In Education Reform, the Basics MatterPoliticians 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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org