Why Are Taiwanese Students Choosing China for University?
Beijing is making it easier than ever for Taiwanese youth to study in China, but are students taking the bait?
By Lin Chen-ju (林珍汝)
TAIPEI and XIAMEN — Turning 18 years old this year, a group of high school students decided to leave Taiwan and pursue post-secondary education in mainland China.
Did they make this decision because they weren’t able to get into Taiwanese universities, or are local schools just not competitive enough? Are these students attracted to the international perspectives of Chinese universities, or are they trying to reserve a spot for themselves in the mainland Chinese market in the early stages of their career?
On a Friday afternoon in May, high school student Jiang Yu-Ching (江宇晴) arrives at Taipei’s Songshan Airport. She’s a senior at HSNU—one of Taiwan’s most prestigious high schools. Today is supposed to be a school day. In fact, it’s an exam day. But Jiang has made special arrangements. She completed her scheduled afternoon exams that morning, and rushed to catch a flight.
She’s taking part in an admissions interview at Xiamen University, scheduled to take place the following morning.
She checks in, passes security, and boards the plane. Although Jiang seems well-acquainted with the airport process, this is only her second time travelling alone long-distance. Last time, she travelled to take part in an admissions interviews in Eastern China’s Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces.
Basked in an orange light from the sunset, she lands in a city full of skyscrapers, not that different from her hometown of Taipei.
The city is Xiamen, an island-city sitting just kilometres away from the Taiwan-governed outer island of Kinmen. Along Xiamen’s island ring road, sits a giant structure reading: “One Country, Two Systems – Reunite China”. It’s become a popular tourist spot to take photos. Looking eastward from Xiamen’s coast, Kinmen’s Dadan and Erdan Islets are clearly visible.
As the closest Chinese city to Taiwan-governed territory, Xiamen University is also on the front lines of attracting Taiwanese youth to study in China.
Tourists from all over the world line up for a peek at the Xiamen University’s historic campus. Waiting in line, Chinese mothers hold their children’s hands and say: “Only top-scoring students can attend this school.” Among the tourists is a group of neatly dressed students from Taiwan, here to participate in an admissions interview for a university that only accepts “top-scoring students”.
The Taiwanese students are interviewed in the Marxism Building, a building that exudes a stately ambience. Outside the examination hall, students read a dense list of rules they need to follow, and building exits are monitored to ensure only test-taking candidates attend the interview.
In fact, the interview period for Chinese students has already passed, but Xiamen University makes a special exemption for Taiwanese students, since most of them are in the middle of their final exam period.
Students face a four-hour wait for their interview, and are prohibited from using their phones. Some pass the time by reading a book, others simply space out. When their interview time finally arrives, they squeeze into a small room, and are grilled by a panel of three instructors. They’re tested on their breadth of knowledge and critical thinking skills in both the liberal arts and the sciences. Here are some examples:
“Statistics show that individuals who win the lottery often quickly burn through the fortune they gained. Please analyze such behaviour from the perspectives of social and psychological factors.”
“In a modern society constituted predominantly by strangers, how does one gain the trust of others?”
“If the fridge is open, how would the indoor temperature change?”
The panel, which may include a Taiwanese faculty member, is visibly emotionless when students respond to their prompts. But they perk up when the students from Taiwan talk about why they want to study at Xiamen University, and their future plans for education and employment.
Feeling a little like a tourist, Jiang Yu-ching arrives at Xiamen University for her interview. Jiang sees China and Taiwan as “inter-woven together” and says she’s selecting her education path on the basis of schools, rather than region.
She’s already interviewed for three of Taiwan’s best schools, and was admitted to the engineering program at National Chiao-Tung University.
Before her interview at Xiamen University, she took part in admissions interviews at Zhejiang University and Nanjing University. She later discovers that she’s also been admitted to Xiamen University.
All three of these schools place highly in China’s domestic university rankings. Over the past three decades, Beijing has pushed a number of education initiatives—such as “Project 211”, “Project 985” and the “Double First-Class Initiative”—to create a set of world-class universities, giving extra funding and attention to a select number of institutions.
In the end, Jiang selects the university that’s most in line with her personal ambitions, and accepts an offer from Zhejiang University’s computer science program. But she still doesn’t know whether she’ll look for work in China after she graduates.
“My teacher says that every ten years is a generation, which means that in the five years leading up to my graduation, half a generation will have passed. It’s hard to say what will happen then,” she says.
Double the tests, double the headaches
Hu Jyun-mei (胡君梅), Jiang’s mother, has told her daughter she’s free to study anywhere she wants after her high school graduation.
Popular university destinations like Singapore and Hong Kong, however, teach entirely in English and are relatively more expensive. That has put universities in China high on the list of consideration.
But as her daughter’s lengthy university entrance preparations finally come to an end, Hu can’t help but feel distressed by the process.
The GSAT takes place every January, and the results from that test can be used by students for their college applications. If their GSAT results are less than ideal, students can also take the AST in July. This two-tiered system is seemingly designed to give students two opportunities, but in practice, it causes double the pain.
Students need to prepare dozens of documents for their university applications, with some compiling a book’s worth of personal documents, even though evaluators are unlikely to look at their applications in full. Application interviews follow, with the final results announced months later.
As students wait for their results, they also need to focus on preparing for the AST.
Some students, on the other hand, give up on the GSAT, and concentrate on studying for the AST. This path isn’t without its caveats, and students have to watch their peers apply to universities and prepare for graduation, meaning a high degree of composure is needed to focus.
What’s worse, time conflicts between different admissions interviews are frequent. Hu gives an example:
“Imagine a student that wants to study at National Chengchi University, and has the option to select both the accounting and business programs. If the interview times for these departments happens to overlap, the student has no option but to apply to other departments or universities. Often times, students are forced to accept admissions offers that are not their first choice simply because of poor scheduling.”
As for the future, Hu says she doesn’t have any fantasies about mainland China, she knows it’s a very competitive market. “Where she eventually decides to settle is entirely her decision,” says Hu.
Back at Xiamen University, parents wait for their children to finish their admissions interview. They gather under a small veranda near the Marxism Building, to escape the scorching sun.
Many of the parents are meeting for the first time, but their genial conversation makes it seem more like a reunion. Prior to their departure to Xiamen, some Taiwanese parents joined a chat group on the instant messaging app LINE, where they shared tips about travelling to China.
Liu Chung-hui (劉仲輝) has brought his two sons from Kaohsiung with him on this trip. His elder son took part in interviews in Tianjin and Nanjing before coming to Xiamen.
“This year’s admissions are so competitive!” says Liu.
Last year, just 24 Taiwanese students took part in the interview process at Xiamen University. This year, more than 120 students joined, a figure already pared down from a first round of screening.
So how many Taiwanese students applied in total? Some parents hear rumours that more than five hundred students applied, while others say the computer registration numbers reached into the thousands. From our own survey of the students who attended the interview in Xiamen, many of the candidates scored well on the GSAT, enough to be admitted to public universities in Taiwan.
“To be blunt, those who scored perfect on Taiwanese examinations won’t be coming here,” says Liu Ta-kuan (劉大寬), Chung-hui’s eldest son. Ta-kuan has high marks, but not high enough to be admitted to competitive programs at Taiwan’s top universities.
Chung-hui says his son should explore his options instead of settling on a “less-than-ideal” public university in Taiwan. Choosing a school in China doesn’t mean he has to stay, Chung-hui says his son can use China as a springboard for further education in Europe or the US.
In the meantime, Ta-Kuan will continue to prepare for the AST. If his scores can get him into National Taiwan University, his preferred choice, he’ll stay in Taiwan.
“When all is said and done, the overall environment in Taiwan is still much better,” says Chung-hui.
Liang Wei-hua (梁偉華), a Taiwanese businessman who works in Dongguan, is also accompanying his son to the interview at Xiamen University.
Moving his entire family to China for his work, Liang’s son attended a special high school for the children of Taiwanese businessmen in Dongguan. Liang has decided that his family will continue their stay in China while his son attends university.
Competition at China’s top universities can be fierce, and Liang wants to make sure his son is prepared. “I have already hired a tutor to help my son with calculus as soon as we finish with interviews here,” he says.
China’s College Entrance Examinations (also known the “gaokao”) are highly competitive, and those who make it to the top are all outstanding students. Studying for the gaokao has the added benefit of preparing high school seniors in China for their first year of studies at China’s top universities.
Meanwhile, students from Taiwan that want to study in China need to prepare for the GSAT in their first semester, and fly back and forth to attend admissions interviews in their second semester. In short, Taiwanese students play catch up with their Chinese peers in the first year.
Despite these difficulties, parents assume China’s top universities will be making even more room for Taiwanese students.
This February, Beijing unveiled a raft of incentives designed to lure Taiwanese interests to Mainland China. Dubbed the “31 Incentives” by the Taiwanese press, the new measures provide a wide swath of benefits, including tax cuts, investment capital and other benefits for Taiwanese businesses that move to China.
Many of these these incentives touch on education, and substantially lower the bar for Taiwanese high-school students to enter China’s top tier universities.
Although Liang says the new measure haven’t made the admissions process any easier for his son, the 31 Incentives are prompting Chinese universities to increase interview quotas for students who hail from Taiwan.
Media reports are also fuelling interest, and there’s a substantial uptick in applications. For example, in 2017, there were only 150 Taiwanese students who applied to Zhejiang University. This year, over 600 students applied.
A good choice, but is it the first choice?
Back in Taipei, HSNU is announcing its students’ university admissions for next year. They place acceptance lists in the high school’s main hall, where students can see who’s been accepted where, and perhaps gloat a little about getting into Taiwan’s top schools.
But this year, there’s more universities in China and Hong Kong that appear on the list.
Lee Jhih-lin (李志麟), a senior at HSNU, beams at being accepted to Peking University—China’s most prestigious university—to study medicine.
“The tuition at Peking University is really cheap, and the school provides a lot of subsidies. Basically, if I go to university there, I can make money just from lying down and breathing,” laughs Jhih-lin.
Chinese universities are taking unimaginable efforts to recruit Taiwanese students. Jhih-lin’s father, Li Ming-chih (李明錡), even received a call from a professor at Peking University to convince his son to accept the university’s offer.
“Really, the school just wants you to be their student. It was hard for me to imagine this in the past, but these Chinese school really hopes to lock in these high-achieving students from Taiwan,” says Ming-chih. But after taking the call, he had a sudden realization, “if all of our talent is gone in one clean sweep, what does Taiwan have left?”
If Jhih-lin accepts the offer, however, he will only be able to practice medicine in China. Taiwan does not recognize medicine degrees obtained from Chinese universities, and Ming-chih hopes his son can give back to Taiwanese society. In the end, Jhih-lin says he’d like to remain in Taiwan.
But if his plan is to stay in Taiwan, why did he apply to a Chinese university in the first place? Ming-chih shrugs, “Because going to Peking University seemed great, so we thought we would apply.”
Just a few kilometres from HSNU, is Taiwan’s oldest and most prestigious girls’ high school, Taipei First Girls' High School. Li Yun (李昀) is a recent graduate, and wants to challenge herself for her post-secondary education.
“Mainland China is a communist country, but its overall development and future trajectory shows promise,” says Li Yun. “Taiwan is always embroiled in ideological and partisan politics, which means that most things revolve around elections, rather than making the country better.”
Li Yun has been accepted to National Cheng Kung University—the top university in Southern Taiwan—but she’s also applied to Zhejiang University and Xiamen University.
She says China is quite different from the country she reads about in Taiwanese media, and feels the learning atmosphere at China’s top-tier universities is quite distinct.
In the past, Li Yun’s parents were did business in China, and now encourage her to explore opportunities outside of Taiwan. But she’s also worried about competing with top-tier students from China, and has asked her uncle to mail her a few Chinese college entrance examination books, which she’ll study over the summer.
Taiwan’s elite private schools are also keen to promote studying abroad, and Mainland China is seen as an important option.
Chen Yun-hsuan (陳昀萱) and Peng Lin (彭琳) are seniors at Taipei Fuhsing Private School, and were both accepted to high-ranking public universities in Taiwan. They still traveled to Xiamen to participate in admissions interviews, and will hop on a train the following day to take part in an interview at prestigious Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.
Roughly one-third of each graduating class from Taipei Fuhsing Private School pursues university studies abroad, said Chen. The majority of graduates apply to schools in the US and the UK, but China is catching up fast.
After their interviews at Xiamen University, Chen and Peng created a Youtube video about their experience, attracting more than 20,000 views and more than 500 comments.
When asked why they want to study in China, Peng says “Taiwan is too small, and it’s the same group of people trapped in a tiny location. “Exploring the world outside and learning how to compete with other helps with personal growth. If we don’t expose ourselves to competition, what will we do in the future?” she adds.
Should I stay or should I go?
On the Xiamen University campus, stands a bronze statue of Tan Kah Kee (陳嘉庚), an early 20th century Chinese businessman who made his fortunes in Singapore. Tan hailed from the area, and founded the university in 1921 to ensure locals from Fujian province, where the university is located, could receive a quality education.
In Fujian alone, there are more than 300,000 students taking the gaokao every year; only the top 2,000 students in the province are able to ensure a place at Xiamen University.
The university initially planned to recruit 20 students from Taiwan this year, but in the end, it offered interviews to over 200 candidates, and eventually admitted 128 students. Many of these students were also accepted to National Taiwan University, Taiwan’s top-ranking school.
Whether or not Taiwanese students choose to pursue studies at Xiamen University, the school’s administrators have already demonstrated a fair amount of generosity to these students. Although Xiamen University is not as reputable as Peking University, with only an hour’s flight from Taipei, it’s still seen an attractive choice for many students.
According to a 2017 survey of Taiwanese international students, most chose to study in the US and Australia, with China placing third. But with media outlets in both Taiwan and China reporting extensively on Beijing’s 31 Incentives, the number of Taiwanese students heading to China for an admission interview is likely to rise.
What’s more, test standards have loosened considerably for Taiwanese students. In the past, Chinese universities only accepted Taiwanese students from the “academic excellence tier” (the top 12 percentile). Over time, Chinese universities have lowered the bar to accept students from the “advanced academics tier” (the top quarter), and as of 2017, the “average academic performance tier” (the top half).
Chinese universities saw an immediate 20 percent increase in applications from Taiwanese students last year. How much will the number increase this year? That will ultimately depend on a student’s test results, not to mention a student’s own career aspirations, the family’s stance on studying in China, and even public opinion in Taiwan.
Students can think about their decision until September, when classes start again. They can even register at a university in Taiwan, defer their studies while retaining their status as an enrolled student, and give it a try for a semester at a Chinese university.
Despite the current surge of students taking part in interviews at Chinese universities, the real number of students moving westward to China is still hard to estimate.
But as Taiwanese society continues to call into question problems with its own education system and work culture, China’s recent bid to lure students and professionals will undoubtedly act as a warning signal for the Taiwanese government.