Enriching the student experience – exploring the global position of Taiwan’s ‘politics’ university

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History has allowed National Chengchi University to become Taiwan’s capital institution for politics, business and other areas of the Social Sciences. Martin Ince finds out from former President, Edward H Chow, how the institution is now integrating the Sciences into its programs and making the most of its position in a leading student city.

Now a conventional institution with big strengths in the Social Sciences, National Chengchi University (NCCU) in Taipei will probably always be seen in Taiwan as the ‘politics university’. Originally associated with the Kuomintang, the political party that took over the island in 1949, it was, for part of its history, the party’s elite training school. Today, the old Ministry of Education building serves as HQ for the NCCU education faculty.

In the modern era, NCCU still makes the most of its political connections. It ranks in the 51-100 zone of the QS World University Rankings by Subject for politics and it is also ranked for 12 other subjects. Most are in the Arts & Humanities, including languages, law, sociology, economics and business. But NCCU is also well-liked for its computer science expertise, as well as being ranked in the 601-650 band of the overall QS World University Rankings®.

Professor Edward Chow was president of NCCU until November 2018. While he resists the comparison, it is hard for the British visitor not to see NCCU as Taiwan’s answer to the London School of Economics in its subject range and in its closeness to the political machine. Its graduates occupy a formidable range of posts in the Taiwanese public sector and in years past, public service was, by some distance, the favoured destination for NCCU alumni.

Chow says that as employment options have opened up, especially in business, this route is no longer the automatic choice it might once have been. But even now, he adds, 25 per cent of the President of Taiwan’s high-level appointments to office are NCCU alumni. He adds that Tsai Ing-wen and Ma Ying-jeou, the current and immediate past presidents of Taiwan, are both former NCCU professors.

Chow says: “We are the most comprehensive Arts, Humanities and Social Science university in Taiwan.” This concentration has allowed the university to build up several of what Chow terms “distinctive fields,” including foreign languages, diplomacy and religious studies. NCCU is the only university on the island to offer important languages such as Arabic and Turkish. It also has what he calls Taiwan’s “most comprehensive business school,” which he regards as “a highly structured offer close to the best UK or US quality.”

Despite this specialism, Chow is quick to add that NCCU has a good college of Science, with strengths in areas such as psychology, neuroscience, applied physics and applied maths, where NCCU has an emphasis on big data. This capacity is now being teamed with NCCU’s skill in the Social Sciences to create cross-disciplinary research and education. NCCU is Taiwan’s leader in financial technology, he says, and is working at the frontier between the Humanities and IT with a pioneering ‘digital humanities’ approach to Chinese literature.

But Chow agrees that despite its academic strengths and its political connections, the university is subject to the same pressures as its rivals in and beyond Asia. It now has over 16,000 students, and has shared in the breakneck expansion of Taiwanese higher education. He warns that unless NCCU were to merge with another institution, it would be hard for it to get any bigger. He says: “The demographic squeeze caused by the falling birth rate in Taiwan affects all universities. The government’s implicit policy is to allow university mergers, perhaps in the next five years. We see the same effect at work elsewhere, for example in the recent university mergers in France.”

Chow sees the demographic crisis facing Taiwanese universities above all as a challenge to educational methods. “Universities of all sizes can excel,” he says, “including US liberal arts universities with 2,000 students. The quality of the education they provide depends on their organisation, their strategy and their resources. In addition, it has got easier for universities to collaborate with each other, and on a cross-disciplinary basis internally, and we shall be stressing this approach.” The university previously discouraged some co-authorship with academics from other institutions. “Now we are keen to develop it.” In the near future there will also be growing collaboration with non-academic bodies such as companies. “This approach,” he says, “will allow us to integrate the resources we have and attract more.”

At the same time, Chow accepts that Taiwan’s shrinking number of school-leavers is only one of several significant issues facing the Republic’s higher education system. It is possible that Taiwan has too much university capacity even without this new pressure. He says: “We no longer think that all high school graduates should go to university. For one thing, sufficient graduate jobs are not here for them if they do. So we also need a non-university route for talent development.

The media reinforces the image of university as the way to a better life, as do graduates themselves, but a university education is coming under increasing stress as a favoured form.” And one way things will change, thinks Chow, is a big increase in the cost of study.

As he points out, college fees in Taiwan stand at about US$3,000–4,000 per year, and dormitory fees are also low at US$500-600 a year. So you can go to university for say US$8,000 a year inclusive of most expenses. More importantly, successive governments have been reluctant to put money into higher education. Chow explains: “Taiwan has been a low-tax nation with a 13 per cent basic rate of income tax. It is also a democracy and so has good social benefits, which use up 45 per cent of that tax income.” And, perhaps for understandable reasons, defence absorbs more than 10 per cent of tax revenues. “That does not leave a lot of room for education, whether at school or university level. This means that the current continental European model is not affordable, and we are likely to end up with something closer to a US level of fees.”

For Chow, the big issue for all universities is the need for more resources. “All universities find it hard to change, and having more resources makes it easier to move faculty. At the same time, we need to think about the teaching and learning culture of the university. Some undergraduates may spend too little time studying. Faculty should push them more, but are under pressure themselves to do more research.”

The university’s new strategy involves bringing in donations to finance new faculty as well as to bolster research. Potential recruits, says Chow, need to realise that they can have a good life in Taiwan for far less than the cost of living in other countries, and that internationally viewed, apparently unattractive, salaries are in fact comfortable to live on.

And like other institutions around the world, NCCU sees scope for international students as a partial solution to its financial and demographic woes. The strategy here focuses on masters’ and PhD students. Chow says that, right now, the biggest single source is South-East Asia, with further significant numbers coming from Europe and North America. The Taiwanese government is supportive of further growth.

From Chow’s point of view, the big target is to enhance PhD numbers. He says: “It is hard to fill our available PhD places, because a PhD is a big financial investment. The main thing you can do with one is to get a job in a university, and those jobs are not out there now. It is the same in the US. As an engineer, you can get a US$150,000-a-year job at Google with a masters degree, and there is no more money offered for having a PhD.”

At undergraduate level, Chow is keen to increase the university’s involvement in student exchange, partly because meeting international students is positive for the Taiwanese majority. At the moment NCCU sends and receives about 800 exchange students per year. But he warns that the process is getting steadily tougher to manage as ever more universities try to exchange higher numbers of students. In one response to the demand for exchange capacity, there are now more courses in English at NCCU, including some in each of the university’s colleges. The university also has a strong Chinese language program, and students can at least pick up some rudiments during their exchange stay at NCCU. And Chow adds that the library and sports facilities are being upgraded.

Chow is also quick to point out that Taiwan, and especially Taipei, have plenty going for themselves as venues for internationally-mobile students. For one thing, Taipei is a lot cheaper to live in than other Asian cities. It is positioned 20th in the current QS Best Student Cities worldwide ranking, with ‘affordability’ a significant reason for its good performance. And because students are allowed to work there after graduation, it is an ideal place to start a career. “Taiwanese firms are multinational and graduates can even end up being posted to their home country,” he says, pointing out too that it is “hard to overstate” just how safe Taiwan is; many factors pointing to a significant potential for NCCU to attract good students from around the world into the future.

Professor Edward H Chow was president of NCCU from November 2014 until November 2018, when he was succeeded by law professor Kuo Ming-cheng. He took a BA in finance at NCCU, and a PhD and MBA at the University of Indiana, Bloomington. He now intends to return to his original expertise as a teacher and researcher in finance, a strong field of NCCU expertise.