I am starting a new semester in my Master’s program, and frankly, it has all been a mixed bag of sorts. In short, Taiwanese university level education – especially for a master’s program – Teaches you only one skill; how to be a university researcher.
Sure, it might teach you critical skills, like how to analyze large volumes of data, or take on a new perspective if the lecturer is good, but the end goal is to make you a researcher and not much else.
Taiwan, like pretty much everywhere else, has a societal expectation that once you finish high school, the next logical step is university, or at least some form of a third level education. The knock-on effect is there are less people available than ever before for the manufacturing industry, although low wages and long hours are also suspect as to why people would not want to work in factories.
Interestingly, the MOE decided in 2015 to merge or close one-third of Taiwan’s 160 universities. The move comes as the population is set to grow at such a low rate, that having so many universities cannot be justified. Taiwan’s population growth has declined significantly in in the last few decades and what is obvious from trends is that Taiwan will probably end up like Germany and Japan; a country of old people.
In terms of Universities in Taiwan, I have found some pros and cons to studying here. Unlike many students who come to Taiwan, I am not an exchange student. I am a full-time international student sharing classes with other Taiwanese students, so my perspective is going to be different from the run-of-the-mill blogger in Taiwan.
Also important to remember, you should take everything I am saying with a grain of salt. Many of these pros and cons can be easily transfered to other universities in different countries, but these specific pros and cons are the only ones which come to mind from my experience in Taiwan.
Cons to studying in Taiwan
They teach you how to be researchers, but not much else
To me, University is there to teach you the skills to be competent in the field of study you are participating in. If you study media, you would expect to be taught how to maximize SEO for webpages, or how to grow Facebook pages and even how to plan, implement and track the progress of an online marketing campaign through Google analytics.
The reality is, many lecturers will teach you why SEO and Google Analytics are important and why planning, implementing and tracking progress for campaigns is important without ever teaching you how to actually practically do any of it.
I guess that is perhaps at the heart of academia, you are taught the why and not the how to. In terms of doing a Master’s in Taiwan, I get the feeling much of what is taught is simply there to make you a competent researcher to be able to write a decent thesis and that is all fine and dandy until you graduate without the skills needed to work in an industry that you have a degree in.
With that said, university does teach you how to be methodical and it hones in your analytical skills. However, these skills are not all that useful when you don’t have the basic skills for the sector you are hoping to work in.
It is almost as if you are being taught the skills to be a research and lecturer and not the skills to be a functioning member of the workforce.
Course requirements are always the same
In any syllabus you will be asked to do a the same thing in each class, with some variations. These requirements are usually
1) A lot of reading, some of which is useful and some of which is outdated to the point that I have read books that stated hosting videos on the Internet is not a reality because of bandwidth concerns. Some of what I read is interesting, but wholly not relevant in todays internet era without being updated at least.
2) A student led lecture/presentation on the readings, which can be insightful and interesting, but most of the time it is listening to other students trying to make sense of research papers and readings. This kind of bugs me because I want to be lectured by someone with a PhD in the field, not my fellow student who has the same amount of knowledge on the topic as I have because we both read the same materials.
3) A written project/research paper/proposal that is usually around 5,000 words long and you are expected to choose quite early on your topic, despite only being introduced to the topic for a few weeks. This part is actually the easiest part of a course if you start working on it early.
A lot of people screw this part up because they don’t actually thinking of a topic until the very last minute and work with topics that are nearly unmanageable in terms of workload or work with topics that are so vague their score will always be low. If you have a written project due, do it early and finish it early and worry about other things.
4) Mid-term test or mini-projects can also be added onto the workload depending on the lecturer and these can be either easy marks or be more difficult than the marks they are worth.
Very few lecturers will deviate from this formula and it can be quite boring. Don’t get me wrong, it is still better than having end of semester exams, but I would rather come out of the semester with something more worthwhile.
If I was designing a course for online marketing, I would set 1) Set readings on online marketing from research papers 2) Make groups of two and have them make social media accounts for a fake company, or maybe a WordPress to 3) Prove they can use Facebook/Wordpress insights or if they want, prove they can use Google Analytics from wordpress by 4) Presenting their metrics and explaining their strategy and finally 5) throughout the semester students need to work towards the free Google Digital Marketing Course and gaining their certificates which are required to complete the module.
This might be me being naive and a large part of why lecturers follow this formula is become the university sets standards that need to be met, even if they don’t make sense for what the lecturer is lecturing about.
University facilities are subpar
This is what really shocked me about University in Taiwan. Nearly all the classrooms I have had lectures in look like they belong in the early 2000s or 1990s, in terms of their equipment. Some classrooms have PCs that are encased inside an impregnable metal box, but for me, we had to go and get permission to get a laptop for our lecturer 15 minutes before every class.
Half the time the laptop would not work properly when it was connected with the projector, because the screens won’t appear on both the projector and laptop and no matter what we did, nothing ever worked. The other half of the time, the sound or Wifi just didn’t work and students and lecturers were left awkwardly frustrated saying “it’s in the PPT file you can download later and watch it”.
My classroom has technology so old, that it is probably haunted at this stage and my university is considered a good university in Taiwan. Yet, the facilities in classrooms are absolutely atrocious.
With that said, library and the canteens are always top class places, except when they are renovating the library in the middle of the day when you are trying to study.
The administrative nightmares
This is a reoccurring issue in Taiwan in general. Outdated systems and paperwork is widespread in universities in Taiwan. College email accounts, course selection processes, dropping and adding courses and even registering for a semester all feel like they are redundant processes and steps and need updating.
My college email account is capped at 900 emails and I am spammed everyday by other students asking me to do their surveys, the course selection process looks like it is a psychological test for human stress and anger because the first time you use it, it is counterintuitive and dropping a course you no longer want to take requires you to ask the lecturer their permission in written form to be allowed to drop their course. I have to say, asking a lecturer to sign a paper to not partake in their lecture feels incredibly awkward.
Pros to studying in Taiwan
Cost of education
For a lot of my American friends, the cost of education in Taiwan is an important factor for why it is worth it. A lot of the aspects for my cons can be universal in most countries and maybe to a lesser or stronger sense depending on the country or culture of education. Despite all the cons I have outlined, Taiwanese universities are so affordable that a lot those cons are not all that depressing when you consider you aren’t paying an arm and a leg like you would in America where you can put yourself in the area of $100,000 in debt just to get a degree that might not be worth the investment.
Despite the clear problems with Taiwanese universities, they are at least affordable and you do come out with a degree which will help you with a future. In that regard, I can commend the MOE and policies that have kept the cost of education from rising and allowing people to have equal opportunities to study.
Lecturers can be some of the most interesting people you’ll meet
I have had some lecturers that gave me readings and advice that has definitely expanded my world-view and undoubtedly aided me in both academics and the workplace. Some of the readings were simply interesting and thought-provoking without much substance outside of that, and some some readings and advice was extremely practical.
You have to remember, all of these lecturers have PhD and some of them have real working experience in the field of research they are teaching you. Listening to them and having a chat after class is extremely useful and Taiwanese lecturers are very approachable and unless you catch them at a bad time, they will stay around and chat to you.
Despite my cons on learning to be almost solely researchers and the format of courses, lecturers are always willing to help you, spend the extra 1 or 2 after class with students to help them with projects understanding readings and even have general conversations.
It is definitely a departure from the type of lecturers I have had in Europe and it makes the lectures feel more perhaps impersonal, but far more interactive and you enjoy attending classes and partaking in the debates and discussions on issues you would never have thought about if you didn’t take this particular lecture.
There are obviously some bad apples thrown into the mix with some lecturers being as useful as a fart in a spacesuit, but my experience has been that a lot of lecturers will take the time to help you and take an interest in what you are doing. They want to learn just as much as you do in many regards.
I would really like to name out a few lecturers that were simply amazing and kept my interest peaked on a weakly basis, but I think I would prefer to do that when I graduate.
It is harder to fail than it is to succeed
You really have to mess up to fail. That is as simply as it gets and I have not even heard of someone failing a course in my entire time in a Taiwanese University. In Ireland, it is part and parcel for a certain percentage of students to fail courses and retake exams or simply repeat the whole year. In my experience, that simply doesn’t happen unless a student makes some huge mistakes.
Some of those mistakes would be not coming to class which can get you automatically failed if you miss more than 4-5 classes in a semester without a sick note from a doctor. Other mistakes would be not handing papers in on time and missing specific weeks where you might be presenting for the class.
As long as you put the time and effort in and keep up with the reading and workload with some minor effort, you will be fine.
For my first semester, I felt like I was underwater all the time in terms of my workload. No matter how much work I would do, no matter how much I planned a ahead and did work ahead of time, I would always start a new week and a new project and another and get thrown back into the deep end.
It wasn’t until my second semester I realized I was putting too much pressure on myself and I even had a lecturer admit that you shouldn’t kill yourself with the workload because at the end of the day, it is your thesis that will ultimately get you your degree, not acing all your modules for graduation. They might make sure you keep a 4.0 GPA average, but putting too much work into them is highly inefficient when you should be parceling your time for your thesis, projects, reading and finding a job and not solely focusing on simply one.
Again, it is hard to fail in Taiwanese universities unless you really go out of your own way to do so.
Despite all being said and done, I feel like the pros and cons can be matched to create an outcome that leaves you with an affordable degree where you can learn some useful skills, but these skill are not always transferable to whatever job you want to do. I think studying in Taiwan is still worth it of course. I love this country and despite the flaws in the Universities, I find it worth it to be here and to get a degree in this country.
It can be frustrating at times dealing with the bureaucracy of the university, but overall I feel like things tend to level off and what you are left with is what you put into university. Some people make the best of it and take part in every activity and try their best to perform academically well. For me, I have college friends but I don’t take part in many activities or clubs because frankly, that is a whole different blog post right there.
In short, they might teach you to be a lecturer, but that doesn’t devalue that piece of paper that says you are educated at a Master’s degree level, which can be insanely useful for you in whatever industry. Well, useful if you took the time to get experience and take internships anyway.