Taiwan addresses a double challenge on quality and quantity

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Clifford Chao
Clifford Chao

Two of the island’s leading private universities prepare to merge as the government tries to boost performance while preparing for declining numbers of students. Clifford Chao, vice president of China Medical University, tells John O’Leary of his hopes for the future.

Two of Taiwan’s leading private universities are planning to merge in order to challenge the best in Asia across a broader range of subjects.

China Medical University (CMU) and Asia University – already sister institutions in Taichung – are in talks with the Taiwanese education ministry and could soon be fully amalgamated. The merger would boost interdisciplinary teaching and research, and could help to propel them up the rankings.

The two universities are thriving at a time of growing uncertainty for the higher education system as a whole in Taiwan, which has the lowest birth rate in Asia. The island state has more than 150 universities – two-thirds of them private – for a population of 23.5 million, one of the highest per capita rates in the world.

University enrolments are expected to drop from last year’s 255,000 to 156,000 by 2028, as the teenage population declines. There were 15,000 fewer students starting courses last year alone.

In order to manage the decline, the Taiwanese government has approved a bill that would close private universities that have fewer than 3,000 students, fail to reach 60% of their enrolment targets for two years in succession, or show signs of financial instability, including failing to pay staff for three months in a row. Universities that fall foul of the new legislation could be turned into other educational, cultural or welfare organisations, or be forcibly liquidated. Public universities will also face reductions in their student quotas for any departments that fail to reach 80% of their enrolment targets.

The government has also been providing incentives for the leading universities to improve further, however. A US$1.4 billion teaching excellence programme supported developments in 33 universities between 2005 and 2017, with CMU and Asia University among the five main recipients.

A separate Top Universities Programme was aimed at developing research in a more limited range of institutions over 10 years, investing another US$4 billion. CMU has used grants from the programme to recruit faculty members, improve infrastructure and create joint research centres with other universities and companies. One long-standing  collaboration  involves work on cancer with the University of California, Irvine Stem Cell Research Center and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.

The two initiatives have now been wrapped into one University Enhancement Project, promoting institutions’ social responsibilities, as well as continuing to support teaching and developing individual universities’ strengths.

Taiwan is also targeting 18 countries for student recruitment in a new “Southbound” policy aimed partly at plugging a looming gap in the number of students needed to fill its extensive higher education system. Priority areas include medicine and health, agriculture and industrial development, while the countries stretch from Brunei and Bhutan to Bangladesh and Pakistan, and also include Australia and New Zealand.

Both CMU and Asia are heavily involved. They are already offering scholarships to international students as part of their efforts to increase the proportion coming from overseas. CMU has almost 500 international students from 42 countries, mostly in Asia. Undergraduate courses are taught in English and Chinese, but the medium of instruction at postgraduate level is English and undergraduate textbooks are also in English to promote graduates’ employability on the international market for doctors.

CMU has two medical colleges – the original one for Chinese and one for Western medicine – and its 14 hospitals have 5,000 beds, making up the second-largest health system in Taiwan. It is developing a new 40 acre campus with student facilities, a senior care hospital to give students experience of treating an ageing population, an international medical centre catering for medical tourism and a biomedical industrial park.

The first stage is already in use and the next will open in two years’ time. The ten-year project will feature striking designs by leading architects that CMU expects to make it a landmark campus for Taiwan.

Asia University (AU) is the younger of the two partners. Indeed, Professor Jeffrey Tsai, the president, likes to remind visitors that its campus on the edge of Taichung was a sugar field in 2000.

Now there are 12,200 students and a research programme that stretches from big data and cloud computing to edible and medicinal mushrooms, 3D printing and Fintech. The combination has taken the university into the top 100 in the QS Asian ranking, where it is the youngest institution in that group.

AU also has a modern art museum on campus, designed by the eminent Japanese architect Tadao Ando, and its own hospital, added only a year ago. A strong volunteering programme is active in Africa, while research partners include Stanford, Harvard, Kyoto and the National University of Singapore.

Professor Clifford Chao, the CMU vice president, says: “Both CMU and Asia University are developing tremendously. We have always been in dialogue because education is not just about science and technology. We realised that there was something lacking in terms of subjects other than medicine and that we would benefit from a partner school with strength in arts and humanities.

“We have common leadership at board level. AU is only 15 years old but there is a unique direction in the way that we strategize and syndicate our activities. At student level, they can go to the two universities and take classes and gain credits. We have joint technological applications and most importantly, collaboration doesn’t stop at teaching. We collaborate on projects, for instance on big data, that would be different for a medical university to do on its own. We take advantage of the expertise at AU and work together, putting resources together.

“The question of whether to merge was bound to come up, but it needs ministry approval,” he says. “They are supportive, but they want us to work together first while we work out complicated issues like governing structure. It’s like an engagement before marriage. At student level, or teacher or on research and administration, we are already one.”

The advantages of merger, Professor Chao believes, will soon be seen in ranking positions. “The student size will obviously be bigger, there will be an impact on staffing levels for a single university and we will benefit in terms of width and depth. But the identity of a comprehensive university is what we really want.

CMU is too specialist to appear in QS’s general rankings, although it has been moving up the ranking for medicine and is now in the top 200 in the world. It is recognised as a global leader in acupuncture and has strengths in a number of other areas.

The new 40 acre campus will extend CMU’s scope, particularly with its focus on care for Taiwan’s ageing population and its capability to cater for international medical tourism, as well as international education possibilities. It will not be the university’s main campus but, at US$1.5 billion, it will be by far its largest investment.

The eventual aim is for the new institution to become the top university in Asia – an ambitious goal that will take time to achieve.

Certainly, the two universities do expect Taiwan’s demographic challenges may affect them, as student population is destined to shrink. “However, at the tip of the pyramid, talent is always there and will graduate to the best universities. The casualties will be at the bottom, where universities cannot attract enough students. Fortunatly, the latter is not where we are.” Institutional casualties do appear inevitable in Taiwan, however. The number of private universities is likely to drop from 158 to around 100, with some departmental closures in the public sector, too.

The drive to raise the number of international students coming to Taiwan will be key to the success of the survivors. The number of international students has trebled since 2010 and now stands at more than 100,000, mainly from Malaysia and other Asian countries. Approximately half that number of Taiwanese students go abroad each year, mainly to the United States.

The new Southbound policy extends to business and tourism, as well as education. The policy features new initiatives, including visa-free travel for visitors from several countries, scholarships and internships for overseas students, and a plan to train 1,000 doctors in Taiwan over a four-year period. A previous southbound policy, launched in 1994, was heavily focused on trade and overseas investments. The new version is concentrated on particular industries, particularly medical cooperation, industrial supply chains, regional agriculture, industry talent cultivation, and innovation-based industries.

The government is promising companies better consulting services and investment protection for their overseas operations and has earmarked an additional US$93 million in its 2018 budget for the policy, 63% more than last year.

The policy is also intended to counter Taiwan’s brain drain, which has been a longstanding concern for tech companies in particular. The current IMD World Talent Report ranks Taiwan 23rd out of 63 countries for its ability to develop, attract, and retain talent. Despite Taiwan’s flourishing tech industry and education system, average salaries are not competitive with those offered in Europe, the US, or China.

Ministers hope that universities can help to reverse the brain drain and promote Taiwan’s “soft power” by recruiting more students in the target countries and becoming involved in new research projects.

Professor Clifford Chao, vice president of China Medical University, is a leading expert of the use of image-guided targeted radiotherapy and intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) for the treatment   of cancers. He is the author of two widely read textbooks on radiation oncology and IMRT, and has published more than 180 peer-reviewed papers. He received his medical degree from Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan and carried out his postgraduate training at Chung Gang Memorial  Hospital  and  Washington  University  School of Medicine. He also had a surgical fellowship in the Cancer Research Institute in Tokyo,  Japan. Dr Chao was a tenured associate professor  at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, a professor  at University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center, and later became a professor and Chair at the Department of Radiation Oncology of Columbia University and Weill Cornell Medical College. He returned to Taiwan in 2015 as Vice President of the University, and superintendent of the Cancer Center at China Medical University Hospital as well as director of the Preparatory Office of Biomedical Industry of CMU.