Don't be alarmed by the title! I think if we want Taiwan to have a better education reform, we do have to take a good look at the other education systems and learn from the best of the best systems. A while ago, my friend Thomas in Germany asked me about the Ontario education system. I was very surprised to hear that he was not too happy with the education quality in Germany. In fact, he was more than disappointed that Germany is no longer in the top five European countries with quality education, and he has a daughter in the public school system right now.
Finland happens to be one of the top countries he mentioned to me. Johan from Talking Taiwanese has a new article about the fundamental problems we are facing in Taiwan and in the latest Taiwanese education reform. In this article, Johan suggests that we should look at how Finland has reformed their education system to reach the top rank in Europe. Finnish system may be the model that Taiwan should copy for the future reform.
To the readers out there who are concerned about our quality education in Taiwan, you are more than welcome to go to his blog and leave him your comments. I am pretty sure Johan would like to hear from you regarding your thoughts and ideas. Here is the link to his blog. 
Talking Taiwanese
By Johan Gijsen
In previous posts, I have written about Finland’s successful language immersion education programs (in Vaasa). Forty years ago, this country was completely dependent on Russia with its only main industry wood-working. Just over 30 years ago, Finland started investing heavily in upgrading the quality of their education. Now, it is widely envied for having the most successful and effective education system in the world.

I will use Finland’s education as backdrop to contrast with Taiwan’s education. Some will deny it, while efforts to change the situation have been made - and have achieved the opposite: Taiwan’s education is elitist.


Finland’s – and most education systems in EU-states – are opposite of elitist and see to it that every child has an equal opportunity to receive equal-quality education.

Most important in Finnish education is the policy of raising the abilities of slower learners. Taiwan education tries to achieve the same by allowing slower learners to join mainstream education, often turning them into slow learners compared to their class-peers. Finland’s teachers offer remedial plans (one-on-one) for about 20% of its total high school students, paid for as overtime work by the government. Taiwan’s solution to the problem is sought in cram school education.

Primary and junior high schools in Finland have an average of 150 students per school with no more than 20 students per class. In Taiwan, schools use advertising slogans such as “Excellence, Vitality, and Soul Education” (a school’s slogan in Kaohsiung City). In Finland, one doesn’t find anything similar; the Finns think that when (e) quality is served, excellence and vitality will take care of itself.

Rather than Taiwan’s practice of increasing the number of schools and throwing money at education, Finland has put considerable efforts into improving its junior high school education. The Finns judged correctly that children at this stage are developing their own methods of learning, so that they need the most resources.

Taiwan’s junior high school children are, instead, cramming (as in "memorizing content") the five core subjects: Chinese, English, math, science and social studies. Moreover, a significant number of students is doing so in a language different from their home (first) language, Taiwanese.

With al its disadvantages, one might argue that Taiwan’s elitist system gives quick learners what they deserve. Finnish education logic is different: faster learners can study on their own or have more free time for other activities; slow learners need more help - and Finland does not have cram schools. Taiwan’s logic is that quick learners need to be rewarded by getting into the best schools, while slow learners must join schools with lesser prestige.

Taiwan’s education system is tuned at only investing in its best students. It forces schools to invest limited financial resources in the top students who scored highest in the near-repulsive Basic Competency Test (Taiwan’s standardized high school entrance test), which leads to vital lack of fairness in education.

Finland (and other EU-states) persistently opposes any form of divisions or ranking. “Elite” divisions are major taboos. In Belgium, to take another EU state, entrance exams for high schools and universities are non-existent, except for art education and medical studies. Finnish primary and junior high schools are furthermore free to determine class size, course content, curriculum, and even the number of semesters in a school year. Teachers are free to decide what to teach, how it is taught, and what texts to use. Belgium has a similar system in primary education, with mornings set aside for the study of core subjects and afternoons for extra-curricular activities encouraging the pupil to express himself creatively.


Taiwan has partly deregulated textbook use in 2005. This has left many students no choice but to attend profit-making cram schools to prepare for entrance exams. After all, students often complain that not a single text from their schoolbooks is used in the exams. So they refuse to memorize anything and are not aware of other techniques to master subject content. Since Taiwan’s system demands memorization to pass entrance tests, the situation after 2005 is worse than before.

Taiwan has implemented a comprehensive curriculum from 1st to 9th grades. But the MOE conveniently forgot to demand that teachers be trained to teach students certain things beyond the core subjects. This, of course, would have involved investing even more in primary and high school education.

Cram schools have moved in to fill this gap: their number has increased fourfold to almost 17.500 in less than a decade. The government has quietly given its consent: it is, after all, better to collectively confine Taiwan’s youth to cram schools than to loose face by admitting that educational reform has been a failure.

Hence, high school students spend 8 hours a day at school, with many students sacrificing their entire summer vacation and most weekends in cram schools “filling the gap” left by Taiwan’s appalling education strategies. A faulty educational system and 17.500 “Robin Hoods” eager to “save” Taiwan’s youth from a substandard education system (getting rich while doing so). Spare a thought for the pupils caught up in this system!


Taiwan’s tertiary educational system is a copy from a country much richer in resources: the US. The latter spends an average of NT$ 1.7 million per year on each university student. The EU-average is much lower: NT$ 418.000. Taiwan: NT$ 130.000, that is per university student per year, for a system favoring the best students only.

The unemployment rate among university graduates in Taiwan is peaking. For graduates aged 20 – 24, it stands at almost 13%, three times the national average. Taiwan counts 162 universities and technical colleges. Finland, for example, while having four times less people (5.3 million) than Taiwan, has seven times less similar institutions (22).

In one decade, the number of university students in Taiwan (not including those in technical schools) has risen from 380.000 to 1.12 million (2006), with 90% of all high school graduates going on to undergraduate studies at a university. Simplistic and thoughtless educational reforms led by Academia Sinica president Lee Yuan-tse then led to an excessive growth in the number of universities. This eventually led to a decline in the quality of university students and the quality of university education, in particular for those schools with declining student numbers.

Some university programs in Taiwan do not reject a single student. If only 20 students apply for a program able to take in 50 students, why turn them away? One might argue that European Universities also admit all students (without admission test). In those cases, however, students are far from guaranteed to pass all subjects, as is the case in Taiwan. If a student at a Taiwan university is failed, parents increasingly demand to talk to university authorities, ultimately putting pressure on the teachers to choose the least hassle-free option: to pass students. Profit is increasingly the new name of the university game, with student recruitment having become a war between schools and departments.

The MOE adopts their trademark approach: hands-off. They allow free competition among universities that have increasingly become diploma-manufacturers rather than institutions of teaching excellence. Teachers retreat into their offices concentrating on research – which keeps authorities content. This rather than facing the increasingly ugly reality of entering the teaching battlefield. Hence, a university with poor teaching records can survive merely by improving the research output of its academic staff. Where does all this leave the university students?

The MOE has tried to react, in part, by starting a system to assess university departments as of 2006. But seeing their extremely poor record in effectively implementing its own policies, I (and others, I suspect) strongly doubt they will have the guts to ask a university to close down in case it fails the final evaluation. Also, a new (KMT) administration will eventually come up with different measures to achieve similar goals, possibly putting further pressure on already de-motivated teachers.


The fundamental cause, I believe, is that parents in Taiwan judge a university’s ranking to guarantee academic achievement. Although Europe and the US have similar educational branding for selected schools, it is by far not as intense as is the case in Taiwan – especially not in Europe.

As many other things in Taiwan, higher education and good universities are status models. In most (if not all!) other countries, a good income and academic background is not as important as it is here, on Isla Formosa.

Much like teachers are struggling to uphold academic standards, students (and their parents) are involved in a battle of their own: gain admission to Taiwan’s top-ranked universities. To achieve this, a student first had to gain access to one of the island’s top high schools. And for this to happen, that same student had to spend many evenings, weekends and summer holidays cramming away during his or her junior high school years.

Are we surprised that Taiwan’s kids excel in math but are weak in coming up with new hypotheses and creative ways to, for example, write a simple essay? And do Taiwan authorities really care?

Instead of acknowledging all problems in education, education officials hold up Taiwan children’s scores at international competitions to prove (to themselves?) that we are indeed producing competitive students. Few things are further from the truth. If they don’t know, they are incompetent. If they do know, they are hypocrites. The ultimate truth is that, because of the pressure of their daily examination battle, Taiwan’s youth is gravely lacking chances for exploration, adventure, and creativity.

Only by upgrading the quality of Taiwan’s schools can the pressure on students be relieved. This then would be the beginning of a more humane education system for Taiwan’s youth, providing that a future MOE will not shy away from a thorough overhaul of, in particular, the primary and junior high school education system.

Encourage and convince parents in poorer rural areas that they don’t have to send their kids to “quality” high schools elsewhere. Do so by upgrading rural schools. And start doing this by building a system to further educate teachers. Give incentives – financial or by providing paid leave - to teachers wiling to continue education.

Finland, the country with the world’s best education system, also has the world’s strictest teaching standards. Primary and junior high school teachers must have research-oriented backgrounds (MA-degree combined with relevant research publications), which explains the almost complete freedom teachers have, as explained above.

Taiwan’s education reforms did not make any attempt to train teachers. Whatever changes the MOE was hoping for were destined to fail. In 2005, the MOE allocated NT$ 50 billion for a five-year plan to bring Taiwanese universities up to the highest world standards. It should not come as a surprise that in an anonymous survey, 67% of professors believed this plan would not succeed.

Taiwan’s public and policy makers might want to look beyond the economy to uplift its people. In 30 years, Finland grew from a relatively poor wood-working nation to one of the world’s foremost electronics exporter.

The Finns did not do this by making their children cram textbooks or by emphasizing sciences. They did so by improving the overall quality of their education system - a non-elitist education putting, the slow learner first. And although the Finns’ household wealth is ‘only’ at the average level for member states of the European Union, a Cambridge University survey shows them to be the “happiest” people in Europe, after the Danes.

Taiwan should take note, since its mal-functional education is contributing to widening the gap between the poor and the rich and producing increasingly worthless diplomas.

What can our education system offer poorer or slower students, except for force-feeding them and stealing a substantial part of their youth and creativity?


CommonWealth Magazine: : edition no. 360, articles by Hsu Kuei-ying and Sherry Lee; no. 384, article by Hsiao Fuyuan; no. 395, articles by Sherry Lee.

Finland Ministry of Education Website:

Cambridge University Website, “Happy Danes are here again”,
Posted by Johanat 5:33 AM
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My Corner for Education

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  • chrisdiva
  • Yah...
    it's truth that we don't deny it...
    so, many of parents r worried about the futures of their children...


    i hope to see the improvement soon...
  • Same here. It's such a big task. The change may come one day but it sure will be slow.

    Julia1492 於 2008/05/15 09:43 回覆

  • Dicei
  • We students all want a new system of education. But we're all afraid of the diseases of the new system,too. The textbooks are too many now. Though we have to read more than the past. Actually, it's a burden on our back. So we also don't like the new system.
  • I remember when I went to high school in Taipei, we had three different English textbooks. Each teacher picked one as the main textbook and the others as the supplementary text based on their own discretion. I know that some teachers ended up using all three because of the pressure. Now, as a teacher without too many textbooks in my classroom, I really think it is the teacher's job to pick the materials by following the strict curriculum guideline. I am not familiar with the new policy on textbooks in Taiwan. So, the following is really my personal viewpoint based on my experience.

    The Ministry of Education should be the one to publish the curriculum guide for all teachers. The Faculties of Education and local municipal education office should provide continuing professional development to ensure all teachers within the jurisdiction follow the guide. The MoE should also approve the list of publishers where each school can order textbooks from the list. This way, the teachers have the flexibility of using their professional judgement. The publishers will produce something that gears to the curriculum needs. The academia and local education offices can deal with teachers’ continuing education and professional development. All MoE needs to do would be overseeing the policy and decision making.

    Another problem we have in Taiwan comes from the parents. When the parents have no faith in their teachers’ professional judgement, they want their children to learn at school as well as more from the cram schools. Some of the parents leave their supervision responsibility totally to the after-school programs because they themselves are too busy to deal with their children’s education needs. Worst of all, we have parents who see the school authority as an oppositional force rather than teammates for their children’s education success.

    Well, I can go on and on but I will just leave it here.

    Julia1492 於 2008/05/18 21:24 回覆