Taiwan colleges suffer drop in enrollment as students head for mainland
Published: Apr 02, 2021 12:44 AM
Taiwan Photo: Unsplash

Taiwan Photo: Unsplash

Recently, Sophia Chiu (pseudonym), an employee from the Office of International & Cross-Strait Academic Exchange at Soochow University in Taipei has become increasingly worried. "The new faces have disappeared. Although our teaching activities have not been affected too much, our administrative and activity funds have indeed been reduced," Chiu told the Global Times.

After a series of provocative actions by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) against the Chinese mainland, the enthusiasm of mainland students to study in the island of Taiwan has cooled, as observers and educationalists in Taiwan expressed concern that many Taiwan private universities' operations have been deeply affected. 

However, as more and more mainland universities are actively embracing Taiwan students, the trend of Taiwan youth enrolling in the mainland is gradually sweeping across the island.

Experts and students told the Global Times that the increased tensions across the Taiwan Strait has profoundly affected the perceptions and evaluations of students and their parents, and the Chinese mainland's rapid development and increasing policies to promote exchanges have become important in attracting Taiwan's youth, while the DPP's discrimination against mainland students and negative attitude toward cross-strait integration will further make Taiwan an isolated island.

Breaking communication bridge  

According to local media reports, the number of mainland students enrolled in universities in island of Taiwan universities last year was only 576. Even worse, so far this year, the entire Taiwan bachelor's, master's and doctoral programs have not welcomed any mainland freshmen.

A sharp decline in mainland students has led to an operational crisis at some private universities in Taiwan. For example, Chinese Culture University in Taiwan had to respond to the impact by reducing its overall budget, downsizing its mainland student service group and transferring staff to other departments.

Taiwan's Soochow University also said that even though they used to receive mainly short-term exchange students from the Chinese mainland, the absence of this group has reduced the university's annual financial revenue by NT$40 million ($1.4 million). 

 "In the past, every class I taught had at least two or three Chinese mainland students, but now, many schools don't even have a single one," said Belle Huang (pseudonym), a professor at the School of Communication of Ming Chuan University (MCU) in Taipei.

Huang said that MCU was originally one of the universities in Taipei that admitted more Chinese mainland students, which used to make her feel proud.

In 2015, Ming Chuan University had 1,600 Chinese mainland students, contributing NT$160 million ($5.61) in tuition fees, said Liu Kuang-Hua, the president of MCU in an earlier media interview, adding that the decreasing number of mainland students not only affects the school's financial revenue, but also hinders the progress of exchanges between students from both sides of the Strait.

Huang pointed out that Taiwan's universities used to be an important platform for cross-Strait communication.

"Students from the Chinese mainland could see the whimsical ideas of Taiwan students, and students from Taiwan also felt the diligence and enterprise of their mainland counterparts. More importantly, through getting along day and night, students from both sides of the Strait are able to look at the development of each other's environment in a more rational and objective manner, which helps to further eliminate misunderstandings and enhance friendship," Huang said.

"However, this bridge of communication has been smashed by the arbitrary DPP authority," Huang sighed.

China's Ministry of Education (MOE) announced on April 7, 2020 that the Chinese mainland would suspend all programs and work that involves sending mainland students to study in Taiwan, given the state of the COVID-19 pandemic and current cross-Strait relations.

The separatist DPP actively promoted a "Taiwan independence" campaign, and after the outbreak of COVID-19, they even used the epidemic to attack and slander the Chinese mainland, issued a temporary travel ban for mainland residents, ignored requests from mainland students to return to Taiwan after Taiwan University had fully opened, and reduced the desire of mainland parents to send their children to study in Taiwan, Li Xiaobin, a Taiwan studies expert at Nankai University in Tianjin, told the Global Times.

According to Taiwan media reports, in 2011, at the beginning of the opening of the admissions for mainland students, there were 928 mainland students enrolled in Taiwan's master's and doctoral degree programs. Since then, the number has grown year by year and reached a peak from 2014 to 2016, with more than 2,500 mainland students studying in Taiwan each year. As the Tsai Ing-wen administration came to power, the number continued to decline until it collapsed in 2020.

Li Feifei, a senior student at Kun Shan University in Tainan said that although her teachers and classmates were kind to her, she could still feel that the DPP authorities were releasing their hostility toward the mainland and discrimination against the mainland students through various ways and channels.

Li Feifei noted that in Taiwan, mainland students paid higher tuition fees but got unequal rights. For example, they can't work locally and were almost deprived of medical insurance under the call of the DPP.

"What is even more frightening is that there are now countless media outlets, party groups, and even student organizations and 'research institutions' just a stone's throw away from us that are being held hostage by politics and are acting as sounding boards for the DPP, and looking at us through tinted glasses," she said.

 "Taiwan's political parties, universities and even the public are pushing mainland students further and further away, and are making Taiwan more and more isolated," Huang said.

Wang Jianmin, a Taiwan affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times that at present, Taiwan's universities are already suffering from the continuous pain of insufficient enrollment of local students due to a low birth rate. As the number of mainland students studying in Taiwan continues to decrease, Taiwan's education and even social development are bound to decline further.

More pronounced push and pull

In contrast to mainland students who are deterred from studying in Taiwan, there is a growing trend of Taiwan students coming to the mainland to study.

Zhu Fenglian, a spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, said on March 17 that even under the influence of COVID-19, many Taiwan students remain enthusiastic about applying for mainland universities. The number of Taiwan students studying in mainland universities has reached 12,000. The number of mainland universities and colleges that offer exam-free admission to Taiwan has increased from 362 to 394.

According to Chiu, Soochow University offers exchange opportunities to Taiwan students for 70 universities on the mainland with over 160 places each year. The first batch of students selected to go on exchange to the mainland this year was announced in March. 

"A lot of students came to enquire and many of them noted they had been influenced to sign up by their mainland classmates. They said they must go to the other side of the Strait to have a look," Chiu said.

The Global Times also found that mainland universities have expanded the number of applicants from Taiwan, and the number of Taiwan students applying is also increasing.

Zhengzhou University (ZZU) in Central China's Henan Province, for instance, plans to recruit some 90 students from the island this year. It gave offers to 87 Taiwan students in 2020.

The vibrant, fast-growing economy in the mainland is quite attractive to Taiwan youngsters, many of whom are dissatisfied with the sluggish economic situation and declining job opportunities in Taiwan, said the director of ZZU's admissions office, surnamed Xu.

"The mainland's good COVID-19 control has increased the affection, or at least curiosity, of Taiwan young people toward the mainland, making them want to come and spend time here in person to see what the mainland is like," Xu told the Global Times.

Starting from 2018, each year ZZU enrolls dozens of Taiwan students according to their high school grades and interview performance. The tuition fees of Taiwan students are the same as their mainland peers, Xu said.

Li pointed out that the DPP continues to stir up trouble on the island, increasing pressure on scholars, students and entrepreneurs who are actively engaged in cross-Strait exchanges, and further weakening the competitiveness of Taiwan's higher education institutions. At the same time, higher education in the mainland has been growing because of the open and inclusive policies introduced to attract talent from different places.

"If the DPP authorities continue to go their own way, the push and pull to attract students from both sides will become more obvious in the future," Wang added.

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