In Education Reform, the Basics Matter

Politicians can talk all they want about changing the education system. Here are some of the essen-tials that often aren’t mentioned in their plans
Photo: J. Michael Cole
Photo: J. Michael Cole
C. Ed Hsu
By

In her recent proposal for educational reform, president-elect Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) announced a plan that would allow Taiwan’s fresh high school graduates to directly enter the workforce after they turn 18. The reform package includes an educational savings account with matching state funds, as well as a “flexible work schedule” with benefits and compensation. This form of assistance would help young students who do not have the financial means to attend college while equipping those who embark on a higher education program with more focused goals, more maturity, and a better understanding of the relationship between theory and practice.

Such initiatives mark a small yet significant step in educational reform that could help transform the currently ineffective educational system and create a more equitable, civil society. However, educational reform is not (or should not) be limited to enabling employment. A much more fundamental question is whether our schools are preparing young minds to face a complex future. And for this to come about, several other aspects of our education system — the very basics — need remedying. Here we look at two of them: the academic ranking system, and the tension between teaching and research.

Obsession with rankings

Taiwan’s fixation with ranking as a mark of excellence is a longstanding issue. Many parents compete to send their children to ranked schools, while academics compete over top peer-reviewed journals for their publications. Unfortunately this ranking-crazy mentality does not help Taiwan’s educators prepare future graduates for a constructive role in society. Instead, it discourages creativity and independent thought. Moreover, those who fail or are de-selected by the educational system bow out reluctantly and often end up marginalized.

The ranking-myth in Taiwanese academia is manifest in the advocacy and requirement for publications in SCI/SSCI peer-reviewed journals (Social Science Index and Social Science Citation Indexed, collectively known as the “I” journal). I journal publications are required for academic performance and promotion, as well as research grants (e.g., by the Ministry of Science and Technology).

While ignoring numerous other publicly available indices, the I journal creates a potential conflict of interest in favor of Thomson Reuters (the creator of the journal databases), as well as listed journals and publishers, some of which come with high publication fees. Furthermore, the I journal collection is biased against applied scholarly work (SCI is known to select predominately basic-science journals, with less journals on applied sciences). Lastly, this system encourages a buddy network: some “honorary” co-authors literally loan their names for publication, taking credits from the first author’s work, with the latter expecting returned favors. The I-journal game tends to perpetuate a culture of quid pro quo, or literally guanxi. It is not what one knows, but who one knows.

The existing I journal submission requirement for scholarship review is clearly not working. Taiwan should consider allowing professional society and subject matter experts to decide and recommend public-supported, open-access journals (e.g., the U.S. medical community decision-making role in Medline-indexed journals).

Teaching v. research

In its current shape, Taiwan’s higher education system does little to reward good instructors. Faculty members often are advised against “wasting time” working with students. What is needed (and is currently lacking) is a balance between teaching and research, which can only be accomplished if faculty is assigned roles in either the teaching or research tracks. Incentives must be created for good teaching by placing equal, if not more, emphasis on quality of teaching in performance evaluations. As many American universities already do, separate research and teaching faculties must be created so that faculty can do their best job in either field. They simply can’t be expected to do both simultaneously, as is often the case in Taiwan.

In this new, complex age, students must think outside the box on contemporary issues, such as Taiwan’s history and relationship with China. Younger generations are expected to exercise critical thinking when challenged by conventional wisdom. Students should be trained to voice dissenting opinions sensibly, by not only articulating problems, but by researching solutions to the problems. To stimulate classroom interactions, instructors should require students to ask questions, and provide comments in every class as the basis for participation grades. Doing so will help foster a culture of proactive participation for future meaningful civic engagement.

 

Ed Hsu is a professor at the NCKU Institute of International Management in southern Taiwan. A Tainan native, Hsu returned to Taiwan after decades of academic life in the U.S. He is interested in improving cultural understanding between southern and northern Taiwan, and Eastern and Western societies. He can be reached at cedhsu@mail.ncku.edu.tw

 

4 Responses to “In Education Reform, the Basics Matter”

March 08, 2016 at 8:40 pm, Mike Fagan said:

There is an additional and arguably more important problem with academic journals. Knowledge is a public good, and knowledge is often derived from tax-payer funded research. But it is then kept hidden behind subscription paywalls to which only academic insiders with institutional affiliation may have access. So in effect the public are paying for research but then deprived the benefit of actually being able to read it.

Clearly this will not do. In the interest of a better informed and better functioning civil society there must be a move toward full open-access electronic publication with online reviewing (no anonymity allowed). All research intended to influence public policy should be freely available to everyone, including data, assumptions and all information necessary to reproduce the findings, so the research can be properly tested and debunked.

One reason that is unlikely to happen is the existing incentive structures which discourage academics from publishing in open-access formats (the prestigious journals are all paywalled). But another possible reason is that governments tend to want “evidence” to support pre-existing policy goals. The doubts and criticisms that open-access would allow are obviously a problem for a politician trying to justify a given policy on the basis of “evidence”.

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March 16, 2016 at 5:05 pm, Mr. Oscar Lopez said:

For Mike Fagan: Here’s a golden gift for you GOOGLE SCHOLAR BUDDY!

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March 08, 2016 at 10:43 pm, Mike Fagan said:

The choice of subjects for discussion here is compelling, but I will respond to just two more points. First, whilst I agree with separating the teaching and research functions of university staff…

“To stimulate classroom interactions, instructors should require students to ask questions, and provide comments in every class as the basis for participation grades. Doing so will help foster a culture of proactive participation for future meaningful civic engagement.”

I suspect that will often (though perhaps not always) be counter-productive for two reasons. First, some teachers will find students asking “pretend” questions to which they already know the answers just so that they can say they asked a question. Apathy is a force to be reckoned with. Second, some teachers (e.g. at the political science department in NCKU) have a reputation for handling student questions with “difficulty”, and may therefore look for ways to undermine the purpose of this measure.

Perhaps the solution is indeed to think more creatively and “outside the box”. If the desire is to have students who actually want to learn something, and teachers who actually want to teach then online classes are the obvious way to coordinate the task. Indeed there are now online universities and colleges offering degrees in those subjects amenable to being taught over the internet, such as mathematics, theoretical physics and (somewhat dismally) economics.

Second, I have a particular problem with vague terms such as below…

“…transform the currently ineffective educational system and create a more equitable, civil society. However, educational reform is not (or should not) be limited to enabling employment. A much more fundamental question is whether our schools are preparing young minds to face a complex future.”

What does any of that really mean?

It looks like code for saying that education should be a kind of equalitarian indoctrination. Yet surely a richer, more technologically advanced society is better than a more “equitable” one where everybody eats the same stale bread and wears the same Bernie Sanders approved deodorant.

The advantage of looking at employment is that it is a relatively straightforward way of evaluating a university degree course; why study chemical engineering? Because people who graduate from chemical engineering tend to get well-paying jobs doing useful stuff that improves the world like figuring out ways to get cheaper electricity. Why study “feminism and critical theory”? Because people who graduate from that end up unemployed and moaning about the lack of female faces on banknotes. Or even worse, they end up in the media and government attempting to “wage influence”.

A fairer way to decide what education is for is to let the people who are paying for it decide for themselves – and that means a market where people do indeed pay for it themselves, instead of having the tax-payer fund the pursuit of subjects of dubious value.

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March 08, 2016 at 11:14 pm, Erik Paolo Capistrano said:

The problem goes down deeper than this, IMO. I was so amazed at the notion that if high school kids don’t go to cram schools after their regular classes, then they’re considered either dumb or lazy. On another area, in the arts, I am saddened by my own observations that while a lot of Taiwanese kids are extremely talented, this talent is limited to the technical aspects of the discipline they are immersed in. Imagine seeing kids play the piano or the violin exceptionally well,and yet it seems that they do not feel and enjoy the music that they are playing. I’ve also seen college kids in dance classes and cheering practices and they rarely smile when they perform. That’s kind of sad.
But I digress at this point.

Anyways, yes, while research is still an important component of being a university professor, my dilemma is that the research community is so exclusive that even there is even a preferred style of English writing, which, especially in the business community in which the author Prof. Hsu and I belong, creates such a huge gap between academics and practitioners. Not all managers and executives would use the word “parsimonious” over “simplified”. Yes, I do agree that there should be a significant organizational change wherein professors can choose which track to go to. And I humbly propose something like this: With teaching as of course the basic requirement, a professor can choose whether to go to a research track, an administrative track, or a consultant track. Not all professors can juggle two, let alone three or even four, hats at any given point in time. Not everyone is adept in research. Not every professor can be loquacious enough to do consulting.

And with that, students can also choose something similar to that. As with my experience, while we all learn the skills to do research, not all have the appetite for it and therefore write a thesis just for the sake of writing one, which ironically defeats the whole purpose of writing a thesis in the first place. Especially for supposedly “international management”, I think a better way is to have a thesis and non-thesis (replaced by say a couple of white papers, a feasibility study or a business plan, or even entrepreneurial venture) track to cater to what students prefer to be after graduation. Of course this will take time and effort and resources to develop.

In that sense, then also I daresay that it has to start from the top, from the MOST where they craft and impose the metrics to evaluate universities for budgetary purposes. As long as they impose the current metrics, and this has long been a dilemma for university officials, then whatever we propose here will not even be entertained. I hope President Tsai would look into this and start instituting changes that would rightfully reward universities, professors, and students for what they truly excel in.

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