What you need to know
Taiwan's failure to regulate its international schools has ill effects that impact its entire education system.
International schools in Taiwan are notorious for their educational quality – or lack of it. Students are often very unmotivated, and poorly designed English as a Second Language (ESL) courses, intended to provide extra training for students unfamiliar with English, usually do little more than maintain students' existing level of English.
Teachers are often under-qualified as well. In the most extreme of cases, some teachers play “instructional videos” for the bulk of class time. Teachers show up 30 minutes late on a regular basis – or not at all.
These problems are especially common in Taiwan’s smaller international schools. Although poor education in international schools is not unique to Taiwan – many Asian countries face similar problems – Taiwan’s case is largely caused by the government’s educational deregulation.
Establishing the case: Why the Education Ministry should not deregulate
For many Taiwanese parents who send their children to international schools, these learning institutions offer an alternative to Taiwan’s educational system, which is based largely on rote learning and exam preparation. This helps explain why, in Taiwan, international schools are made up predominantly of Taiwanese students.
Despite this, the Ministry of Education (MoE) has virtually no jurisdiction over the curriculum and qualification of teachers in international schools.
According to the Executive Yuan, Taipei American School (TAS), one of the largest international schools in Taiwan, in 2011 had “over 80 percent of its students from Taiwanese families with dual nationality, usually from the top of Taiwan’s socio-economic pyramid." These so called “Taiwanese families” spend most of their lives in Taiwan and choose to attend international schools, as opposed to children of expatriates who must attend international schools because they cannot otherwise fit into Taiwan’s educational system.
TAS is the largest and most reputable American school in Taipei and naturally the most attractive option for expatriates in Taiwan. In small-scale, and often less reputable, international schools, the percentage of Taiwanese students is even higher.
Deregulating academic quality
If most students in international schools are children who were born and raised in Taiwan, it makes no sense for the MoE to leave the oversight of international schools to foreign agencies. But this is exactly what is happening.
International schools are treated differently than Taiwanese schools. Their academic curriculum, facilities, admissions, teachers’ qualifications, and tuition are run entirely according to their “home country’s laws and regulations.”
This is clearly stated in Articles 8, 23 and 24 of the Regulations for the Establishment and Management of Private Schools for International Residents. The regulations show that the MoE only has power over physical criteria such as the schools’ land area, teacher-to-student ratio, and establishment fund. The actual quality and content of education in international schools are entirely left to private accreditation agencies in the U.S.
Many American schools in Taiwan, for example, are accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), a private U.S. organization that evaluates and then accredits academic institutions if they pass the evaluation. WASC oversees all the factors that the MoE has deregulated, from academic curriculum to teachers’ qualification.
The problem is that the WASC’s evaluation is entirely based on paper reports submitted by the evaluated school and a visit of less than three days to the school by the WASC committee. The short time span of the visit means that it is difficult for WASC to make informed evaluations. Schools can easily put on a facade during the inspection. Once accredited, the school can hold its accreditation for as long as six years.
Deregulating who can attend
It is also no accident that international schools are so heavily populated with Taiwanese students holding dual nationalities.
International schools were meant for expatriate children who otherwise would not fit into Taiwan’s local education. This is reflected in the language of the Private School Law, which laid out that international schools in Taiwan are designated for “foreign students.”
Yet it has become increasingly common for Taiwanese families to pay and obtain a foreign passport, authentic or not, to qualify their children for international school admission. Agencies that purchase foreign passports for that purpose, such as the Overseas International Investment Group, state clearly on their blog that “even if you are not a foreign national and your children are born in Taiwan, as long as you apply [for] a second passport for your children, they can also qualify for international schools.”
This wasn’t always the case. In 2008, the government made major changes to the Regulations and the Private School Law that drastically altered the student composition of international schools. Prior to 2008, Article 79 of the Private School Law explicitly stated that “international schools are not to admit students with Taiwanese nationality.” This included those who held a second passport.
Yet, after the amendments in 2008, the language of the law changed to state in Article 83: “[international schools are] exclusively for students with foreign nationality.” Here’s the catch: “students with foreign nationality” creates a loophole for Taiwanese passport holders to qualify as a foreign national simply by buying a second passport.
The change in enrollment criteria was important because though international schools started to admit Taiwanese nationals, they remained largely outside the MoE’s jurisdiction. Their curriculum, teachers' qualification, and tuition fees are still left up to agencies in foreign countries, even after 2008 when Taiwanese students started to enroll.
Because foreign passports are costly to obtain, and international school fees can be unreasonably high due to legal deregulation, international schools have become places where children from the upper echelons of Taiwanese society congregate. International schools also tend to attract students unable to keep up with highly selective and exam-based Taiwanese education.
Ironically, studying in international schools gives these students the opportunity to go abroad for their tertiary education. If they choose to return to Taiwan upon completing their university degree, their foreign degree will likely give them a competitive edge when finding jobs in Taiwan.
On a larger scale, this highlights Taiwan’s socio-economic gap and stifles social mobility – a concern in Taiwan’s disbursement of education (especially ESL instruction), and providing even more of a reason for the MoE to close these legal loopholes.
How do we solve this?
There are two parts to the MoE’s deregulation – deregulation of student enrollment requirements, and deregulation of academic quality.
To address the problem, the MoE should expand its jurisdiction to safeguard the academic quality and teacher qualifications in international schools. This can be as simple as subjecting international schools to some of the basic laws that regulate Taiwanese schools.
As of now, international schools do not even have to abide by most Articles in the Private School Law and the Teachers Act: basic legal provisions that safeguard the quality of all Taiwanese public and private schools. This legal immunity likely allows many international schools to hire token ‘foreign’ teachers who do not have the proper qualifications.
Another way to mitigate the issue is to stop allowing Taiwanese students to enroll in international schools by purchasing a second passport. This should, to some extent, filter out unmotivated students who are simply attending international schools because they want to escape the stresses of Taiwanese education. It will also leave international schools to those who truly need it: the children of expatriates who did not grow up in Taiwan and cannot fit into a Taiwanese system.
Changing the student composition of international schools would also decrease the need to increase oversight of curriculums in these schools. It makes sense for schools populated with expatriate children to decide what curriculum they wish to follow.
Critically, the MoE must recognize that at the root of all these issues with international schools is the Taiwanese educational system itself. If the issues with the Taiwanese system are not rectified, there will always be incentive for Taiwanese families to pay a high cost to send their children to international schools. International schools may be deregulated and overpriced, but local Taiwanese schools have many of their own unaddressed problems.
If the MoE is serious about solving the problems in international schools, it should start by investigating why so many Taiwanese students and parents are eager to leave the Taiwanese educational system in the first place.
Update, 4/21/19: An earlier version of this article contained an erroneously labeled image of Taiwan Adventist International School which has since been removed.
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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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