Getting a Master’s degree in Taiwan: Likes and dislikes of Taiwanese universities from a international student’s perspective

After completing my Master’s in June 2018, I sighed because I was so relieved. For a long time, I was quite dissuaded from finishing my program. I was never sure what I was doing, learning, or even knew how this was going to help me.

What kept me going was realizing the opportunity afforded to me was not something my parents could’ve had, and that I was here as a privilege and I had to appreciate that. The people I met also helped push to better myself and to finish what I started. Although universities in Taiwan have their problems, they also have their sweet spots.

If you’re here to learn about what an international student liked and disliked about studying in Taiwan, then hold on to your butts because I got solid points for each.

hold onto your butts

Issues with Universities in Taiwan

Universities around the world all have problems, so you might recognize a great many of these issues. However, these are the reasons that stood out most to me about universities in Taiwan, so don’t grill me too much. I’m sure you could add your own.

1. The bureaucracy is idiotic

I don’t blame anyone that work in the administrative offices for how terrible bureaucracy is. They are tasked with using outdated systems that aren’t user-friendly. The problem is, bureaucracy in Taiwanese universities requires you to spend a lot of time running around to get stamps here and signatures there, that you start to wonder about why you couldn’t just do this all online in the first place?

For example, to get a new student card, I had to apply online and print out a form to request a new student card. I had to go to the administration building, go to 2 different offices, pay a $150 NTD charge at a machine, and wait two to three working days to collect my card from the office.

Why could this not have been done online? Why did I have to pay to a machine when I could’ve used my debit card online? Why am I bothering administration staff about a missing student card?

Likewise, not being able to pay for fees online is such a hassle.

The more you start to ask about why the system in universities is so weird, the more frustrating it gets. There are so many steps to do so many tedious things that you are bound to miss stuff. When you do mess up, you get blamed for not knowing how to do simple things, but how can you be blamed for something you never knew was an issue to begin with because there isn’t much information online?

What can be done?

I would guess that 90 percent of all problems come from the lack of instructional guides on how to do get things done. My university had a lot of outdated, confusing, and mostly useless information. The information and regulations for applying for my work permit were confusing, and applying to do my thesis was sheer insanity.

At one stage, we were told we had to sign up online for our thesis, despite this not being anywhere in our how-to guides. We also had to do this all in Mandarin and we were also required to get our thesis title translated into Mandarin, despite our theses all being in English. I guess we were just lucky we had a secretary for our program that understood that we didn’t know things like everyone else did because we were international students. But even then, a lot of local students didn’t know either.

We need the universities to realize international students don’t have access to the same information as local students or the same knowledge. I can’t tell you how many times I was left furious and confused because a lecturer or administrative staff member told me “but everyone knows that”, really? How the hell am I suppose to know that I need to do something that was never explained to me in any documents provided by the university? How am I suppose to ask someone about a problem if I don’t even know there is a problem?

Universities need to make more international and local friendly guides to how to do things like apply for work permits, registering for lectures, registering for a new semester, registering your thesis online, and simple step-by-step guides on exactly what you need and what you need to do.

2.  The attitude that America only matters

I have absolutely nothing against Americans. I’ve worked, studied, befriended Americans, and I all around don’t care if someone is from America. There are nice people and crap people regardless of nationality.

But for some reason in Taiwanese universities, lecturers just have to show off they studied and researched in the USA. I had a few lecturers that talked about it way more often than they should’ve.

The attitude you get is that they don’t think highly of Taiwanese universities and that America is the better place to be. For me, it is a self-destructive attitude to have and it’s one that needs to end. Sure, Taiwanese universities have their weak points, but to assume that they are all bad or not worth researching in when compared to any university in the US is simply idiotic.

I’ve heard from friends that if you only studied in Taiwanese universities up to a doctorate level, you would probably not have a good chance to get tenure in most top universities in Taiwan, depending on the field of research though I guess.

I feel like the Taiwanese perception is that overseas universities in the US are the best and unless you get into a very high-ranking university in Taiwan, you probably should go overseas.

To me, it is part of a self-fulfilling prophecy to never want to improve universities in Taiwan because everyone thinks they aren’t as good as going to the US in the first place. If people think this way, then why would an international student want to come to Taiwan?

What can be done?

I’m not really sure what can be done about this. I think out of all my lecturers, only a very tiny small number had researched or studied somewhere outside of the US (two professors in fact) and it is not a good feeling when you fly halfway around the world to be met by some lecturers that think you’re wasting your time in Taiwan. I suppose the grass is greener on the other side mentality isn’t going away anytime soon.

3. Universities want to look international without being international

Universities in Taiwan are not ready for a large influx of international students. Some universities might fair better than others, but there just isn’t the capacity to bring in large numbers of international students yet. Universities in Taiwan sometimes don’t even feel ready for local students either.

An example would be when I was applying for my lectures online and the information given to us was confusing, and the system didn’t make sense. A lot of international students couldn’t figure it out and ended up waiting until they arrived to sort out the problem. In English, the user-friendliness of the system is brutal. Rather than making online systems that are easy to use in English and Mandarin, universities just haven’t updated their systems to mirror the students that use it.

Instead, I felt like my university relied heavily on students to help each other out, rather than provide comprehensive changes to systems or giving good how-to guides. The issue is only made worse for international students that can’t read Mandarin or don’t have friends in the university to help them.

Another big problem is that a large part of international students are here on scholarships. Many students on scholarships wouldn’t be here without them. I just wonder sometimes, are scholarships there to make universities look more international without being international? Would there be these many international students in universities in Taiwan without the scholarships?

Scholarships are fantastic and they offer the chance to create indirect diplomacy and ties between Taiwan and the rest of the world to be formed. A lot of scholarship students have an amazing time in Taiwan and form a bond with this island.

What can be done?

This isn’t an easy problem to fix either. There is a culture of Chabuduo-ism in universities that students will help each other out. But, the MOE needs to push universities to adopt worthwhile changes and programs to bridge Taiwan to the rest of the world by making it easier to research and study in Taiwan.

There are so many worthwhile things to research on this amazing island and I feel like a lot of international researchers are let down by universities. I know many researchers and friends that just feel like they’re still seen as lowly students, despite being Ph.D. students.

Taiwanese universities need to push for more English-friendly (and Mandarin-friendly believe it or not) websites and information points. The staff in the universities here are super helpful and will bend-backwards to help you if you don’t speak good Mandarin or English. However, there needs to be a bigger push for other services to be better available to international students if Taiwanese universities want to be known as international hubs of research.

4. The outdated equipment in lecture rooms

This was one of the most frustrating aspects about universities (public ones anyway). We never had HDMI cables or ports, the sound never worked, many classrooms in my building didn’t have desktops in each room, and you had to rent laptops from an office on the 2nd floor.

Side note: The building had wheelchair access toilets on every floor and ramps, but no elevator.

I know of one lecturer that taught in Hong Kong and he said that the equipment being offered to students and lecturers was disgraceful. Every morning, a student would have to go and rent a laptop (with Windows 8), a VGA connector, sound cables, and a mouse.

I think the funniest thing about this entire process was that despite these lecturers having being so educated, they still couldn’t figure out how to duplicate screens on a projector. I know, nasty comment, but I wasn’t laughing because I had to show each lecturer at some stage how to duplicate displays.

All in all, the equipment was simply terrible.

What can be done?

It’s simple, spend some money to get HDMI leads and a connecting port and have dedicated desktops in all rooms. The cost associated would be outweighed by the convenience of not having to rent all the equipment before class, and spending 15-30 minutes trying to fix the computer.

What I liked about Universities in Taiwan

For as much as I like to complain about universities in Taiwan, there are a lot of things that universities in the US and Europe can learn from Taiwanese universities. It might not be a long list, but I think it shows a lot of important aspects of university life that shouldn’t be overlooked.

1. The safety on campus

Taiwan is a very safe country, and naturally, the universities are also very safe. While in the US, there are issues arising from rape culture in universities and violence, Taiwanese universities are pretty chilled places that you are not allowed to drink or smoke in.

I wouldn’t feel unsafe walking through the university at night and many of my female friends tell me that they feel safer walking around a campus in Taiwan than they would at home.

All in all, not only university campuses, but Taiwan, in general, is a safe place and this is something that I greatly appreciated.

2. Being able to work and study legally

Studying in China had a lot of pain points. For me, I felt that not being allowed to legally work part-time and study to be a huge hindrance. For full-time international students in Taiwan, that’s not the case. You are legally allowed to work in Taiwan as a full-time student and applying for a work permit is possible.

The only issue for some people is working whilst on a scholarship. Although the scholarship is amazing to have and a great opportunity, it is also not enough money to live off. $20,000 NTD a month is what MOE scholarship students receive each month. That is below the Taiwanese minimum wage and although a lot of my Taiwanese classmates will scold me for saying this, it really isn’t enough money.

Why? Because international students don’t live with their families, and many of us aren’t supported by them either like many local students. If our laptops break, if we need to buy books or software, or if there is an emergency back home like a loved one dying, we aren’t going to have enough money to cover ourselves.

Thankfully, even scholarship students can work legally, even if it is limited. Being able to work part-time and study makes life significantly easier and you also don’t have to feel like a big child waiting for a handout. Having some part-time work goes a long way for students to feel liberated and to have enough money in their pockets to feel safe if anything happens, as well as to be able to enjoy themselves.

Thanks for that! 

3. Taiwanese students are helpful and I made so many friends

You know what, Taiwanese classmates are super helpful and I made quite a few Taiwanese friends that I still talk to today from university. The problem with coming to Taiwan is that a lot of foreigners miss the opportunity to mingle and meet locals (albeit for those that go to those special bars).

University gave me a lot of opportunities to meet like-minded local people and helped me realize that my classmates aren’t just my Taiwanese classmates, but they are friends that helped me so much to get through college and also made me appreciate Taiwan more.

I can’t tell you how much stress and hassle I was saved from by my friends in university. I can’t tell you how hard it was being so far away from home and the relief of friends taking me me out and enjoying cups of coffee or pints of beer, and feeling normal.

I made some awesome friends in university here, and I believe that having spent time that time among so many people, from so many backgrounds in Taiwan, in so many different fields of research, I have a better appreciation of Formosa.

Thanks for that my friends!

Closing thoughts

I’m not sure how much of my experiences are useful to you, but I am trying to be as truthful as I can. I think if you are afforded the opportunity to study in Taiwan, you should take it. I turned down a scholarship to do my master’s in Tsinghua University in Beijing because I didn’t want to study journalism in a country that doesn’t have freedom of the press.

Taiwan is still a country I would recommend to many friends, and if you’re interested in studying here, you could probably forgive a lot of the dislikes I have. I forgave quite a few, but I still haven’t forgiven others. All in all, Taiwan is worth checking out.

Tomás 孫柯

One thought on “Getting a Master’s degree in Taiwan: Likes and dislikes of Taiwanese universities from a international student’s perspective

  1. I believe lots goes undone in Taiwan just because how-to information, ‘instructionals’, is absent and locals and outsiders alike have to expend a stupid amount of effort to uncover all that’s supposed to be implicit… I prefer explicit communication styles so maybe I’m biased…

    Like

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