spreading wings 2

A Time to Spread Wings

Only two issues ago I investigated the unfortunate hoops through which Taiwanese students must jump before attaining the haloed goal of a place at university. As mentioned in that article, upon gaining acceptance life then becomes a relative walk on easy street. Study is not particularly demanding and examinations not especially difficult.

Students are granted four years of an easy life before beginning decades of unpaid overtime and financial responsibilities to parents who invested so much in their children’s education.

It’s an attractive aim and a well deserved period of rest. And yet an increasing number are opting out, opting to go abroad to study either after or in place of their Taiwanese bachelor’s degree.

Precisely 30,728 chose to study in one of the eight major nations that include the US, UK, Japan, Australia and Canada in 2004, not a small number by any means.

This was up a full 6,000 on the 24,599 in 2003 and continues to be on the rise, aided by a government goal of a 3% increase year on year and a plethora of incentives designed to get young Taiwanese out and away, independent and in a foreign land, almost certainly for the first time.

They range from low interest loans arranged with the government directly or through the banks, to full scholarships for the lucky few and having universities select suitable candidates from amongst their own stock. Talk to virtually any bright, ambitious young 20-something and they’ll tell you they either dream of studying abroad or already have plans underway to do so.

As we found in my last article, few tend to go roaming, so why such an eagerness to leave?

It appears that things have changed. I talked to an engineer working at one of Taiwan’s top computer processor producers who spent four years studying in Australia in the early 90s. Back in those days studying abroad was something special and was appreciated as such by employers who would pay higher wages to those better versed in the ways of the world.

The examinations used to be far harder than they are now, he reported, and as few as 7% of those taking the tests passed, as few as 5% were able to study their chosen majors.

Even as recently as 20 years ago there were only around 20 universities nationwide and from the 700 available points to be had in national examinations, approximately three times as many points were required as are nowadays.

As such, therefore, studying abroad meant not only easier entry and the option of easy transfer between subjects after a year, but also the respect attached to having passed a far harder degree that would subsequently stand you in good stead for years to come.

The rough cost was 700,000NT per annum all those years ago, a fair sum once average income and inflation have been factored in, yet there is no doubt in his mind that it was worth it.

Looking through the governmental sites on educational exchange there were, of course, various rants regarding maintaining standards of excellence in Taiwanese universities and promoting international friendship. One point, however, truly struck home.

Dr. Chang Qin-sheng of the Bureau of International Cultural and Educational Relations, Ministry of Education, stated in a paper on globalization last year that, “Movement of individuals is not limited by national boundaries. In the face of global competition, the key to obtaining the edge lies in creativity and quality.”

A brief glance at trends in the global economy only reinforces the argument. Take Ikea, for example: “Designed in Sweden. Made in China.”

Or virtually any of the major PC producers, most of whom now entirely outsource the physical creation of their goods to subcontracted no namers. An increasing number of global players now deal exclusively in promotion, design and quality management. The all too mundane production is simply left to third parties.

So where does this leave our ambitious young Taiwanese? In a nutshell, experience abroad is becoming less of a luxury and more a plain necessity.

English, like it or not, is the language of the early 21st century world and speaking it is no longer an advantage, it’s a prerequisite. While it’s true that the standard of Taiwan’s universities is arguably approaching an international level of competitiveness, the cost of studying at a good private college is now not much less than sending the kids abroad.

It then becomes not a case of why they should study overseas, rather than why not.

There are some in Taiwan who predict pure doom and gloom at the rise of the hulking beast across the straight. However, with Japanese companies preferring to use Taiwanese to represent them in China and China’s own acceptance of Taiwanese living and working on its soil, the anticipative and astute here can potentially have a great deal to look forward to.

It does mean, however, that those unwilling or unable to think beyond the confines of their own language and political borders will be left behind by our fledgling century. Bear in mind, though, that it’s not just Taiwanese we’re talking about now.

It’s all of us.

- by Nathan Haslewood, Taiwanease magazine, 2007

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