Education in Taiwan

By Nick Clark, Editor, World Education News & Reviews

Students graduating from the Taiwanese education system do so with some of the highest scores in the world on comparative international tests, especially in more technical fields such as mathematics and science. However, a criticism of this success is that the system has too great a focus on memorization (not atypical for this region of the world), producing graduates lacking the creativity of those coming from systems with more generalist, less exam-focused, curricular. In Taiwan, as in other countries in the region that draw inspiration from Confucian models of learning, policymakers have attempted to address this perceived shortcoming through a series of recent educational reforms, and these, not surprisingly, have been the subject of much debate.

The Ministry of Education of the Republic of China (as it is formerly known) implemented the Education Reform Action Plan over 10 years ago, outlining key policies emphasizing pluralism and general education. The new curriculum and learning environment through the first nine years of the education system was to be redesigned to encourage both academic excellence and talents in the arts and sports. See below for more on the reforms and their impact on Taiwanese education.

Overview

The Ministry of Education is responsible for setting and maintaining education policies and managing public institutions of education throughout Taiwan. The education system comprises: basic education (nine years), senior secondary education (three years) and higher education (four-year undergraduate degrees). Basic education covers kindergarten, primary school and junior high schools, while senior secondary education includes senior vocational schools and senior high schools. Higher education includes colleges, universities, institutes of technology as well as graduate schools and postgraduate programs.

According to statistics released at the end of 2009, there are a total of 5.07 million students studying at 8,060 institutions of education throughout the system. This is down from a high of 5.38 million students and 8,252 schools in 2004.

By law, students in Taiwan are required to complete nine years of schooling (six years of primary and three years of junior high), and nearly 100 percent of students do so (99.7 percent), with the vast majority (97 percent in 2009/10) continuing past junior high to attend some form of senior secondary training, whether at high school, trade school or college.

The school year is comprised of two semesters, with the fall semester beginning in early September and running through late January or early February. The spring semester begins after the two-to three-week vacation surrounding the Spring Festival and Lunar New Year. Spring semester typically begins in mid February and ends in early June. The language of instruction is Mandarin Chinese at all levels, although English classes are mandatory from the fifth grade continuing through the secondary level.

At the elementary level, just 1.4 percent of schools are private, compared to 50 percent in the non-compulsory pre-school sector, and 2.2 percent of institutions are private at junior high. The ratio of public and private schools at the senior secondary level is markedly different with 43 percent (209) of 486 high schools (academic and vocational) being private. At the tertiary level (universities, colleges and junior colleges combined) that number bumps up to 67 percent.

The literacy rate in Taiwan has improved from 93 percent in 1991 to 97.8 percent today.

Compulsory Education

Compulsory education has consisted of six years of elementary education and three years of junior high school education since 1968, with the curricula of the two levels more recently being integrated into a new, basic and compulsory, grade 1-9 curriculum.

The Ministry of Education is also experimenting with a nationwide ten-year program that is designed to integrate junior high school and senior vocational school curricula. Junior high school students who are interested in beginning a two-year program in vocational training can do so during the last year of junior high school. The Ministry states in a recent report that it intends to eventually extend compulsory education to 12 years, to cover senior secondary education, in hopes of creating “a more complete educational structure.”

Gross enrollment rates for these nine years of compulsory education have been close to 100 percent for well over 30 years.

Integrated Nine-year Curriculum

Traditionally in Taiwan, education policy and curriculum decisions have come directly from the central government. The Education Reform Action Plan of 2001 changed this top-down approach by boosting autonomy for local governments, schools and teachers in designing and choosing curricula and teaching materials, including choice of textbooks.

The new school curriculum is designed to be holistic and complementary with links between different subject areas that focus on learning outcomes and consolidated content areas, rather than test scores and individual subject areas. There is also an increased emphasis on skills over pure (and often intangible) knowledge. All subjects are integrated into seven learning areas: language arts, health and physical education, social studies, arts and humanities, mathematics, technology and science, and integrative activities. Language arts consume on average 20-30 percent of class time, with the other seven learning areas taking up 10-15 percent each.

Beyond curriculum and learning outcomes, the new basic-education framework is designed to increase flexibility within the structure of the system. For example, instead of relying solely on national entrance exams for entry to senior high school, junior high school students can now enter through ‘multiple entrance schemes,’ which take into consideration teacher recommendations and junior high performance.

After undergoing a trial run from September 2001, the integrated curriculum was fully implemented across the country in September 2004.

Preschool

While not compulsory, the government offers two years of public preschool to children from low-income families at 1,358 public kindergartens across the country. Preschool is also available to children whose parents wish to pay tuition fees at either public schools or one of 1,948 private kindergartens.

Many private preschools offer accelerated courses in various subjects to compete with public preschools and capitalize on public demand for academic achievement. There are a number of private preschool chains that operate throughout the country under franchise arrangements.

There has also been large growth in the number of privately owned and operated English immersion preschools in Taiwan since 1999. These English immersion preschools generally employ native English speaking teachers to teach the whole preschool curriculum in English.

Primary

Primary schooling begins at the age of six, lasts a total of six years (Grades 1 through 6) and is followed by three years of junior high school. The school year is approximately 200 days, and children attend half days in Grades 1 and 2.

Subjects through the first six years of the compulsory cycle include: Mandarin, mathematics (reaching introductory algebra and geometry by the sixth grade), science (basic biology, physics, and chemistry), English (from Grade 5, or Grade 3 in some city schools), native languages, social studies, homeland education (from Grade 3), music and art.

Students graduate from primary school with a primary school diploma. They are not required to take a test to enter junior high school.

Junior High School

Junior high school lasts three years (Grades 7 through 9) and completes the nine years of basic and compulsory education. While the government is currently trying to relieve the stress on junior high school students, who traditionally spend their three years of schooling preparing for admissions examinations to senior high schools, vocational schools and junior colleges, little has yet been done to alter the propensity towards rote memorization and attendance at cram schools.

Currently, the governing Chinese Nationalist Party is attempting to replace the joint national examination system for senior high schools and vocational schools with a new examination-free admission system that would encourage the broader-based learning-outcome goals of the new Nine-Year Integrated Curriculum (see above).

Moving Away from High-Stakes Examinations

In June 2009, the Ministry of Education released draft Guidelines for Exam-free Admission to Senior and Vocational High Schools and Junior Colleges, announcing its intention to phase out the current exam-based system of admissions in favor of a system that would permit certain junior high school students to be admitted to senior or vocational high schools and junior colleges through one of three exam-free methods.

These would include recommendation by a student’s school, a direct application by the student or district registration, with the intent of permitting five to 20 percent exam-free admissions in the 2010-2011 academic year and reducing the annual number of joint entrance examinations –or Basic Competency Tests – from two to one (June). Ultimately, the exam would be used as a supplemental tool for admissions with much less weighting and stress associated with it.

The ministry plans to expand implementation of the new examination-free admission system for secondary schools throughout Taiwan beginning in the 2012 academic year. There has been significant opposition from junior high school teachers, parents and students to the plan, with the various groups complaining that they have not been adequately consulted, while also suggesting that the new system would not necessarily cure any of the ailments of the current exam-based system of promotion.

Some argue that the move away from one high stakes national examination at the end of junior high would result in even more pressure on students who would have to perform at a consistently high level on 18 examinations taken by all junior high students at the beginning, middle and end of each of the six semesters that make up the three years of junior high school. These test scores would likely form the basis of any objective student recommendations made by junior high schools to senior high schools. This state of continual examination, critics argue, would make it even less likely that students would have the opportunity to pursue creative outlets or research beyond that required by assigned material.

Curriculum

Subjects covered in the three years of junior high include: Literature (classical and modern Chinese literature and poetry, composition and public speaking); mathematics (single and two variable algebra, geometry, proofs, trigonometry, and pre-calculus); English; science & technology (biology (first year), chemistry (second year), physics & earth sciences (third year); and technology (all three years)); social studies (civics, history, geography); home economics & crafts; art (fine art, music, drama); physical education.

In 2009/10, 97.6 percent of junior high school students continued on to a senior high education – either in the vocational stream or the academic stream.

Students can enroll in the Practical Technical Program instead of general education. Students choosing this option take technical training courses in the third year of junior high school and can then go on to senior vocational school without having to meet other entry requirements. In this stream, students do not have to study English, mathematics or science.

Upon completion of the three years of junior high, students are awarded a junior high school diploma.

Basic Competency Test

At the end of the third year of junior high, students take the Basic Competency Test (BCT) and they are assigned to senior high schools based on their results. There is also a separate exam for students who wish to attend vocational school. In both cases, public schools are usually the most popular while private schools have traditionally been viewed as a backup for those unable to score high enough for public schools.

The BCT is multiple-choice and covers five subjects: Chinese, English, mathematics, natural science and social sciences. Students get a score out of 300 (not pass/fail).

As noted above, the government is trying to refocus the junior high mentality, which generally speaking is to prepare students to score highly on exams at the end of ninth grade, but is yet to really achieve that. Students continue to stay in school beyond regular school hours to attend cram-type classes oriented to examination performance, while many schools hold “optional supplementary classes” during winter and summer vacation as well as after normal school hours.

The government’s most recent initiative is a multi-channel admission plan that will reportedly include exam-free options. Under the current multi-channel approach, instituted early in the decade, students in the top 50th percentile on the BCT register to be assigned to a senior school in their district and entry is based on their results alone. Students can also choose a high school, and their current junior high school submits an application with their test scores, with entry being based on their BCT score and information provided by their school. Otherwise, students can apply directly and can supply junior high exam results if they desire. However, BCT results are still the most important determinant of which high school students will attend, if they wish to go to a non-vocational senior high school.

Comprehensive Education Options

Bilateral schools offer technical/vocational and general/academic streams of education. This allows students to study parts of both streams to get a more comprehensive education.

Comprehensive junior-senior schools offer a combined junior and senior high school education. Students do not have to apply or take entry exams to move to senior high school.

Senior High School

Senior high school runs three years from Grades 10 through 12 and constitutes the first part of what the ministry describes as the ‘mainstream national education system.’ Students attend either a senior high school or a senior vocational school. Senior vocational schools offer courses in areas such as agriculture, industry, business, maritime studies, marine products, medicine, nursing, home economics, drama and art.

In addition to their regular studies, students are required to attend a military education class covering issues such as civil defence, military drills, national defence, and basic firearms training.

The main academic focus is to score highly on national university entrance exams at the end of the third year.

While senior high school is not compulsory, 97.6 percent of students went on to further studies from junior high in 2009/10. There are approximately 403,000 students in senior high school this year and 355,000 at vocational high school. An additional 10 percent of enrollments are at five-year junior colleges, bilateral high schools and comprehensive junior-senior schools. Approximately 43 percent of high schools (vocational and academic) are private.

Academic Track

Academic senior high schools prepare students for entry to higher education by focusing on preparations for competitive entry exams and academic skill development.

The curriculum for all students is similar in the first two years of senior secondary schools. Students choose a specialization in the third year of the high school program from the humanities/social sciences or engineering/natural science stream. Group I consists of liberal arts students, while Group II and Group III is composed of science-focused students. Science-based curriculums have a heavier emphasis on science and mathematics classes, while the liberal arts track has a greater focus on literature and social studies.

Elective classes are offered in addition to core subjects. Core subjects include: Chinese, English, civics, the philosophy of Dr Sun Yat-Sen, history, geography, mathematics, basic science, physics, chemistry, biology, earth science, physical education, music, fine arts, industrial arts, home economics, and military training.

Students who successfully graduate from high school are awarded the Senior High School Leaving Certificate (Diploma). Transcripts can be in English or Chinese.

In 2009/10, 96 percent of students from the academic stream went on to continue their studies at an institution of higher education.

Vocational Track

Senior vocational schools provide basic technical skills in industry, technology, commerce, marine products, agriculture, nursing and midwifery, home economics, opera and the arts. Incoming students typically choose an area of specialization, such as electrical or civil engineering, computer science or business.

A majority of students go on to further education, however, vocational schools also offer pathways to employment. Graduates of three-year vocational programs can choose to take the national university entrance exams and go on to earn a four-year undergraduate degree. This is a common path to take.

The curriculum typically involves general education subjects (approximately 40 percent of the workload), technical and vocational subjects related to specialization (approximately 40 percent), electives (10-20 percent), group activities (5 percent).

Students graduate with 162 credits (150 credits are fail/pass) and the Senior Vocational School Certificate of Graduation (Diploma).

In 2009/10, 79 percent of students from the vocational stream went on to continue their studies at an institution of higher education.

Bilateral High Schools

Bilateral schools offer technical/vocational as well as general/academic streams of education. This allows students to study parts of both streams to get a more comprehensive education.

Comprehensive Junior-Senior Schools

These schools offer a broad education program for students who are unsure of the specific academic path they wish to follow. Students complete both junior- and senior-high education in the same institution without sitting examinations between cycles.

The first year of the senior program is academic, while in the second year students can specialize in a vocational field and continue academic education. The curriculum includes Chinese, foreign languages, mathematics, natural science, social sciences, art, physical education, business studies, data processing, home economics and computer studies.

Students receive a diploma which does not show that they have studied at a comprehensive junior-senior school. Instead the documents will include the subjects studied and credits for vocational education. Students can go on to any form of tertiary education or employment.

Junior Colleges

Students can also enter five-year programs after graduating from junior high school and passing a national examination. The first three years being considered senior secondary and the last two years post-secondary. The curriculum is similar to that of vocational schools with the exception that five-year junior colleges span two additional years. Students graduate with the equivalent of an associate degree and are ready to enter the workforce. Some students may choose to continue their studies at a two-year technical institute or apply to transfer into a four-year university.

University Admissions

Prior to education reforms in 2001, admission to tertiary studies was based exclusively on the Joint University Entrance Examination (JUEE). In 2002, a multi-channel admission process was implemented for entry to colleges and universities. Under the multi-channel structure, students can gain admittance to tertiary studies one of two ways: through recommendation by senior high schools, after taking a test set by the various departments of colleges and universities, or as before through a central university admissions examination.

Senior high schools now encourage students to participate in extra-curricular activities such as student societies, non-governmental organizations and international competitions, with admission to more competitive universities now partly depending on involvement in such activities.

Despite the 2001 reforms, designed to de-emphasize the importance of the national university entrance examination, both pathways to higher studies from high school still require students to take two examinations.

The Subject Competency Test is more of a comprehensive and flexible replacement for the JUEE. It is taken in the last semester of senior school studies and includes several 100-minute exams in subjects studied as part of the general academic senior curriculum: Chinese, English, maths, natural and social sciences. The Designated Subject(s) Examination is based on the JUEE and aims to test depth of knowledge in certain specialties (1-3 subjects). This is exam is typically taken in July.

Under the newer recommendation method of entry, high schools can recommend students to one university faculty of their choice. Students then sit for the Subject Competency Test and the faculty selects students based on their test results, and may also require additional testing or an interview. Students can also apply independently of their high school to specific faculties and the same process is followed as described above for the recommendation pathway.

Grading Scales

The grading system is numerical (0-100), with 60 as the passing grade at both the secondary and tertiary levels. Most secondary and all post-secondary institutions will issue a transcript in English, usually with a suggested scale showing letter equivalents to the numerical grades at the bottom.

The most common grading scales are as follows:

School Education

Grade Percentage
A 90-100
B 80-89
C 70-79
D 60-69
F (fail) 0-59

Higher Education

Grade Percentage
A 80-100
B 70-79
C 60-69
D (fail) 0-59

 

Suggested U.S. Equivalencies (Higher Education)

Scale 1 Scale 2 U.S. Grade Equiv.
80-100 A A
70-79 B B
60-69 C C
0-59 D,F F

Higher Education

There are 164 institutions of higher education in Taiwan (2009/10), and approximately two-thirds of the over 100,000 students taking the national university entrance exams are accepted to one of them. As the university-age population has begun to plateau since the end of the 1990s many trade schools and junior colleges have been upgraded to university status, meaning the number of students undertaking four-year programs has grown considerably in comparison to the number undertaking shorter programs.

In 2009/10, there were a total of 1,336,592 students at a university, college or junior college. Of those, 1,060,167 (or 79 percent) were attending a university-level institution. In 2000/01, there were a total of 1,092,102 students engaged in tertiary studies, of which just 502,016 (or 46 percent) were at a university. On the institutional front, there were a total of 150 universities, colleges or junior colleges in 2000/01, of which 53 were universities. In 2009/10, there were just 13 more tertiary institutions (164), yet there was almost twice the number of universities (105).

This has occurred because most of Taiwan’s junior colleges have been upgraded to institutes of technology or universities over the last decade and now have degree-granting status. Meanwhile, colleges/institutes of technology have been upgraded to universities of technology.

Universities must have at least three undergraduate colleges, and one of these must be in science, agriculture, engineering, business or medicine. Colleges are specialized institutions offering bachelor degrees in no more than two fields. All national universities offer graduate programs, as do many colleges. Colleges/institutes of technology and universities of technology offer first degrees in technical and vocational fields, in addition to graduate programs.

University

There are a total of 105 universities in Taiwan, 63 of which are private. While students have to pay tuition at public universities, the fees are less expensive than at private universities.

Engineering is an extremely popular discipline and engineering degrees account for over a quarter of the bachelor degrees awarded in Taiwan. This trend is in line with government employment and economic growth policies that have traditionally focused on high-tech manufacturing industries.

As is common in East Asia, students typically experience much less academic stress at university than during junior high and high school where students are pressured by highly selective entrance exams and the desire to gain entry to prestigious schools and departments.

Undergraduate Education

Bachelor degrees are offered by universities, four-year colleges, institutes of technology and universities of technology. This degree requires four years of study; however, students who are unable to fulfil their requirements within the designated time may be granted extensions of up to two years. Specialized undergraduate programs such as dentistry or medicine require six to seven years, including an internship of one year.

The first degree is structured much like it is in the United States, with the first two years constituting general education and an introduction to subjects in the major field of study. The last two years are typically reserved for the student’s area of specialization. A minimum of 128 credits are required to graduate, although most programs are between 132 and 175 credits.

All students must complete 30 credits in general education (Chinese language, English, Dr Sun Yat-Sen’s theory, Chinese history and ethics). Students must also take core subjects and electives. Students undertaking liberal arts and business programs must take at least 78 credits in their core subject areas, while those undertaking science and engineering programs must complete 84 credits in their concentrations. Institutions can offer a range of electives, and students in liberal arts subjects must take 20 credits, while those in science and engineering must take 14 credits. Military training and physical education classes are also required but are not for credit.

Students that have completed a two-year junior college program can transfer to the last two years of an undergraduate program in the same or similar field. They must transfer 80 credits from junior college and earn 72 more for the bachelor degree.

Professional degrees typically take longer than four years and they often include an internship. Architecture, fine arts and veterinary science are typically five years; dentistry is six years; and medicine is seven years. Like medicine, law is an undergraduate degree. The program typically lasts four years.

Graduate Education

Graduate programs leading to a master’s degree require one to four years of study, although the minimum is usually two years. Typically, programs require a mix of coursework, 24 credit hours, examinations and a minor thesis. Students must take core and elective programs, the exact mix of which will vary depending on the discipline. Students must also show proficiency in English and a second foreign language.

Entry to doctoral programs is based on a master’s degree. Typical programs last two to seven years full-time with some class/coursework time, then research leading to a thesis.

Technical and Vocational Higher Education

Technical and vocational programs are offered at community colleges, junior colleges and institutes of technology. The Department of Technological and Vocational Education in the Ministry of Education is responsible for administering technical and vocational education at both the senior-secondary level and for postsecondary education.

Taiwan’s first community college – Taipei Wenshan Community College – was established in 1998. Soon after, the National Association for the Promotion of Community Universities was formed and the sector began promoting the establishment of community colleges. In less than a decade, the number of community colleges has grown to 79 with an additional 14 tribal community colleges for indigenous populations.

The goal of community colleges is to expand access to tertiary studies to anyone and everyone, including adults with limited secondary qualifications, and admission is essentially open. Over 200,000 people are currently enrolled in a community college program, an indication of the demand for lifelong learning and further education. County and municipal authorities manage the colleges and handle funding, supply of teachers, curriculum and enrollments.

According to ministry figures from this year, there are just 15 institutions still operating as junior colleges, 12 if which are private. Enrollments have dropped from approximately 444,000 a decade ago to just under 109,000 today. However, many colleges and universities of technology still offer junior college programs so this figure is misleading. Most junior colleges have been upgraded to colleges and universities of technology. They teach mid-level technical and managerial skills in industry, commerce, medicine, marine resources, languages, home economics, tourism and hospitality. They offer two- (80 credits) and five-year programs (220 credits) that offer access to employment as mid-level technicians or further education at institutes of technology or universities of technology. In addition, students have the option of taking a transfer exam to enter regular colleges and universities. Students graduate with a Certificate of Graduation or Diploma comparable to a U.S. associates degree.

National institutes of technology offer four-year bachelor degree programs in addition to two-year programs for graduates from junior colleges. Four-year programs are typically for senior high and vocational school graduates, and offer in depth job and vocational training. Institutes of technology also offer graduate programs. All national institutes of technology are public, although there are also some private four-year colleges offering bachelor and graduate degrees.

Teacher Education

Most institutions of higher education offer programs in education, which typically last four years (128-148 credits), in addition to a half-year internship, with students receiving teaching credentials at the end of the program.

Prospective teachers typically attend a university of education – or teachers’ college – if they want to teach primary school, and a normal university for secondary school. One exception is National Changhua University of Education, which, like normal universities, trains secondary school teachers.

The teaching program includes general and pedagogical education plus classes in subject specializations. Students must graduate from the education faculty or the program must include 26-40 credits in education. After their internship, graduates are awarded the Qualified Teacher Certificate and must sit the Ministry of Education’s Teacher Qualification Exam to be recognized.

Students can also take a two-year teaching program at a teachers’ college if they have a two-year junior college teaching qualification.

University lecturers must have at least a master’s degree, or four years experience as a teaching assistant with published research, or six years of experience as a research assistant with published research. Assistant professors must be published with a doctoral degree, or a master’s degree with four years experience as a researcher. Associate professors must have three years experience as an assistant professor with published research or a doctoral degree with four years research experience in a specialized field in addition to published research. Full professors require three years experience as an associate professor with published research or a doctoral degree with eight years research experience, in addition to original works or inventions and published research.

Accreditation

Funded by the Ministry, the Higher Education Evaluation and Accreditation Council of Taiwan was established five years ago to act as a quality assurance body. The Council oversees current evaluation mechanisms, evaluates university administration, and develops professional evaluation criteria to ensure objectivity and credibility within the system.

Resources

University and College Listings (Ministry of Education): http://english.moe.gov.tw/ct.asp?xItem=552&CtNode=415&mp=2&1=1#tabindex_415

Education Statistics (Ministry of Education): http://english.moe.gov.tw/lp.asp?CtNode=1184&CtUnit=415&BaseDSD=7&mp=2&1=1
#tabindex_1184

System of Education (Tree): http://english.moe.gov.tw/ct.asp?xItem=153&CtNode=499&mp=2&1=1#tabindex_499

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