Taiwan technology merger eyes Asian university race

But academics question the logic of consolidating three institutions in different locations

August 12, 2019
Hats of different colours in crowd Taiwan
Getty

Three technology institutions in Taiwan are planning to merge in a bid to become a “top Asian university”, but experts are sceptical over the potential success of such a move.   

National Taiwan University of Science and Technology (Taiwan Tech), National Pingtung University of Science and Technology (NPUST), and National Yunlin University of Science and Technology (NYUST) announced plans to consolidate last month. There is no set timetable for the merger, but they said that they hoped to have the plans approved by the end of this year.

If the merger goes ahead, the new university would have about 32,000 students and 1,200 lecturers. The goal is for the institution to be recognised as a “top Asian university” within three to five years.

Taiwan Tech is the only institution of the three to be ranked in the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, and is Taiwan’s second-highest ranked institution, but it is relatively low down in the 401-500 band. It is ranked 61st in the THE Asia University Rankings.

Other countries in the continent have much more prestigious technology institutions: the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) is ranked 41st in the world and third in Asia, while the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) is 102nd overall and 13th in the continent.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Education has promised additional funding for institutions that merge as part of plans to downsize the island’s higher education sector to cope with a declining youth population.   

But academics questioned the logistics of the merger, given that the three institutions are in different locations. Taiwan Tech is in Taipei in the north of the island, NPUST is 230 miles (370 kilometres) away in the south, and NYUST is between the two in the west. It is unclear whether the merged institution would operate across three campuses or from one site.

“The idea of merging three Taiwanese technology universities at opposite ends of the country is a bit odd,” said Philip Altbach, founding director of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education. 

“How would they build a common academic culture? How would they share facilities and faculty? Would specific programmes be merged and moved around? All of these are fundamental questions.”

Professor Altbach added that “the saga of university mergers around the world is a mixed one and none are ever free of problems” but the ones that seemed to work best were those between universities that were geographically close.

On the plans to create a top Asian university, Professor Altbach said “there is no reason why some of Taiwan’s top universities cannot compete effectively with HKUST or KAIST” but “it is not clear that this merger will provide a dramatic advantage”.  

Yuan-Chih Fu, assistant professor at National Chung Cheng University, agreed that a merger would be challenging given the large distances between the campuses, but suggested that a “university system might be a realistic arrangement”.

However, he said that university governance was a major issue in Taiwan, which would hold back the potential success of the institution. In contrast to the three universities in Taiwan, HKUST and KAIST “enjoy a large degree of institutional autonomy...have plenty of financial resources, and have a very international environment. The most important thing is they are eager to open their market to the whole of Asia.”

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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