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Educational Improvement to Whose Images? A Coloniality Perspective of Higher Education Policy in Taiwan

Jingwun Liang

Western University

The development of higher education has been greatly influenced by the prevailing trend of neoliberal internationalization in Taiwan recently. Notably, with the transformation of higher education policies as well as the reformed school management strategies that are modeled on the top-ranked higher education institutions (HEIs) in Western countries (e.g., the U.S., the U.K., etc.), the unexpected consequences, and the related debates have emerged during the past decades in Taiwan.

Taiwan is a small island-system located in Asia-Pacific region. Along with the entrenched neoliberal ideology among the globalized higher education contexts, the popularity of the global university rankings (GURs) has received increased attention and interest from governments and HEIs worldwide (Pusser & Marginson, 2013; Stack, 2016). Taiwan is not an exception to such ranking games. Improving the rankings performance of universities has been widely regarded as imperative in the agenda and aspirations for internationalization of higher education (IHE) policies in Taiwan. Notably, with the reduction of the higher education budget and public/governmental funding, many HEIs are eager to achieve better performance on the GURs to not only compete for governmental merit-based research grants but also improve their reputation and global visibility to attract international students and faculty members from higher-ranked overseas institutions. Against this background, the rationale of higher education policies in Taiwan is mainly driven by a neoliberal-instrumental discourse, which is comprised of market-based and competition-based values (Khorsandi Taskoh, 2014).

GURs have played an influential role in constructing the reputation and educational quality of HEIs in Taiwan. Notably, the annually released ranking league tables of the Big Three rankings[1] have commonly been considered as influential external validators that represent the perceived prestige and quality of higher education institutions. However, some critical voices raise the concerns that the rankings are epistemic tools that embodies the influence of a Western-dominated global imaginary of higher education by legitimizing the privileged status of the higher-ranked Global North institutions, particularly the English-speaking, wealthy, and White-dominated institutions (Ishikawa, 2014; Rhoades et al., 2019; Stack, 2016; Stein & Andreotti, 2017). In other words, university rankings are seen to represent the dominance of the Western model of the knowledge economy as well as the outcome of neoliberal internationalization in the contemporary global context (Ishikawa, 2014; Trahar, 2013).

Moreover, the internationalization level of institutions has become an indicator of success in GURs systems. For instance, the rankings criteria of the influential Big Three rankings are widely associated with internationalization, such as international research collaboration, a ratio of international students and faculty members, student mobility, and international research influence and reputation survey (Larsen, 2016; Stack, 2016). Given these “international” indicators, the higher-ranking institutions seem to be more likely to achieve and retain a higher level of institutional internationalization as compared to their lower-ranking counterparts. For one thing, existing studies have demonstrated the influence of university rankings on international students’ decision-making in school choice (Broecke, 2015; Cebolla-Boado & Soysal, 2018; Tan & Goh, 2014). The top-ranked institutions are more attractive to international students and therefore continue to maintain or improve the ratio and numbers of international students. For another, given the ranking performance of universities is considered a crucial criterion for competing government funding and research grants in Taiwan, higher-ranking institutions are more competitive to receive funding for conducting high-quality international research projects and attracting distinguished international scholars and faculty members (Chou & Chan, 2016; 2017; Lo, 2014). Consequently, it seems to be a ranking vicious circle for lower-ranked institutions to break the deadlock, which is the commonplace narrative of many Taiwanese universities nowadays (Chou, 2014; Chou & Chan, 2016; 2017; Lo, 2014).

How the educational improvement represented to be in policy? – the Higher Education Sprout Project

The Higher Education Sprout Project (HESP) is one of the recent higher education policies which has been implemented since 2018. The HESP has two primary parts of practice to improve the overall quality of higher education in Taiwan. The first part of the policy agenda focuses on the improvement of equality in higher education. There are three dimensions of educational improvement represented to be in the first part of the policy agenda. First, there is a need to create a stronger connection between universities and local communities to support regional economic growth and sustainability. Second, there is a need to develop innovative student-centred teaching models and develop the university’s featured disciplines to increase research productivity and capacity. Finally, there is a need to provide educational resources to support minority and disadvantaged students to access higher education and improve equality. The HESP noted that the competitive funding provided by previous policies has limited the number of institutions subsidized by the government and narrowed the space for the development of private universities and junior colleges. Considering that the limited government funding has resulted in aggressive competition between institutions and between faculty members, the HESP has enlarged the sponsorship scale and shed light on multi-faceted issues, including equality, teaching and learning innovation, social responsibility, resource configuration, accessibility, and international competitiveness of Taiwanese HEIs. In this case, the problem represented by the HESP is the insufficient government funding that limits the multi-faceted development of universities. Therefore, enlarging the funding scale has been identified as an effective solution for enhancing the overall quality of Taiwanese universities.

In the second part of the HESP policy agenda, the improvements that are represented in the policy focus on two dimensions to facilitate the universities’ international competitiveness. For one thing, the Whole-School program has identified the need for universities to not only retain the existing strength of research capacity but also improve the international academic influence and global visibility on the university rankings. For another, the Featured Areas Research Centre Program has identified the need for universities to build world-class research centre through university-industry collaborations. It also highlights the importance of converting academic capital into long-term economic growth for nation-building. In other words, the problems being represented by the HESP are the dissatisfactory performance of Taiwanese universities in the global university rankings, and the lack of international competitiveness of institutions and research centres. With those concerns, pursuing the “world-class” university status on rankings has been identified an effective solution for universities to demonstrate their improvement of international competitiveness and the ability for leading economic growth to serve the purpose of nation-building.

What’s left unproblematic in the educational improvement representation of the policy?

The needs for improvement being identified in the first part of the HESP policy agenda focus on the issue of insufficient government funding. The Taiwanese government enlarged the scale of sponsorship to support more institutions in multi-faceted management improvement. Nevertheless, it is problematic to see similar eligibility criteria for evaluating and selecting subsidized institutions in both parts of the HESP policy agenda. On the one hand, the government’s merit-based qualification standards have disproportionately favoured higher-ranked, research-intensive public universities with strength in STEM fields. On the other hand, the purpose of government subsidization is to support universities create more inclusive and just campuses, as well as to address concerns of equality and improve the university’s social responsibility. Nevertheless, the majority of government funding went to minority higher-ranked first-tier universities, such as National Taiwan University and National Tsing Hua University. Noticeably, the HESP report of subsidized institutions has illustrated that the same institutions are being subsidized in both parts of the project (MOE, 2018, February 13). To put it another way, the Taiwanese government has employed similar merit-based evaluation criteria to assess institutions’ achievement in global rankings/international competitiveness and their performance in enhancing equality and social responsibilities, all of which promoted and perpetuated the neoliberal ideology of higher education (MOE, 2019, April 12).

Moreover, the need for improvement being identified in the second part of the HESP policy agenda highlights the importance of improving universities’ global rankings performance and building world-class research centres/disciplines to serve the purpose of nation-building. The problem representation normalizes the assumption that “improving the ranking performance of Taiwanese universities” can “improve the international competitiveness” of Taiwan. Such an assumption can be problematic given that it unproblematized the current rankings schemes which favoured and benefitted institutions in the Global North countries, especially those wealthy, English-speaking universities in North American and Western European countries (Stack, 2016). From a critical perspective, university rankings need to be considered as a strong epistemic instrument that symbolizes the impact of a Western global imaginary in maintaining the privileged position of specific institutions and higher education models in the Global North (Ishikawa, 2014; Stein & Andreotti, 2017; Rhoades et al., 2019). Moreover, the problem representation has conceptualized the “world-class” identity as the alignment with higher-ranked institutions in the Global North Anglophone nations. Such conceptualization can be problematic given that it unproblematized the current global order of geopolitics and normalized the superior position of Western, English-speaking countries. In other words, in the global higher education settings, there appears to be an emerging trend toward isomorphism, with HEIs all over the world pursuing similar goals of aligning with the “world-class university” cohort.

The “world-class” imaginary in Taiwan

The Global university rankings, especially the Big Three rankings, are recognized as significant indicators to represent the universities’ “world-class” status in Taiwan (Song & Tai, 2007; Chou & Chan, 2016; Stack, 2019). Nevertheless, there are debates regarding the ethics of rankings, particularly for their controversial indicators. For instance, the quantification of research productivity, citation rates, and institutional reputation survey have been instrumental in the colonization and dispossession of non-English speaking, non-Anglo-American dominated nations in Asia and other parts of the world (Estera & Shahjahan, 2018; Marginson, 2016).

I would argue that the rationales of not only the HESP but also many other recent higher education policies in Taiwan have been driven by economic and academic rationales (Knight, 2004). Nevertheless, these rationales cannot be delinked with the entrenched “world-class” imaginary of global higher education (Stein & Andreotti, 2017) given that the Taiwanese government and university administrators/leaders have considered the core value of higher education internationalization to align with other higher-ranked institutions and to be recognized in the global academic community (NTU, 2018; Song & Tai, 2007).

“Internationalization” or “Westernization”: Ongoing logic of coloniality in higher education

I draw on Mignolo’s (2003) theory of coloniality to unfold a higher education policy in Taiwan, arguing that there is the ongoing logic of coloniality embedded into the current Western-dominated epistemic framework of the “internationalization” and the “world-class” imaginary. 

The concept of coloniality moves beyond notions of postcolonialism and refers to an enduring logic of domination in the language of modernity and social progress, which is central in the justification and legitimization of the discourse that policy is constructed to benefit everyone (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010; Shahjahan, 2013). However, this policy discourse erases the ideological and power interests that shape it (Shahjahan, 2016). The coloniality perspective helps unpack the ongoing logic of domination, dispossession, and colonialism of mind (Andreotti, 2015). 

By reviewing the Higher Education Sprout Project, I found that the policy offers competitive funding and research grants for institutions with better ranking performance and stronger research productivity. The rationales of the policy are based on the “catch-up” ideology (Lo & Hou, 2020) with the belief that it is vital to import new knowledge and cutting-edge technology/skills to improve the quality of higher education and promote international competitiveness and economic growth of Taiwan. However, it might be critical to unpack the ideological and power interests that shape these policies and practices, as well as to identify who benefits from these policies and who have been marginalized. For example, merit-based accountability in evaluating research outcomes and productivity may facilitate the formation of research field hierarchy and university stratification. Universities which are famous for the STEM-related disciplines are more likely to strive for competitive funding while the universities famous for the disciplines of social science and humanities are falling into the circle of reducing research funding and budget, eventually being coerced to participate in the competition of publication (Chou, 2014; Chou & Chan, 2016; 2017; Li, 2016). Moreover, recent higher education policies have facilitated the reconfiguration of institutional missions (Li, 2016), which impacted the academic freedom and autonomy of faculty members. In this case, the universities have become knowledge factories and the faculty members can be regarded as knowledge workers (Oleksiyenko, 2018). Universities are factories to compete through the productivity and quality of their products, such as scholarly publications, and the rewards are the improvement of ranking performance, academic reputation, and research grants/funding. Against this context, faculty members, particularly junior faculty members, are coerced into the circle of “publish or perish” (Chou, 2014; Munigal, 2017) to struggle with job security.

Finally, to unpack the rationales of higher education policy in Taiwan from a coloniality perspective, it is critical to recognize that the “world-class” imaginary is the dominant representation of educational improvement in Taiwan. Nevertheless, it is critical to also recognize that the so-called “world-class” imaginary has positioned Western higher education on a more privileged status over other models (Estera & Shahjahan, 2018). Notably, given the dominant global university rankings that disproportionately favours the wealthier, whiter, Anglophone institutions in Western Europe and North America, such “world-class” imaginary has been produced and reproduced within and beyond the Global North countries and institutions (Stack, 2016; Stack & Mazawi, 2021). It also works to perpetuate Western/White supremacy by promoting and constructing the model of global higher education that is foregrounded on Western neoliberalism and capitalism. In this case, the current connotation of “internationalization” has been used to naturalize and legitimize the continuing Eurocentric colonial and imperial traditions across the global higher education settings.

In sum, given that the policy rationales of HESP in Taiwan have been driven by the “world-class” imaginary, it might be fair to argue that the logic of coloniality has been reproduced and represented as an educational improvement by current policies and initiatives of higher education internationalization in Taiwan. The “internationalization” that the Taiwanese government conceptualized has indeed limited to “Westernization” that underestimated the influence of the Global South countries. In this perspective, “internationalization” has become the hypocritical buzzword to legitimize the logic of coloniality embedded in national education policies that helps to perpetuate the privileged status of the Western countries and their knowledge economy (Stein & Andreotti, 2017).

Closing thought

I review one of the recent higher education policies, the Higher Education Sprout Project, which is an important higher education policy contributing to the transformative management strategies of Taiwanese HEIs to improve issues of equality and university internationalization. This written response intends to provide alternative ways of thinking for reimagining the possibilities for future higher education policies in Taiwan. By bringing light to a coloniality perspective, I ask: what is the destination of higher education improvement in Taiwan, and whose images are recent Taiwanese higher education policies modeling for educational improvement? I argue that the image of a “world-class university” and the connotation of “internationalization” in recent higher education policies in Taiwan have systemically denied the dominant position of Western countries in the global knowledge economy and marginalized some participants in the less-developed countries (i.e., the Global South countries) from the “accepted network of knowledge production” (Yang, 2002, p.90).

The closing thoughts would like to reimagine the responsibility of higher education to provide some implications for future study. In order to reframe the imaginary of higher education, it is crucial to define the function of higher education in the broader societal world. If we agree that the responsibility of higher education is to serve the “public good,” it is critical to unpack our understandings and interpretations regarding the “public good” that we expect from higher education.

Given the current neoliberal ideology, which strongly influenced the development direction of global higher education, to what extent university is the place to reproduce the Western colonial tradition and retain the dominant position of nations in the Global North?

I hope this response both responses and questions how we improve education for a more equitable world. I aim to open a window for unpacking how the higher education development in a Global South island-system is being communicated and represented through its policy, by what purposes, and why. We also need more critical thinking and voices for higher education internationalization to further unpack the perceived asymmetrical power relationship between the Global North and Global South for reframing and reimagining the role of higher education in this global era.


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[1] The Big Three rankings indicate the QS World University Rankings (QS Rankings), the Times Higher Education World University Rankings (THE Rankings), and the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), which is also known as Shanghai Rankings.