The decentralisation process has substantially influenced the university government relationship in Taiwan over time. Taiwan’s first university was established in 1928 during Japanese colonisation.
When the Kuomintang Party retreated to Taiwan in 1949, its higher education system entered a new phase of reforms. With respect to institutional organisation, length of study, curriculum, degree structures, and graduation requirements, it has since been benchmarked after the American governance experience. Engraved in the constitution, the University Act was first promulgated in 1948. However, universities in Taiwan were part of a governmental body under direct bureaucratic control from the 1950s to the 1980s. After the revocation of martial law in the late 1980s, Taiwan’s higher education system began to pursue academic freedom and institutional autonomy. As part of the reform in 1994, the University Act was amended together with the Teacher Law and Private Education Law to empower academics and administrators with greater autonomy. A series of education reforms that promoted deregulation, university-based management, diversification of education provision, and autonomy of teaching profession and administration was subsequently implemented. While the Taiwanese government attempts to decentralise its higher education sector in order to promote the core values of modern universities, the Ministry of Education seemingly maintains its supervisory role in navigating the development of higher education to be consistent with government policies through its funding and quality assurance mechanisms.
The central government plays a significant role in financially supporting higher education development. In fiscal year 2017, the central government allocated 12.2 percent (NT$243.3 billion or approximately US$7.83 billion) of the national budget to the Ministry of Education in which 41.07 percent (NT$99.9 billion or approximately US$3.21 billion) was set apart to support higher education development. The allocated amount represents the second highest after the Department of Homeland Security (16.1 percent). Based on the Macro Planning Committee established under the Executive Yuan in 2002, Taiwan’s higher education institutions are classified into four types: research, teaching, professional, and community on the basis of their missions and responsibilities. The funding schemes allocated to universities have also been classified accordingly. Under the former Kuomintang Party government, the policy was geared towards research, infrastructure, and resources to support research and development.
There were two continuous financial phases to support research universities: Plan to Develop First-Class Universities and Top Research Centre (2006–2010) of NT$50 billion in five years for 11 and 12 universities (two sub-phases) and Aim for Top University Plan (2011–2015) with five years of NT$10 billion per year for 12 universities. These two plans aimed to uphold academic excellence and to improve the international competitiveness and visibility of Taiwan’s universities.
In parallel, the Programme for Teaching Excellence Universities was implemented in 2005–2017, with total funding of NT$21.87 billion. It was a significant project initiated by the Ministry of Education to uplift teaching quality in higher education. Across 13 years, 48 universities were granted this fund. Under the current Democratic Progressive Party government, the policy has been amended to diversely support teaching-related affairs, social responsibilities, and resources for disadvantaged and vocational students.
The most recent five years initiative entitled the Higher Education Sprout Project has been launched in 2017 with a funding of NT$86.8 billion in total or NT$17.37 billion per year under three major goals: (1) to comprehensively improve the quality and to promote a diversification of higher education institutions (NT$8.8 billion), (2) to assist research universities and research centres to quest world-class status (NT$6 billion – 4 billion for four flagship universities and 2 billion for research centres), and (3) to promote social responsibilities and support disadvantaged and vocational students (NT$2.57 billion). More funding has been relatively relocated to promote social equity. Among the total of 157 higher education institutions in Taiwan, 71 universities and 85 technical colleges received support through this funding scheme in the first fiscal year.
Quality assurance mechanism
In 1995, when a high-level advisory board to the Executive Yuan was established, the board advised that the higher education sector be free from political constraints. In addition, accountability is upheld through an introduction of quality assessment in order to improve institutional performance. To develop a mechanism of quality assurance, the Higher Education Evaluation and Accreditation Council of Taiwan (HEEACT) was jointly established by the Ministry of Education and all higher education institutions in Taiwan in 2005. Initially, some scholars were concerned with the potential compromise of institutional autonomy and academic freedom because of HEEACT’s close association with the Ministry of Education. One-third of HEEACT’s Board of Trustees were assigned by the government and 99 percent of the funding was from the government.
After more than a decade of its operation, HEEACT has gradually managed to strike a balance to achieve its professionalism, independence, and internationalisation. This statutory accreditation body has adopted peer review measures with the American accreditation model. Nevertheless, to support government policy, HEEACT has professionally amended its accreditation criteria to be consistent with the government direction. While HEEACT accommodates the government policies, it insists on being independent in the accreditation process. For example, given the focus on equity set by the current government, HEEACT has accordingly strengthened some evaluation criteria such as student financial aids, communication with stakeholders, and stakeholder’s engagement in university governance.
Taiwan’s government maintains its supervisory role to support and oversee universities through funding allocation and commissioning accreditation agents. At a system level, the fiscal budgetary plan allocated to support higher education is substantially associated with state policies.
To maintain a balance between the quest for world-class status and serving local needs, the current government has relatively regulated its policy from promoting excellence to ensuring equity. The financial mode with high dependence on government funding allows the state to maintain its ascendancy towards universities, while universities are held accountable for performance and comply with the expectations of the government when they spend public monies. In addition, HEEACT, commissioned by the Ministry of Education, has been established to accredit universities. This principal-agent model with strong state presence and reliance on government sets yet another example of the government’s intent to decentralise the system while recentralising its supervision.
Under the designed funding and quality assurance mechanisms, the supervisory power of the state holds universities accountable for performance. At the same time, universities are encouraged to become more autonomous. On one hand, a series of education reforms has been implemented to promote deregulation and institutional autonomy. Universities have seemingly been given autonomy in some aspects of their operations. On the other hand, the state extends its oversight of universities’ efficiency and effectiveness. It draws institutional accountability by requiring universities to fulfil their commitment.
The role of the state remains prominent, resulting in a system with decentralised approaches and recentralised state control. This reflects the longstanding Chinese tradition of a strong drive from the state and close supervision of educational agendas and priorities. Decentralisation and democratisation do not mean a total withdrawal of the government in Taiwan.
Warangkana Lin is Senior Consultant in International Relations, Office of International and Cross-Strait Affairs, I-Shou University; Executive Consultant, I-Shou International School, Taiwan.