Taiwan plans to close up to a third of its universities in the next decade

Taiwan’s Ministry of Education outlined plans late last month to merge or close up to 52 of the country’s public and private universities. The move comes in response to declining domestic enrolment as well as forecasts for further decreases in student numbers starting from 2016. After years of low birth rates, the ministry now projects that university enrolment in Taiwan will fall by about a third by 2023.

“Low fertility rates are an unavoidable reality,” said Deputy Minister of Education Chen Der-hwa. “Taiwan only saw 1.065 births per woman in 2013,” adds Focus Taiwan, “but experts say a rate of 2.1 births per woman is necessary to keep the population from shrinking.”

The ministry has called for universities to cut their enrolment quotas. It appears to be allowing some institutional discretion as to how enrolment will be cut, but is also offering financial incentives to encourage the process.

The government anticipates enrolment reductions of 35-40% and that between eight and 12 of the country’s 51 public institutions, along with 20 to 40 of its 101 private universities, will be merged or closed by 2023. The ministry will encourage consolidation in the public sector, but has indicated that it will not force private universities to close unless they are unable to meet ministry standards.

This latest announcement accelerates a process of consolidation in Taiwan’s higher education sector that has been unfolding for several years. It may signal that the ministry is prepared to take a more active role in further consolidating university operations in the country, and the enrolment forecasts for the next decade have no doubt played a part in strengthening the government’s resolve.

Official forecasts project a sharp decline in Taiwan’s population of university students beginning in 2016, and that the country’s university enrolment could decline by as many as 310,000 students overall (that is, in both private and public universities) from 2013 to 2023.

Looking more specifically at public university enrolment, the forecast is for a 35.84% drop from 363,324 students in 2013 to 233,093 in 2023. Projections include:

  • Undergraduate programmes will be hardest hit with a projected 39.6% drop from 301,820 in 2013 to 182,293 in 2023;
  • Masters and doctoral programmes will decline 14.55% and 37.4%, respectively, to reach a projected enrolment of 46,000 for graduate programmes and 4,800 for PhD programmes by 2023.

Along with the overall decline in enrolment, this forecast suggests a modest shift from undergraduate to graduate studies, with masters-level programmes accounting for a slightly higher percentage of enrolment in 2023 (20% as opposed to 14.82% in 2013).

Recruiting from abroad

Following the example of many other markets from around the world, Taiwan is also aiming to offset its declining domestic population with larger numbers of international students. Speaking to a national conference of university presidents in January, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou announced a new international recruitment target:

“The world’s universities are competing fiercely to attract the best students. [We are] aiming to attract 150,000 students by 2020, that will account for 10% of the total college and university student population.”

Taiwan’s Ministry of Education reports that there were 78,000 foreign students enrolled in the country in 2014, up from about 30,000 in 2008. Much of that growth has come from mainland Chinese students with as many as 20,000 studying in Taiwan’s universities in the past three years following a modest easing of government restrictions on mainland enrolment.

Taiwan’s government is now taking additional steps in order to build this enrolment base further:

  • Universities have received additional funds specifically for international recruitment;
  • Scholarships for students from developing countries have been expanded to allow studies in both English and Mandarin-language programmes;
  • The number of training centres offering Chinese-language instruction for foreigners will be expanded, from three currently to 25 by 2020;
  • Current restrictions on mainland Chinese students studying in Taiwan will be reviewed, with an eye towards a further opening up of the country’s universities to students from the mainland.

President Ma has also signaled an interest in supporting greater collaboration between domestic and foreign universities, up to and including the establishment of foreign branch campuses in Taiwan. However, this initiative is at an early stage of regulatory drafting at the moment, and its implementation will require some changes to existing legislation. This means that new regulations to support the operation of foreign branch campuses in Taiwan are likely some years away. The timing question aside, how such an initiative would proceed in a context where domestic institutions are substantially downsizing, merging, or closing is not entirely clear.

Still an important sending market

The shrinking pool of university-age students in Taiwan will likely put some further downward pressure on outbound student numbers as well. For the moment, however, Ministry of Education data indicates that the number of Taiwanese students abroad has continued to climb slowly in recent years, with a reported 60,839 students enrolled outside the country in 2013.

Some major destination countries have registered significant declines in Taiwanese enrolment over the past decade. The US alone has seen its enrolment from Taiwan fall by about 20% over this period.

However, other destinations, notably the UK (where the number of Taiwanese students reached 16,000 in 2013), have seen dramatic increases in recent years.

Even so, the US remains the destination of choice and hosted 23,000 Taiwanese students in 2014.

Australia hosted 7,200 Taiwanese students in 2013 but also recorded big gains with a 24.3% increase from 2013 to 2014, with nearly 10,000 Taiwanese students enrolled in 2014.

Another 7,000 Taiwanese students stayed closer to home to study in Asia, mostly in Japan.

It remains to be seen how these numbers will be affected by the further decline in university enrolment that the ministry has projected beyond 2016. For the moment, Taiwan remains an important source of international students in the region, one whose students continue to be strongly oriented to major English-speaking study destinations.



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