Taiwan Universities Agree to Limit Political Discussions

A report by Taiwan’s Ministry of Education has revealed that at least 80 universities have apparently signed agreements with Chinese universities agreeing not to mention Taiwan’s political status in the classroom. Chris Horton reports for Quartz:

According to the Ministry of Education, 80 of Taiwan’s 157 universities have signed agreements with Chinese universities that are primarily sources of short-term study-abroad candidates, vowing not to contradict official Chinese views on Taiwan’s status.

Taiwan’s universities are facing falling new student enrollment, leaving them increasingly vulnerable to Beijing’s demands if they want the growing numbers of Chinese students to keep coming. The incident is also the latest example of China using its growing army of students abroad to advance its political agenda. Almost 550,000 Chinese students study outside of China, according to the latest government figures.

Institutions named by the ministry include some of Taiwan’s most prestigious, including National Taiwan University and National Chengchi University. Education minister Pan Wen-chung said on Monday that the ministry will draft new guidelines for future cross-strait university agreements. [Source]

In response, a Taiwanese professor has launched a petition drive to defend , Wu Po-hsuan and Jonathan Chin report for Taipei Times:

Fan Yun (范雲), a National Taiwan University sociology professor and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) convener, called on professors to petition against political restrictions imposed on them by universities.

“As a teacher in Taiwanese higher education, I feel ashamed and heartbroken. In a university classroom, what one teaches and refrains from teaching are both political actions. If humanities education … is obliged to negate Taiwanese independence in discussions about Taiwan’s future, we have no such thing as academic freedom in universities,” she said on Facebook.

Fan said the scandal is a “crisis of Taiwanese democracy,” adding that universities have a duty to safeguard academic discourse and research freedoms, but the incident shows that half the nation’s institutions are prepared to sacrifice those principles. [Source]

The Ministry of Education has said it will draft guidelines for cross-straits academic exchanges “to ensure adherence to the principles of academic freedom, equality and reciprocity,” according to CNA:

[..S]uch pledges have sparked debate on the nature of academic freedom after news reports revealed last week that Shih Hsin University’s School of Lifelong Learning signed a pledge in December not to include politically sensitive subjects or activities related to “one China, one Taiwan,” “two Chinas” or “Taiwan independence” as part of its curriculum.

The university reportedly admitted 11 students from China for the February to June semester.

Pan said the MOE will hold talks with the relevant authorities and try to work out a series of principles, under which cross-strait educational exchanges can continue without concerns over sovereignty or academic freedom.

He also noted that local schools have made a wide range of pledges, and the MOE will review those over the next two weeks to gain a better understanding of the issue. [Source]

In recent years, Taiwan’s universities have suffered decreased enrollment, due partially to a low birth rate. In addition, the number of short-term students studying in Taiwan from mainland China has declined recently, in what many see as a political response to President Tsai Ing-wen. Ralph Jennings reports for VOA:

The number of university students from China to Taiwan for non-degree programs, often lasting a single semester, fell from 34,114 in the 2015-2016 academic year to 32,648 the current year, according to Taiwan Ministry of Education figures. The number had risen steadily from 823 just 10 years ago, and it more than doubled from 2011 to 2013.

[…] China’s central government agencies have told Taiwanese recruiters its policy on university students has not changed, said Nathan Liu, dean of Mainland China Education and Exchange for Ming Chuan University. His school normally receives one of Taiwan’s highest head counts for mainland Chinese students.

But Chinese provinces are permitting fewer Taiwan-bound students because they are unsure about broader political relations, Liu said, though provincial officials point instead to parents worried about Taiwan itself or to loss of interest among students. [Source]

China has been accused of trying to influence the curriculum at foreign universities, notably through the state-sponsored Confucius Institutes, which have been the center of controversy on several campuses. Concerns have also been raised in Australia over Chinese government funding at universities which many fear is an effort to sway public opinion.