Unlike their grandparents’ generation who in the 1950ies tried to set foot on the Taiwanese island of Kinmen with help of bombing and artillery campaigns by Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), mainland Chinese youngsters of nowadays are to be welcomed with scholarships and tuition waivers. As a loophole to a set of laws that restrict the annual number of enrollments of mainland students to 2,000 on Taiwan proper, Taiwanese-controlled Kinmen with its 10km distance to China’s coast is to become a Taiwanese offshore university center for mainland Chinese students. More than 20 Taiwanese universities intend to set up branches on the outlying island, catering to the growing demand for higher education among young Chinese that China can’t fulfill. The influx of Chinese students is seen as a panacea not only for Kinmen but also for Taiwan’s universities. They, chronically plagued by dwindling student enrollment, regard students from across the Taiwan Strait as the desperately needed remedy.
“It’s good for Taiwan when mainland Chinese study here since it solves our universities’ student shortage problem”, Professor Alex Chiang of Taiwan’s National Chengchi University says in an interview with Asia Times Online. “Another reason that we should welcome the mainlanders is that they are very hard-working, in fact even more hard-working than their Taiwanese peers”, Chiang says.
Kinmen once was location to heavy battles between Mao’s Chinese Communists and the Chinese Nationalists (KMT) under Chiang Kai-shek. The PLA saw Kinmen as the ultimate stepping stone for the invasion of Taiwan proper. However, the KMT-troops resisted the intensive shelling which lasted years, and at one point the US even threatened to use nuclear weapons against China to stop the attacks.
Although the shelling ceased in 1978 and the island was returned to the civilian government in the mid-1990s, the proximity to the Chinese coast and the 230km distance to Taiwan have still continued to shape the small archipelago. In the late 1990s Kinmen turned to smuggling as boatloads full of tourists met mainland fishing boats to purchase cheap goods from the Chinese, and after direct ferry services were launched between Kinmen and the Chinese coastal city of Xiamen under the so-called ‘mini three links’ in 2001, the island witnessed extensive tourism development. However, when direct transportation, trade and postal links between Taiwan and China were fully implemented in late 2008, the advantage that Kinmen had during the mini-link years became less profitable.
Now, a bitter controversy between the ruling Chinese Nationalists (KMT) and the main opposition party (DPP) fought out on the legislative floor in faraway Taipei over the opening of Taiwanese universities to mainland Chinese students comes to Kinmen County’s coffers rescue.
The DPP vehemently opposes the opening to mainland students, fearing they would stay after graduation and therefore compete with their Taiwanese peers for jobs. Along with ease of restrictions proposed by the KMT comes the recognition of Chinese academic credentials which, in the eyes of the DPP, will lead to Taiwan suffering a brain drain since the most talented Taiwanese students were to pursue their studies and possibly also their careers in China instead of Taiwan. As an effort to cut ties between Taiwan and China, Taiwan’s previous DPP government refused accreditation for Chinese universities, effectively preventing Taiwanese who studied in China from finding jobs in Taiwan after returning.
Seeing that the topic remains politically somewhat sensitive, the government in Taipei is pressured to restrict the share of Chinese students to be permitted to enroll at Taiwanese universities to 1% of the total number of students or roughly 2,000 students annually. If the University Act, the Junior College Law and the Statute Governing the Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area are amended later this month as expected, Chinese students will be able to enroll in doctorate programs from March 2011 on at the earliest, but will have to wait until September 2011 to enroll in bachelor degree programs.
Much to the delight of Kinmen’s local officials, it turned out their islands won’t be subject to the 1% quota which is going to apply for campuses on Taiwan proper. Anticipating the spending power of tens of thousands young mainlanders, the Kinmen County government happily promised to provide 2.5 hectares of land for use by the 20 odd universities that so far applied to set up branches on Kinmen. Scholarships will be offered to attract top Chinese students, and the best 20 students in each class will be granted full tuition and fee waivers. As if these incentives weren’t enough, tuition aid and transportation allowance for every student will be raised to roughly US$600.
The reason why Taiwanese universities are scrambling to open branches on Kinmen is that there are too many of them.Taiwan’s higher education problem began in the 1980s, when along with Taiwan’s democratization the government intended to raise the number of students accepted into institutes of higher education. This policy turned out to be too popular with the electorate to be reversed by any of the succeeding administrations. Nowadays, Taiwan boasts as many as 147 private and public colleges and universities that serve 1.2 million students, and statistics show that in 2009 97% of applicants were accepted. As a figure that has often been quoted by the Taiwanese media which drastically reveals the regulatory deficit in the educational system, high school students who scored 10 points out of hundreds in the university entrance exams are still enrolled. Apart from the political reasons, Taiwan’s infamously low birth rate does its share to the tendency that many universities and colleges are operating at far below their normal student capacity.
In stark contrast to Taiwan, only about 60% of the mainland students who sit entry exams in China end up being enrolled since China lacks universities. The quagmire that the Chinese government is caught in is that it can’t just do what its Taiwanese counterpart did in the 1980ies. Although the Chinese economy now needs its work force to be more educated, the authorities cannot simply raise the number of universities since the one-child policy which has been in place for three decades makes China’s age demographics moving back. If China were to open new universities now, they were bound to run into the same malaise Taiwanese universities are struggling with.
Therefore, for many Chinese students, the only way into institutes of higher education is to study overseas. Taiwan is, thanks to shared culture and language and far cheaper tuition fees and living expenses than in the US or EU, a plausible choice. According to findings of a survey released in May by the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), the number of 2,000 students Taiwan’s government wants to accept annually is far too small to meet the Chinese demand. Around two million university students in China, or about 30 % of total students there, would consider taking up advanced studies in Taiwan, so the findings of the survey.
To Professor Chiang, by opening Kinmen to mainland students, Taiwan’s government seeks to make the public slowly get used to the idea of lifting the 1% quota for Taiwan proper itself. In his eyes, the government wants to see how the Taiwanese react, and then after it has become apparent to the majority of the Taiwanese that mainland students are nothing to be afraid of, open up the whole country. This, so Chiang, would be much to the benefit of society as a whole. “Those students are to stay much longer than the Chinese tourists who have been visiting Taiwan. Therefore, through Taiwan’s opening to mainland students, more mutual understanding between Taiwan’s and China’s young generations will be established”, Chiang said.