Will Taiwan’s growing diplomatic isolation harm higher education?

Scholar says Western students may be more reluctant to study in Taiwan, but others question China’s influence on overseas student flows 

October 29, 2018
three-figures-in-flood
Source: Reuters

Universities in Taiwan could struggle to attract international students outside Southeast Asia as the nation becomes increasingly isolated amid growing tensions with China, an academic has warned.

Figures from Taiwan’s Ministry of Education show that the number of students from mainland China in Taiwan declined by 16 per cent between 2016 and 2017 to 35,300. Last year, China halved the number of students allowed to study in Taiwan, as a result of souring relations between the two nations.

While the number of international students from other leading sending countries, such as Malaysia, Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia all increased during that period – partly as a result of Taiwan’s 2016 “New Southbound Policy” aimed at building bilateral links with South and Southeast Asian countries – numbers from the US also dropped, by 5 per cent. The US is the ninth largest sending country, with 3,814 American students going to Taiwan in 2017. 

Yuan-Chih Fu, assistant professor at National Chung Cheng University, said that many overseas students have been attracted to Taiwan because it is a “quiet, safe place” and its geographic proximity to China “gives these international students an opportunity to explore China while keeping Taiwan as their temporary home”. It also gives them access to the Chinese job market after their studies, he said.

Meanwhile, Taiwan recognises that attracting international students is increasingly important because of its declining birth rate.

However, Dr Fu said that the number of prospective students from Western countries who want to pursue a degree in Taiwan could decrease in future years, as tensions between China and Taiwan give the message that “Taiwan does not want to be a bridgehead for international students who see China as their future market”. He claimed that such students may be more inclined to study in China instead.

Chia-Ming Hsueh, assistant research professor at National Cheng Kung University, added that the Chinese government “tries every means” possible, including the education sector, to “isolate Taiwan” – a strategy that has seen success in recent months.

In May, the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso broke ties with Taiwan and re-established diplomatic relations with China, leaving Taiwan with just one African ally, Swaziland. El Salvador also severed relations with Taiwan in August, meaning that just 17 nations officially recognise the Taiwanese government.

However, Dr Hsueh said that “the decision to study abroad is quite a personal choice” and therefore “it is hard to be changed or affected by the Chinese government”.

“Similarly, [when it comes to] scholar exchange and research cooperation, although we are facing some obstacles in collaborating with Chinese universities and scholars, the cooperation with scholars in other countries is continuing,” he said. “Especially, supported by the Taiwanese government, cooperation between Taiwan and South and Southeast Asian countries will be increasing in the future.”

Bi-Yu Chang, deputy director of the Centre of Taiwan Studies at Soas, University of London, agreed that “China has always tried to isolate Taiwan’s international presence, influence how Taiwan is named within international organisations and urge other countries to exclude Taiwan from participation in international activities and collaboration”.

“The situation is more apparent and serious now because the more assertive China is using its sharp power – both its political weight and economic clout – to squeeze Taiwan’s already limited international space,” she said.

However, Dr Chang also questioned whether China would be able to pressurise democratic countries into making it harder for their citizens to study and conduct research in Taiwan.

“It is clear that both sides across the Taiwan Strait are competing and trying to foster China studies and Taiwan studies respectively. However, one of the crucial attractions for academics to do research in another country is the research environment, from the richness and openness of various archives to the freedom of carrying out fieldwork and getting hold of materials. So, people will make their own decision,” she said.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Is China squeezing students out of Taiwan?

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Reader's comments (1)

Based on 2017's Open Doors report, China experienced a far greater drop in the numbers of US students coming to study than Taiwan did. The numbers of US students going abroad at all is also slightly down, with Europe (the UK and Italy in particular) dominating region choice. Taiwan's 'internationalisation' strategies have traditionally leaned heavily on the 'Overseas Chinese' communities and true internationalisation is something relatively new. It's far too early to talk of isolation at all.

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