Thứ Bảy, 8 tháng 11, 2008

University entrance admission practices and quality of education

Entry for August 08, 2008 - from Talk Taiwanese
University entrance admission practices and quality of education


With this post, I focus on a personal hypothesis as to the link between university student admission policies and quality in academic English education in Taiwan.


First some figures which, although not directly related to academic quality, I want to point out to the numerous Taiwan critics of Belgium’s “harsh” university system:

a. Taiwan has nearly 23 million people, Belgium 10.5 million.
b. Taiwan has over 100 universities, Belgium 14.
c. Taiwan has one university ranked in the world’s top 200, Belgium six.
d. Taiwan has over 50.000 students admitted to masters and doctoral programs each year, Belgium less than 7.000 .
e. Belgium’s share of total education expenditure (2003) ranked twelfth (of thirty reported) in the world. Taiwan did not rank among the top 30.
f. University education in Belgium is heavily subsidized. Bursaries for undergraduate students in Taiwan are more exception than rule (too many students to ‘cater for’?)
g. Belgium’s ‘weeding-out’ of students at university level is notorious; while admission to a university is cheap for locals (government subsidized), passing rates at freshman level stand at a mere 50%-60% for the Humanities for all universities combined. In other words, anyone with a secondary school degree can enter any Belgian university without admission test (with the exception of medical and law studies). Once inside, however, competition is very stiff.
h. Taiwan is quite the opposite: ‘weeding-out’ of students happens before they enter tertiary education. Admission to a university in Taiwan is – for EU-standards – expensive. Passing rates at freshman level arguably* stand at over 80% for the Humanities (*figure from three English departments in southern Taiwan – 87%).


In theory, universities in Taiwan are open to all pupils from all secondary (high) schools. Admission is regulated by entrance examinations organized by the universities themselves, as well as by recommendations made by the pupil’s school authorities or by outstanding results in other fields (e.g. sports).

As a result, previously “top universities" (a term frequently used by Taiwan’s media) now know a greater influx of students – though arguably less qualified compared to the students in the past. Previously non-elite universities (the “average” or even the “inferior”, a term understandably shunned by the MOE but therefore not less real) equally know a greater influx of (less qualified) students. While this phenomenon does not necessarily have serious negative consequences for top universities, it does create a unique situation for the (below)-average level universities in Taiwan.

Many private universities, in particular, are vying hard to achieve a sufficient student intake. For an average English department this quota stands at about 120 freshman students. Entrance examinations are set up by the departments themselves.

Ever more so, entrance test results show the following trend: of the - let’s say – 200 students who participated, 110 did not obtain 60% (the passing grade in Taiwan). Of the remaining 90 students, 40 obtained a score of between 60% and 70%, with 50 students having achieved a score of over 70%.

The chairperson of the English department then attends a “quota meeting” together with other chairs to, quite literally, draw a line somewhere between two names of the original list of 200 students who wrote the entrance exams. The department needs 120 souls to fill the empty freshman classrooms. The meeting is often chaired by the president (rector) and the academic dean.

model quota list:
(name student)/ (test grade) / (code)

1. Chen, Ya-ling / 92% / 1.15
2. (name) / 90% / 1.23
90. (name) / 58% / 3.55
120. (name) / 48% / 3.96

For the department needing 120 students, the chairperson would normally have to draw a line around student nr. 90 (by stating the code). This, however, would not fulfill the quota requirements of the school for this department. So, would the chairperson do so, s/he would be “made aware” of his or her ‘mistake’ by the people presiding the meeting. Not surprisingly, the chairperson avoids this from happening; s/he neatly draws a line under student nr. 120. Even though this means the department just admitted thirty students (15 each in a class of 60) who actually failed the entrance test.

In a gesture of fairness to the chairperson, no other department chairperson has a copy of his or her entrance exam grades. The only hint would be the “codes” called out by the chair to the rector or dean. So no one in the meeting, and less outside the meeting, knows that the cut-off quota for next year’s intake of freshman students lies at 48%.


Chen Ya-ling (heading the list above) is a freshman student in the English department. She obtained 92% on her entrance exam. Her class counts 60 students, ten of whom also obtained excellent results in the entrance exam. Fifteen of her classmates were not that lucky: they failed but “somehow” still made it into the department.

Ya-ling’s teachers’, though keenly aware of her superior English skills, have to adapt their teaching style (and after a few years also the curriculum) to the one-third or so of students having significantly inferior English abilities to those of Ya-ling. This slows down teachers and influences their standard of evaluating (giving scores to) students. Ninety-nine or even one hundred percent grades are quite common for students like Ya-ling.

Well into the second semester, however, our good student has become somewhat bored and frustrated by the lack of challenge. Some of her teachers have started questioning what “happened” to the previously outstanding Ya-ling. Is it attitude? Motivation? Has she become lazy? And why did such an exceptional student “end up” in this department in the first place?

As for Ya-ling’s classmates (the one-third trying to keeping afloat academically – or not), student life is not necessarily a nightmare, seeing their teachers are absorbed by (1) all students academic well-being, and (2) students’ evaluations of teachers’ performance, and (3) the pragmatic demands (“give the client what they want”) of an expensive university.

Universities with a well-established English graduate school can rely on some of their graduates offering tutorials to these students. Other English departments, however, are asked by university authorities to set up remedial classes to help less language-gifted students. Such courses, offered by the same lecturers, are payed for by the university; students have to submit their names two months into the academic year.

This kind of meta-situation, briefly sketched in this post as an hypothesis (i.e. academic admission practices influence the quality of education negatively), is one we might want to keep in mind. It might override efforts to improve universities' language education in Taiwan.

Posted by Johan at 11:51 AM


Julia said...

What you just posted about the reality in university is really new to me because it is very different from years ago when I went to university in Taiwan . Based on what you have described, now I have very grave concern about the quality of university education in Taiwan. Somehow, the education authority, either the MOE or scholarly institutions, have some misconception about the role of a university. A university should be an institution of a higher esteem for specific theory and research study, which is different from a college or a regular high school, isn't it? From what you have described about how the faculty tried to help students “catch up” with the standard in an English department screamed “high school” to me. That is what we do in public education- we help all students high or low to meet their individual needs with remedial support in order to pass on to the next level, either to a college or a university, because it is compulsory PUBLIC EDUCATION.

I would expect university students to have certain self-reliant discipline to function in a highly challenging academia. I call this maturity of self-discipline as positive “learning behavior” which requires independence and diligence. Students without this kind of adequate learning behavior would not and should not be ready for university study. Maybe they should not be there to begin with.

Many young adults here in Canada are going back to universities after years of working because they finally have the maturity and direction to pursue higher study. For the same token, many university grads are going back to college to learn practical skills in order to function in the trades or professional fields they are in. That is the distinction between skills and research study. I know all parents, regardless Taiwanese or Canadian, would hope to see their children go through university education. The truth is that not all students are cut out for the university route, and university is not the only way to get ahead in the world.

I disliked the old Taiwanese exam system but it certainly helped me and many “oldies” (not Me. Hahaha) establish a strong work ethics for later study. From my personal experiences, I don’t think Taiwanese students are smarter than students from any other country per se, but the discipline and work ethics that my schooling used to instill in me definitely helped me be able to level myself with my Canadian counterparts.

When I went to university, it was not easy to pass the entrance exam and the universities were few and far between in Taiwan . (I guess those are the so-called superior universities now.) If you were lucky to get in but you could not meet the standard required for the department, you would ultimately fail as well. You would either have to take the credit again or drop out. Even so, it was still considered as being relaxed for the university students, which was why we had a phrase then for university as “let you play for four years".

I assumed that once a student has been admitted to the university, he/she needs to establish the individual discipline required for scholarly study. “Sink or float” is up to the individual because each academia has its own high standard to hold and no less would be accepted. I strongly believe that students do need guidance, but I am totally against this “dumb down” approach to help keep students stay in the university. No matter how much you help the students, the institution should not lower its standard to accommodate those who should not be there in the first place, and may be able to accomplish more in other fields otherwise.

I've heard from many people of the baby boomer generation who complained about the dwindling of Taiwanese quality university education. So, why wouldn't the university weed out the students after admission or the freshman year? The drop-out rate is usually high at the first year of a Canadian or a US university, anyway. Does it all come down to the root of all evils - money? Universities need sufficient amount of funds from students’ high tuition to support the academia, so the more students the merrier? BTW, I am strongly against high tuition because the higher tuition may curb students of lower quality to opt out the university route but also block the opportunities for poor students of higher quality to entre a university.

I have many questions and I know you would have a different perspective from a Taiwanese teacher's point of view because you have seen different education systems as a travelling scholar.

Shouldn't the Ministry of Education set the number of students each year for the university's admission based on the capacity and the needs for Taiwan, or the labor demands in Taiwan?

Shouldn't each university set a bench mark for students’ admission instead of quota? I know for a fact that many Canadian universities are looking for students with community volunteer experience or social contribution as well as high academic performances. (I want a smart family doctor with compassion and social conscience as well. Hahaha.)

What if the university does not recruit sufficient number of students to meet the quota, would they then lower their standard again to admit more students with even lower quality to meet the quota?

Shouldn't the faculty hold a set of high standard of expectations for students’ performances, or at least the minimum required standard?

Shouldn't students exhibit certain level of discipline for scholarly study?

What would the university do if all efforts fail to ensure the student meet all level of adequate learning behavior?

Should it be the university’s role to inform the general public (students and parents) that students would be let go if they have not met the required expectations? (Money can not buy a degree. There is a distinction between a highly reputable university and a university mill.)

Are all universities conducting the same way in Taiwan , superior ones included, to help students who lack behind to graduate?

Oh, Heaven forbid. Don't tell me it is the same for the graduate school students in Taiwan!

October 24, 2007 2:08 PM

Scott Sommers said...

I have a very different interpretation of this situation and have written about it here

And while Julia may feel that the situation in Canada is much closer to the Platonic form of a university, my friends who teach in Canada tell me the same stories I hear from faculty in Taiwan.

Taiwan is long overdue for a transition into mass education. The impression of the current situation is not positive. The central government here, be it DPP or KMT, have long histories of 'over doing it' when it comes to market liberalization. But just as financial markets had to be liberalized, cable TV markets had to be liberalized, and newspaper markets had to be liberalized, so educational markets have to be liberalized. The tight control of the military government did not allow for the flexibility necessary to control a Taiwan with democracy and open markets.

October 25, 2007 2:13 PM

dl7und said...

Unfortunately, this is all very true, and it is even worse at lower-level schools. The requirements are reduced every year, because there is no other way to get enough students into the school. The reduction often comes along with the promise that "graduation will be easy as pie".

The result? At certain "universities", not only will you end up with "weak" students, but with students who have no interest in anything at all, who are here because they have been sent by their parents for the sole reason to get that piece of paper that is called a "university degree"...

But what do you want to expect, when universities themselves only want assistant professors or above, regardless of the field and with skills being only a minor criterion?

Put the letters "BMW" on a Yulong and it will magically become a BMW...

October 26, 2007 7:28 PM

Johan said...

In reply to Scott,
Although I called it "an hypothesis", my post is not an "interpretation". It's written from personal experience (as a chair) and from exchanges with colleagues at other departments in southern Taiwan. I should probably have stated this at the outset of my post, sorry.
I read your article and also agree with what you write. I guess we look at the same issue from a different different point of view. You point out the necessity of what's happening in university education; I pointed out some negative side-effects.

October 28, 2007 1:12 PM

julia said...


“while Julia may feel that the situation in Canada is much closer to the Platonic form of a university, my friends who teach in Canada tell me the same stories I hear from faculty in Taiwan .”

I don’t think I stated that Canada has an almost “Platonic form of a university” education. I did say that the dropout rate for the freshman year is high in Canada , or at least in the province I live in. Many Canadian young people go back to the university or college based on the findings of their own needs. Some universities (e.g., medical schools) do look at a student’s community volunteer work experience as well as their academics to help decide who gets in and who’s not (I get calls all the time for that kind of reference). Most Canadian as well as Taiwanese parents want their kids to go to university. Public education has the responsibility to help their students meet their needs because it is public education funded by taxpayers. I teach in Canada and I do know for a fact that Canada has her own share of educational problems. However, the focus for Johan's article here is about Taiwan .

I do question the ideology of mass education but I certainly have no problem with the concept. With the idea of mass education, the quality control then would fall on the individual university's ethics to ensure that students meet certain standard to entre and exit the university. So, what if a self-governing university can not follow that quality control? Ask MOE to shut down the private university? You know how complicated that would be! That is why, after reading Johan's description of the selecting process and their efforts to bring students’ quality up to the standard, I questioned the true function and the sole purpose of a university. I think universities should carry some of the weight as research institutions whose function is more than preparing students for future job market. (Some jobs are probably not invented yet.)

Taiwan's university education system was based on past historical and cultural establishment - exam. As you know, most countries that were greatly influenced by Confucianism throughout Asia have the similar system. I went through the system myself and I hated it with a passion. I agree that an educational reform is long over due; however, do we want an almost “free-for-all” type of university system to replace the old “drill-and-kill” one? Because of this “liberalization” of university education, there is a sudden influx of universities in Taiwan . Now, it is becoming a buyer’s market, which makes a university at the lower totem pole unable to find sufficient number of qualified students (I haven't read much about the staffing situation for each faculty yet). So, do we truly want the university to go as low as they can to meet the quota? In a liberalized market, companies shut down their business due to insufficient clients and profit. How about a Taiwanese university that can not get or produce enough quality students? I don't have an answer, but I do believe that education is more than just liberalized business enterprise.


October 29, 2007 12:05 PM

Scott Sommers said...


I have been known to overstate the opinions expressed in other's comments. I suppose that's what I did when I referred to "Platonic forms". It's just that I live and work in a world of educators, almost all of whom remember that their world of study is a more serious one that their students live in.

Conditions of dramatic change often leave stakeholders feeling quality has been effected, either for good or bad. There may be a way to implement mass education without the creation of the impression that "standards are declining." I am not aware that this has ever been done successfully. I really don't think that "quality has been effected" in Taiwan education in any meaningful sense. Many of us who have been teaching for several years have found our school's role in the system to be redefined and are not happy with this. That does not mean that mean the same thing as declining standards.

And in an unrelated point, I do not believe the emphasize on examination in Taiwan or any other East Asia nation is related to Confucianism. This is a rhetoric used in Taiwan and China by governments that claim to the legitimate government of China. It is not the rhetoric in Japan. Ironically, it is Japan in which modern schools first began using examination as an entrance requirement and in Japan in which the first commercial exam prep schools appeared. It is the early modern schools of Japan upon which all other modernizing Asia nations modeled their development. Historians of education in Japan, however, do not credit Chinese or Confucian influence.

October 29, 2007 3:45 PM

Anonymous said...

I thought I was pretty good at Ancient Chinese history, but don’t quote me on this one. (Hahaha. Please do correct if I am wrong.) Japanese did redefine the modern exam system; however, my understanding was that since Song Dynasty (about the Twelfth century), Chinese had formally established the exam system which encouraged the Confucian intellects who might not have a noble background (nobility by birth) to be able to move ahead based on their intellectual achievement through centralized exam system. The system was widely spread to many countries in Asia. That was the historical and cultural influence I was talking about in my previous post. Historically speaking, we Chinese have long history of taking exams for many things and almost every thing for advancement. Sad but true.


October 31, 2007 3:50 AM

Scott Sommers said...

I am certain that you know the facts of Imperial testing better than I. The existence of these tests is not the point. The caricature of the position you cite that I often use is "Tests then, test now - must be the same."

The argument made by Japanese historians is that imperial testing influenced the development of tests in Europe, which was then transmitted to the USA, which was then transmitted to Japan via the influence of American educational advisers during the late Meiji Period. The major force that is often cited is educational adviser David Murray who was in Japan during the 1870's.
Amanao, Ikuo. (1990) Education and examination in Modern Japan. University of Tokyo.

My point about the KMT testing system is somewhat more subtle. The KMT established an examination Yuan and MOE in Republican China. These institutions had little effect on public or private life there. While the official position is the EY was reestablished in Taiwan following KMT defeat, it can hardly be said that the structure and functions of the EY and MOE were descended from Republican China. How could they be? They were tiny institutions with little efficacy compared with what was established in Taiwan. There is no way we can argue, for example, that the EY's definition of 'Mother Country Geography' has not been influenced by its role as a mechanism of social control in Taiwan. The acceptance of this definition, at least in public life, is necessary (should I say compulsory?) for profession advancement in Taiwan.

I could easily disagree with Japanese historians and say that testing in Taiwan is descended from Imperial China, and start searching for historical relations between the two phenomena. It would be more accurate to say that the military government in Taiwan utilized a traditional form of Chinese education to pacify the Taiwanese people and then start a search for why the military government structured testing in the way they did.

November 2, 2007 2:44 AM

julia said...


I enjoy such an interesting discussion with you as always. (Sorry, Johan, I am taking up so much space here.)

The mechanism of any examination established in ROC was set up ideally to promote equity as well as to discourage century-old cultural defect of using personal connections or the so called “back door” politics, which is quite rampant if you have lived in Taiwan or China long enough. Chinese believe that any personal connection enhances opportunities and brings closer the interactions among people; however, the “back door politics” could often burden any personnel within an institution with nepotism or discrimination. Such a societal defect of human nature is not only limited to Taiwan or China though. You cited from Orgtheroy regarding less qualified students who were accepted to the Ivy League universities because of their family connections. In order to avoid this type of problem, an institution, such as EY or any institution for admission exam in Taiwan, was then established to function as an overseer to ensure that equity and fairness in large-scaled exams is enforced.

I may personally distaste exams, but I know, as a professional, that there is always a place for using exams as a tool for assessment and evaluation. As long as the exams were well designed, the statistical distribution of the results can give teachers some informative indications of the students’ performance. Based on Johan’s personal recount, I don’t know if the new education reform for university admission is designed for the better or the worse. On the statistical distribution of a bell curve, where do we cut off as the threshold for the university students? 60%, 80% or 98%? If the university would take anybody as low as the score of 18 point to fill the vacancies, then why bother having the national exam? Why not just take them all in, and let each university decide who stays and who goes after the first year? Would each university take the stand to refuse the “back door” politics and avoid the connection tactics to ensure the quality of each student is up to par within their own holy ivy tower? Should we even burden the university with extra work load to bring students up to the minimum standard? We are talking about elite university education. Do we want to give cram schools another avenue for a new venture to help those university students "catch up"?

I am not going to get into the discussion about why certain subject areas were put in the curriculum or exams for governmental exams. Whether it was due to the KMT governing era or not, this discussion here is not about politics but about education. However, I do want to point out that, in the old high school curriculum, Taiwanese students didn’t just learn and be tested on “Mother Land’s” geography or history, we practically learned about Chinese as well as the World history and geography in the East and the West in general. (As a student then, I might have also questioned why on earth we needed to draw a map of North America or learn about Australia in my geography class?) I simply don’t see anything wrong for students to have some general knowledge about Chinese, American or European geography per se. In fact, all global citizens should exhibit some general knowledge about their own country and the world.


November 4, 2007 7:54 AM

Ken said...

I have been teaching full time in the English language department of a private university of technology in Taiwan, and I find this topic highly relevant. Although a "university of technology", the school reminds me of a community college for remedial students in the USA. A place for young people to spend four years (or more) since they do not want to work in very low paying jobs and do not have any skills for higher paying ones. The stagnant economy makes this remedial education even more appealing.
In addition, the private university of technology treats these students as "customers" (more like cash-cows) and admits very low scoring students and combines them with those few relatively advanced students to create a class of tremendous diversity in language proficiency. Imagine the consequences.
In a nutshell, students generally come here because they have very little other options (poor academic record and little or no skills in a bad economy) and schools need them to survive.
As for English teachers such as myself, the challenges are enormous on several levels, especially if you are a "homeroom teacher" (faculty adviser) to one class of students.

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