Quality concerns over Taiwan’s international student drive

More students are coming to Taiwan under the New Southbound Policy, but some believe both the quality of incoming students and the education on offer are being compromised

May 22, 2024
A competitor attempting to fly his homemade craft in  in Taichung to illustrate Quality concerns over Taiwan’s international student drive
Source: I-HWA CHENG/AFP / Getty Images

Taiwan’s universities and policymakers should prioritise improving quality over recruiting more international students, say academics, as enrolment continues to rebound after the pandemic.

There are 116,038 overseas students in Taiwan this academic year, according to the latest figures, which indicate that, while recruitment has not yet returned to pre-pandemic highs – 128,000 foreigners were enrolled in 2019-20 – the island is recovering from the significant drop experienced during the crisis. 

Of those, 71,012 are from “New Southbound Policy” (NSP) countries. The NSP, launched in 2016 partially as a response to cross-Strait tensions with China, aims to strengthen Taiwan’s relationship with South-east and south Asia, Australia and New Zealand, including by means of higher education exchanges, scholarships and partnerships.

The policy has been broadly successful, with students from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) the largest source of foreign learners in Taiwan, including 16,111 from Vietnam, 5,110 from Indonesia and 2,511 from Malaysia. 

But the recruitment of international students through the scheme has led to “numerous issues”, said one academic, who wished to remain anonymous. 

“These include a wide variation in the quality of recruited students, the inability of many Taiwanese universities to provide an internationalised educational environment and incidents of South-east Asian students being illegally employed through manpower agencies,” they said. 

National media investigations have uncovered multiple incidents of international students being forced to work in harsh conditions and, in some cases, universities falsely promising scholarships to students, only to then force them to work to pay off their fees. 

In a 2023 report, the US Department of State said traffickers were taking advantage of the relaxed visa requirements available under the NSP. 

The academic added that, as the economies of many South-east Asian countries continued to improve, “top students from these nations are increasingly choosing to attend universities that are more internationally recognised”.

“If Taiwanese universities do not rapidly improve their educational quality, they will inevitably fail to become the first choice for students from other Asian countries,” they said. 

Jing Bo-jiun, a senior research fellow in Taiwan studies at the University of Oxford, agreed that the quality of higher education should be improved “to ensure that inbound students from Asean countries can acquire adequate skills for their future careers”. 

“Some scholars have pointed out that students from NSP target countries choose to study in Taiwan due to its safe and friendly living environment, rather than the quality of higher education or its academic status globally,” he said. 

“Whether their courses and degrees can genuinely assist students in entering the job market is more important than simply increasing student enrolment.”

Taiwan’s government has increasingly focused on employment outcomes for international students recruited from NSP countries, with the introduction of various industry-academia collaboration schemes, including pathways to stay and work in the country. 

According to Chia-Ming Hsueh, vice-dean of the Office of International Affairs at Minghsin University of Science and Technology, these have helped “to alleviate the labour shortage in Taiwan’s technology industry”, as well as providing employment opportunities for international students. 

To enhance these opportunities, he said, businesses needed to focus on collaborating with universities and, with Chinese language essential to some of the pathways, more Chinese language teachers should be employed. 


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