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Universalization and After? Fighting for equitable higher education in Taiwan

Sheng-Ju Chan

National Chung Cheng University

A Universal Dream of Higher Education: Definitions, Natures, and Configurations

Before the 1970s, most higher education systems in the world were extremely limited, catering to certain groups of students and educating national leaders in all different fields. However, along with social, economic, and technological development, higher education has gradually expanded due to more graduates being produced by secondary schools. Martin Trow (2007) identified three forms of higher education:

(1) elite—shaping the mind and character of a ruling class, a preparation for elite roles; (2) mass—transmission of skills and preparation for a broader range of technical and economic elite roles; and (3) universal—adaptation of the “whole population” to rapid social and technological change. (p. 243)

This conceptual framework indicated that an elite system enrolls less than 15% of the school leaver age group to a mass system with 15–50% and then a “universal” system with over 50%. Higher education was “universal” at 50% because at that stage it was necessary to enter higher education for the full exercise of effective citizenship. (Marginson, 2017, p. 1)

In other words, enrolling more than 50% of graduates means that this is a “universal” system for all citizens with the aim of providing more sophisticated knowledge, skills, or competencies to young generations for societal changes. Figure 1 demonstrates the increasing rate of enrollment in tertiary education worldwide. In 1970, only 10% of school graduates had the opportunity to access higher education. This percentage rose to 15% in 1995 and reached almost 40% in 2020. In other words, many higher education systems have evolved from the elite to mass stages.

Figure 1. Enrollment rate of tertiary education worldwide

Source: UNESCO, 2021

We can observe this growing trend of massification or even the universalization of higher education across the globe. UNESCO (2021) data show higher education enrollment rates in 2020 in different regions: 51.04% in East Asia and Pacific, 76.87% in OECD members, and 86.71% in North America. According to Trow’s (2007) classification, all these regions are already offering a universal system. Similarly, Taiwan’s net enrollment rate exceeded more than 50% in 2003 and 73% in 2021, reflecting the universal nature of its higher education (Executive Yuan, 2022). Therefore, it is important to understand the changing natures of higher education systems when they reach or exceed 50%.

When realizing the universal dream, higher education institutions have also faced significant transformations in many aspects, which might lead to the diversification of the whole system in the long run. First, universities need to transform themselves to meet the need of lifelong learning as the postponement of entry and broken attendance are common and more vocational courses and modes should be offered. Second, curriculum and teaching are subject to diverse combinations of the student body, where the sequencing, structure, interaction, and assessments vary dramatically in line with the different learning interests, abilities, and paces. Finally, special managerial regimes and financial supports are needed to be effectively support the diversified student bodies within the higher education systems. As Marginson (2017) argued, “amid universal access, there is greater natural diversity and the dissolution of standards and boundaries, though administrative standardization of units and functions is enhanced” (p. 16). In other words, the complicated missions of universal higher education are substantially differentiated into different types of higher education.

Teichler (1996) once classified vertical and horizontal diversity in higher education institutions (HEIs), where vertical diversity differentiates HEIs by quality, reputation, and prospective status of graduates. Such distinctions further stratify higher education. This tendency leads to a primary concern about social equity simply because more elite or prestigious institutions become scarcer as higher education expands (Marginson, 2017). Although universal higher education prepares places for every citizen, the main problem shifts to the “stratification of opportunities” and “access to what kind of higher education” (Marginson, 2017, pp. 6–7) because the new configurations of universal higher education inevitably face the challenge of being equal or ensuring systematic fairness instead of merely providing a place in higher education. Therefore, the natures and new configurations of universal higher education are highly associated with the equality issues for all different groups of students. We address how equity is interpreted and perceived in the next section.

Challenges for Greater Equity in Universal Higher Education and the Reality in Taiwan

As discussed thus far, massification and particularly universalization means greater diversity in terms of learning, curriculum, governance structure, etc. Marginson (2017) even argued that elite higher education is a positional good, which is a scare resource in economic and cultural contexts. Therefore, further differentiation or diversity within higher education inevitably leads to the issue of equality for all students. Nevertheless, ways to define, pursue, and maintain educational equality vary substantially depending on the national contexts, value orientations, resource allocations, and ideologies. There is a common framework to explore or understand how equal a higher education system is. A four-dimension model can be used to illustrate this complexity: access (to what types of university), quality learning environment, financial assistance, and finally market value of qualification/degrees. In terms of access (to what types of university), an equal system is composed of diverse economic-cultural groups of students including, those at elite or top universities. The second dimension is related to the quality of learning and abundances in resources at different institutions. Some universities can seemingly offer more than others. Third, for individual students, financial assistance is a critical factor in the affordability of tuition fees and to nurture new skills for career paths. Finally, how the awarded qualification/degree is recognized by the labor market becomes a final threshold to examine whether a higher education is equal or not. It would be problematic if market values varied significantly, suggesting that inequality occurs among universities. We use this common framework to critically examine the current scenarios of Taiwanese higher education.

As far as access (to what types of universities) is concerned, current research findings tend to stress the inequitable situation after higher education expansion. According to Chang and Lin (2015), the expansion of higher education produces horizontal stratification within higher education. Advantaged students are more likely to attend selective and prestigious public colleges and to enter graduate schools as a result of higher educational expansion, while lower class students tend to enter lower-ranking private colleges with higher tuition. (p. 85)

In other words, their results indicate that disadvantaged students are less likely to enroll at the prestigious public universities that also enjoy higher positional goods in social contexts. However, earlier research suggested that expansion has reduced inequalities since the 1980s. Based on Lin and Yang’s (2009) findings, “the overall educational inequality drops sharply, which is mainly contributed by the within age group component.” They also revealed that females benefit from the expansion with “a larger increase in average schooling” (p. 295). They concluded that the educational inequality between men and women has been narrowing over for the past decades. This inconsistency is probably attributable to the different approaches of measuring inequality. Later research mainly addressed the relative chances of receiving higher education in various generations and genders, meaning it is more about longitudinal changes. Meanwhile, Chang and Lin’s (2015) research was more concerned with how social and economic factors influence admission chances. A recent study assessed the educational opportunity inequality across income in Taiwan (Shen & Lin, 2019), concluding that there is “a huge amount of wealth inequality and rigidity of intergenerational mobility” (p. 393). This argument echoes what Chang and Lin (2015) revealed: A richer family is more able to send their children to better universities. This situation further exacerbates the financial burden of less able families as they must pay higher tuition fees to attend private institutions. Therefore, Shen and Lin (2019) argued that intergenerational mobility across different social classes is relatively limited given the universalization of higher education.

In fact, a quality learning environment and abundance of resources are the second main criteria for judging the equality of higher education. However, the obvious differences between the public and private sectors tend to be linked to inequalities. First, public universities enjoy higher institutional reputations with more well-known professors, better libraries and laboratories, and greater governmental subsidies. As a result, public universities can charge lower tuition fees while private ones have to rely heavily on parents’/students’ payments. In general, private universities charge twice the tuition fees. Therefore, we can broadly argue that public universities tend to have more learning resources and environments than their private counterparts. Similarly, with government subsidies, students at public universities pay much lower tuition fees, which is why Shen and Lin (2009, p. 393) asserted that “government subsidy may lead to income redistribution from the poor to the rich” as more advantaged students enroll in prestigious public universities. Such inequitable treatment leads to a serious concern about financial affordability for disadvantaged students. The income redistribution phenomenon has been a hotly debated issue since the universalization of higher education in Taiwan.

Finally, we move to the fourth dimension for judging the equality of higher education. As Trow (1973) explained, university graduates move down the occupational scale, displacing nongraduates, so that the earnings and status advantages associated with degrees are maintained (Teichler, 2009). However, when the massification takes place at the master’s degree level, such effects also trickle down to graduate students (Yang & Chan, 2020). The massified master’s education sector brings serious challenges to educational equality among different social groups. Disadvantaged students seem to be the most vulnerable group when examining relative opportunities in the labor market because the increased number of college graduates has incurred extra monetary cost and uncertain wage prospects at the individual level. Disadvantaged students might suffer the most from the massification in light of increased financial investments and low(er) rates of return to higher education. (Chan & Lin, 2015, p. 17).

Wu and Tang (2020) measured the rates of return to higher education in all academic fields and found “a declining trend in the overall rate of return to education, particularly in the 0.05 quantile.” They further insisted that “the expansion of higher education has limited the importance of university diplomas in the search for employment” (pp. 143–144). These results seem to suggest that the value associated with degrees/diplomas is decreasing along with the universalization of higher education. Therefore, maintaining the market value after receiving a higher education has become a critical issue. It is also a typical dilemma between expanding higher education and maintaining credentials’ market values.

New Higher Education Policies and Mechanisms: Easing the inequality

Based on the previous conceptual frameworks and empirical review of the greater participation in higher education in Taiwan, several significant drawbacks have been identified and studied. Therefore, a prominent policy shift was initiated and endorsed starting in mid-2010 to pursue greater equitable educational opportunities in higher education in Taiwan. In hopes of developing multiple university features and nurturing talents for the new era, the Higher Education Sprout Project (HESP高等教育深耕計畫) was implemented in 2017 (Ministry of Education, 2022). This project focuses on four major areas: teaching innovations, university features, higher education publicness, and university social responsivity. This distinctive project proposes rather balanced missions and tasks for all universities in Taiwan.

It focuses on the creative ways and manners of learning and teaching, the formation of a university’s strengths and advantages, a re-orientation toward the public nature of higher education, and engagement with societal developments. After reviewing the latest development in higher education, Lo and Hou (2020) argued that “the recent policy change reveals an intention to uphold egalitarianism, thereby reaching a balance between fulfilling global ambition and addressing local needs in higher education” (p. 497). In other words, the local need for equality is stressed in these new policies. Adopting a similar stance, Hou et al. (2022) also concluded that the mainstream doctrine or ideology in Taiwanese higher education is egalitarianism by focusing on the notions of equality or even social justice while receiving higher education. Why equalitarianism triumphs under the new policies is closely related to the identified weaknesses and challenges of universal higher education, as previously discussed.

Among HESP’s four major areas/dimensions, the publicness of higher education (高教公共性) has been highlighted as one of the important dimensions that a university should demonstrate to prove its “productivity and effectiveness of the university development through both the establishment of Institutional Research (IR) to self-monitor school performance and accountability”. At the same time, transparent information should be made available to the public with respect to graduate destination, quality assurance, enrollment rated, and financial data. According to the Ministry of Education (2022),

in order to secure the role of universities as an engine for social mobility, public universities should ensure a fair recruitment policy to increase the percentage of disadvantaged students.

This point tries to reverse the malfunction of social mobility of a higher education system by making elite public institutions more responsible for educating new generations. Indeed, HESP also aims to deepen the understanding of demands of economic and culturally advantaged students during their studies. More specifically, universities should take greater responsibility for these students, starting from admission to course advisement, internship provision, career planning and assistance, and even fundraising efforts. All these requirements point out that complete support for disadvantaged students is strongly encouraged when implementing HESP. The Ministry of Education has even urged universities to coordinate efforts among the government, enterprises, and universities to ensure the learning sustainability/process and links to the labor market.

Considering the identified challenges that the Taiwanese higher education system has faced since universalization in the 1990s, we found that these policy initiatives to some extent aim to tackle the enduring inequitable conditions. Bearing these policy intentions in mind, universities are gradually introducing new measures and mechanisms to shape a more equitable learning environment. Four different stages are used to explore how Taiwanese universities provide more supports to disadvantaged students. As far as the access and to what is concerned, several effective manners are adopted. In an effort to increase the proportion of disadvantaged students at elite public universities, the Multiple Stars Scheme (繁星計畫) was introduced to recruit students from rural and non-elite senior high schools, taking into account students’ potential, motivations, and characteristics. In other words, universities designed more flexible standards and metrics to admit diverse student bodies from various socio-economic backgrounds. In fact, in order to ease the difficulties of choosing appropriate learning environments, more universities have been hosting public meetings nationwide to provide extra information to parents and students. Some universities even sponsor disadvantaged students to join admission interviews; such financial packages also provide extra help to marginalized or minority students.

After students are admitted into universities, the universities are expected to offer a quality learning environment to assist them in realizing their potential. Under HESP, a learning alarm system is universally adopted to identify any underperformance of academic achievement during learning. At the same time, some tailored mentoring, homework coaching, and even private tutoring are also offered by some Taiwanese universities (National Chung Kung University, 2022). Such customized tutoring can serve as a peer learning community providing continuous academic support to those students with learning difficulties.

The third dimension of institutional support highly relates to financial assistance. Students with low family income receive various tuition fee waivers according to governmental standards. Recently, extra fundraising campaigns have frequently been coordinated to subsidize the learning costs of disadvantaged students. These students can be partially awarded by learning new skills, attending seminars, joining training courses, and engaging with career development workshops. Such new financial pathways are offered to bridge the transition into the labor market for greater opportunities. When specifically targeting these disadvantaged groups of students, career planning should be purposely arranged for their distinctive needs. Finally, diploma/degree values can be enshrined given the universalization of higher education as revealed by Wu and Tang (2020). Therefore, more value-added skills, occupational internships, and even customized courses/training are frequently offered to enhance the market values and graduates’ wages. Moreover, universities make extra effort to minimize discrepancies in graduates’ competencies between university and employment. Therefore, capstone courses and last mile projects (最後一里路計畫) are frequently designed to make the transition to the labor market smooth and valuable. All these new measures aim to enhance the value of university studies for graduates.

Conclusion: A continuous battle for equality?

Universal higher education is desirable for policymakers, parents, and even enterprises as it meets very diverse needs and expectations educationally, economically, and even politically. However, an extremely diversified system with stratified opportunities in higher education also leads to concerns about equality and even social mobility. The Taiwanese case echoes the theoretical assumptions and indicates several inequitable situations. Disadvantaged students could be the most vulnerable, paying higher costs to access unstable employment prospects. Taiwan’s new higher education initiatives intend to ensure that university experiences are more positive and supportive. Although it is unclear whether such efforts have made a difference thus far, given the nature of positional goods of higher education, great equitable configurations for all students and graduates may require long-term efforts.


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