themselves. If you came without strong credentials and aren’t building them, you might struggle! Taiwanese people have innate abilities beyond KTV, whether they are using them or not.

Good Enough is not Global Enough

Some Taiwanese say the “credential” (Taiwan college degree) is good enough. Taiwan is a great country and attending a great university in a great country will help you make it happen in Asia blah blah blah.

In many Taiwan classrooms, providing a global outlook may just involve using a Western textbook, instead of Chinese. To Taiwanese, this is global.

Maybe it’s good enough for the generation without 160 universities. Not today. This is the same message talked up by lower-tier schools in the West. A school could get away with this before the number of universities got out of hand, and Taiwan is slowly adjusting to reality.

You’ll even find this mentality at top universities. It’s not because they don’t care about quality, but because being on top of Taiwan – a country with strong nationalism – is where to be. For almost all Taiwanese, this is the competitive set that matters. But on top of Taiwan, on top of the world? Not quite.

How to Make a Taiwan College Degree Useful for Global Citizens

Anyone in Taiwan who is really serious about a global outlook has to do more than other top students — local or international. For example, some Taiwanese work very hard to improve their English. Many of them go abroad to get a more complete look at the world. 6,000 Taiwan college graduates go to the U.S. for graduate studies every year.

Foreign students need to explore possibilities. In many Taiwan classrooms, providing a global outlook may just involve using a Western textbook, instead of Chinese. To Taiwanese, this is global. The traditional Taiwanese classroom is also not setup to integrate perspectives. Maybe find a more progressive school.

In my own graduate program, many professors now think of ways to discuss things that are going on right now in Taiwan. It’s typically at the end of lesson plans. But, international students should also go find people, on their own, who will speak to them about how Taiwanese get things done.

Why The Rush to Attract International Students?

Start by following the money. The Ministry of Education began offering universities a funding package to create programs for international students. This also counters brain drain. But then there was a rush that led to a lot of lousy international programs.

Why are so many of them below expectations? Existing mediocrity in the system. Sub-par bachelors degrees means people plug up the graduate ranks to stand out, which leads to the creation of sub-par masters degrees. That’s the “educational industry” in Taiwan and you don’t want to be a victim of it. I’ve heard of some Taiwan college degree programs which require only 24 credit hours. Factor in instructors’ ability to teach in English, and quality goes down another notch.

  • There are far fewer classes available in English, then there is in Chinese
  • Even in the English courses, an instructor is really only able to teach what they can communicate
  • Some university resources, like computer software, may only be available in Chinese. My own Chinese is barely enough to navigate Microsoft Office!

Seriously. Don’t just go to any school because they have an international program. Any college degree is only worth what you get out of it. This quote by an American-Born Taiwanese who came for her bachelor’s degree is a little damning.

“Many of these schools (not even yet fit to give Taiwanese students a proper education) are scrambling to “globalize” their student body & are drooling for foreign students like a fat boy and cake–has resulted in some horrible, horrible English-language programs. Out of all my exchange-student friends, I’ve never heard a single one that was satisfied with the quality of their exchange programs; citing crappy classrooms, imcomprehensible teachers (that can barely speak English) and a general lack of a stimulating classroom environment.” – TheThousandthGirl.com

Addressing the Criticism

Work with it the way professionals do.

She’s not wrong. This is less of an issue for better funded “brand name” schools in Taiwan. For example, National Taiwan University likes to hire professors with Ph.Ds from English-speaking countries, and the school has enough money to make itself look good. For the most part.

Here’s an example of a problem students at struggling institutions may face. The library doesn’t have certain journals. No problem. Go online. Then you discover your school cancelled its digital access plan. So you borrow your friend’s student ID. Sneak into their library, check out the texts, and use their resources.

For niche areas, the brand isn’t so important, the school should be notable in its field. Still…

Crappy classrooms? Some older buildings look like they came from developing countries. You won’t find pictures of my university’s Teaching and Research Hall on the internet (on purpose). Good thing it’s being torn down and re-built. Across Taiwan, well-funded schools are doing the same.

Incomprehensible Teachers. The English ability of international students and professors is a moving target. The two have to communicate with each other, so it’s not really fair to criticize one without calling out the other. That’s un-possible? It rains bigly? These are some of the stranger things I’ve heard lately in “Taiwan English.” And some insist their English is 100%.

Here’s good advice. Don’t judge. Just work with it the way professionals do. This is the English language in foreign countries. Chinese learners will discover the same when they realize HSK Level 6 Chinese only gets you so far.

Asian English: “Do Not Disturb. Tiny Grass is Dreaming.” Courtesy: Etsy

Stimulating Classroom Environment

Traditionally, Taiwanese students just accept what is taught. Many classrooms aren’t open forums where people build on each other’s views. There may be little opportunity to integrate Asian with Western perspectives, before relating it to a concept. You’ll have to learn from your classmates.

At times, the professor doesn’t know enough about what they’re supposed to teach. Some topics are required so schools are meeting generally accepted standards. But their expertise is in whatever area they got their Ph.D. in, so they’ll gloss over the rest. Like, showing a YouTube video.

Taiwan is trying, though.

  • Bachelor’s degree classes started covering less. Unfortunately, it leads to students taking 25+ credit hours each semester. That tells you something about how much material they’re going over. Also, instead of having more comprehensive courses, students just have to take more courses.
  • Invite visiting professors from other nations to fill holes in subject matter expertise. Very clever!

What about integrating perspectives?

Foreign professors are more likely to let you expand on what is being discussed. The downside is they may not know much about the local environment. They can only offer what they are learning about it.

A lot of local professors are surprisingly progressive. It figures that people don’t always want to do things the way their elders did. It gives me hope to witness the enthusiasm of some professors towards the students who are here right now. After all, who’s going to take care of this place when they retire? Exactly.

Cliffs Notes: Getting a Taiwan College Degree

Not everyone who comes to Taiwan is part spiritual gangster, but I think it helps. If you know how to contribute to other people’s lives while taking care of your own, you’ll be in good shape. Here are some key takeaways:


  • Native-level Chinese. I have no reservations about a Taiwan college degree for this group. There are a lot of Malaysians and mainland Chinese here.
  • English-speaking. Unless you want to make a commitment to Asia, consider going on exchange. Exchange students tend to be better taken care of. Why? Because there’s a relationship with another university at stake. Also, course selection is limited.
  • There are more established bachelors degree programs in Asia for international students. See Waseda University in Japan.

Graduate students should only go to a top school:

  • Top universities (and their individual programs) have a better chance of surviving The Purge. Also, name brand schools tend to have more resources. For example, you don’t want to BYO specialized software.
  • Invest time outside the classroom. Figure out how what you’re learning is being put to work in Taiwan. Explore the local perspective. Consider the other pieces you need in order to be competitive.
  • The doctorate-level might be the most foreigner friendly of all (because many professors were educated in the West, the English level is higher), but it is its own bag of worms. The Academia Sinica is where the quality of the facilities and English is the very best.

One thought on “Taiwan Wants More Foreigners in its Universities. Is a Taiwan College Degree Worth It?

  1. Lessons from William Stanton, U.S. Diplomat and Director of the American Institute in Taiwan - PhilipChang.org

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