Mounting tension with Beijing could hamper Taiwan’s hopes of growing its international student intake, academics have warned.
Recent Chinese military drills around the island following a visit by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, have fed fears that Taiwan – whose leaders maintain it is an independent nation – could face a full-on military offensive if Beijing tries to take it by force.
Last year, Taiwan launched an initiative to encourage the expansion of degree courses taught in English, seen as a bid to improve international recruitment.
But despite the announcement that China had ended the drills, scholars worried that the damage may have already been done.
“If the tensions continue…students and researchers would naturally hesitate about going to Taiwan,” said William Lo, an associate professor in comparative education at the Education University of Hong Kong.
Still, he was doubtful that current events would have a dramatic effect on student mobility from across the Taiwan Strait, “as it has ceased for quite a while”.
Other academics, though, were concerned about potential impacts on students from mainland China, who make up the majority of non-Taiwanese learners on the island and are classified as “overseas students” by Taiwan’s Ministry of Education.
Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, stopped short of saying recent events would shake the sector. “Scare off all international students in general? We are not at that point,” he said.
Still, he thought that mainland Chinese students could “possibly” be deterred from choosing Taiwan – something that could have a “significant” impact on universities.
“Certainly, the escalating military tension will negatively impact upon the willingness and motivation of Chinese students studying in Taiwan,” said Sheng-Ju Chan, vice-president for student affairs at Taiwan’s National Chung Cheng University.
He noted that the “unstable geopolitics, changing border control between [the] Taiwan Strait, unclear career path and employment opportunities at both sides” did not bode well for Taiwan’s attractiveness as a study destination.
Philip Altbach, a professor at Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education, agreed, adding that Beijing “can make things difficult or ramp up negative media attention – already at a high level”.
But education consultants were sceptical that cross-Strait tensions would make much of a difference, given the already low numbers of mainland Chinese students in Taiwan.
Grace Zhu, China branch director at the education consultancy Bonard, noted the “sharp drop” in students from China’s mainland studying in Taiwan since the pandemic began in 2019, when Beijing suspended students “from all academic levels” from going to Taiwan.
During the peak in 2016, there were nearly 42,000 students from mainland China on the island. By 2021, their numbers had dropped to roughly a 10th of that – with just under 4,300 students.
It was unclear how recent events would affect foreign academics in Taiwan. But some scholars predicted a silver lining.
Wen-Ti Sung, a political sciences lecturer in the Taiwan studies programme at the Australian National University, suggested that, far from driving away potential faculty, the situation may encourage more international researchers to come to Taiwan.
“Taiwan is the front-row seat to observing US-China relations…in Taiwan researchers get Chinese cultural access and liberal democratic-style academic freedom. It’s the best of both worlds,” he said.