White paper urges Taiwan to reinvent itself as global talent hub

But local experts lament that recommendations in the US-produced document may be easier said than done   

June 21, 2020
Source: iStock
Taipei

Sweeping changes are needed in the higher education system if Taiwan wants to boost modernisation, internationalisation and industry ties in the face of numerous challenges, according to a US government white paper.

The self-governed island has a relative lack of natural resources and suffers from diplomatic isolation and strained ties with its much larger neighbour, mainland China.

The white paper acknowledges some of these shortcomings, stating that Taiwan “is too small to be the best at everything, but it can become the world’s leader in specific sectors or technologies” if it relies on its strengths, such as the talents of its 23 million population, a tech industry that has made it a world leader in semiconductors and its high level of gender equality.

But to reach its goals, Taiwan needs to make English an official language for work and governance, and reach out to the rest of the world, the paper suggests.

Its five main recommendations are for the creation of a national strategy for “talent circulation”, an expansion of academic exchange, better leveraging of foreign talent already in Taiwan, support for start-ups and an increase in the role of women, according to the “Talent Circulation Alliance White Paper” published 12 June by the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto US embassy.

“The short answer is that Taiwan needs to transform itself into an ‘international talent hub’,” the paper says.

One recommendation is for the government to provide loans to students who wish to study overseas, an opportunity that is currently “out of reach for all but the wealthiest families”. An income-based repayment system would encourage these students to return home to prevent brain drain.

The paper also said that top universities should transform themselves into start-up incubators, create joint business-engineering programmes and offer English-language courses in fields including semiconductors, biomedical sciences, artificial intelligence and hardware-software integration. They should also hire more international professors and postdoctoral researchers.

Kwei-Bo Huang, associate professor of diplomacy at National Chengchi University, told Times Higher Education that there may be challenges in implementing these ambitious plans, especially in bridging the language barrier in a system that conducts its business mostly in Mandarin Chinese.

“Taiwan is not ready for non-Mandarin-speaking professors to teach,” he said. “Many Taiwanese students, even in elite universities, cannot learn well from a lecture if it is in English.” Additionally, foreign professors without Chinese fluency could struggle to perform tasks needed outside the classroom, such as participating in meetings or mentoring students, he added.

Taiwan has a “moderate” ranking in the EF English Proficiency Index, placing below Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia and India, but above mainland China, Macao and Japan.

Professor Huang said that the issue of hiring overseas scholars went beyond only language. “Taiwan’s own PhD degree holders, regardless of local or foreign degrees, are facing a serious problem in the job market,” he said. “It’s a tough decision for the Taiwan government as to how to strike a balance between internationalisation and meeting the need of those PhDs.” He added that efforts at “internationalisation are sometimes not based on meaningful and sustainable exchanges but on the numbers”.

He felt that the paper was “a good idea in general”, but also recommended that its language “could be more apolitical”.

For example, the paper stresses labour mobility with “like-minded countries”, while loans for student exchange would be limited to “top-200 universities anywhere in the democratic world”. While this language is not surprising for a US document, it could be limiting in a region such as Asia, which has a wide range of political systems.

“Once ready, Taiwan should open to all countries as long as there are talents willing to come to Taiwan for higher education,” Professor Huang said.

 joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

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