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Rediscovering the mission of education

Decisions need to be made now about the future of education on the island

Rediscovering the mission of education
Francis Kuo, Taipei

November 11, 2011

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Catholic schools in Taiwan have reached a crossroads, with some asking whether they should aim at becoming international schools for students from mainland China and Southeast, or opt for serving the needs of local students. Further complicating the situation is an educational divide about the focus of meeting local needs. Should schools seek to assist the poor or establish themselves as elite institutions that require high tuition fees? Since the founding of Blessed Imelda Girls’ School in 1917, the Church in Taiwan has provided education on the island for nearly a century. During the 1950s, several Catholic schools moved from mainland China to settle in Taiwan, while several dioceses and Religious congregations opened schools in rural counties. This expansion reached its peak in 1961, when Fu Jen Catholic University, formerly in Beijing, relocated to Taipei. Now more than a half century later, the 48 Catholic primary, secondary and tertiary educational institutions – the majority of them private – struggle to maintain their viability amid new government measures aimed at improving sustainability of public schools in light of a drop in birth rates. The resulting competition between public and private institutions has created a widening gap between urban and rural schools, the latter of which are generally run by the Church and have fewer resources. In response to these developments, the Church established an association in 2005 to enhance experience sharing via annual seminars to benefit Church-run schools. Fu Jen university last week commemorated its 50th anniversary with a symposium on education, during which the topics of low birth rates, mainland Chinese students, internationalization, careerism, secularism and competition featured most prominently during presentations by academics. Only during presentations about Catholic schools did speakers strike a more positive note about educational missions, resource sharing, integration and evangelization. The much-discussed drop in birth rates began in 1981, according to government data, which projects that by 2016, the number of positions available for new students (240,000) will exceed the number of college-age students (190,000). In 2008, Taiwan had a population of one million people over the age of 75. That figure is expected to increase to 1.45 million by 2018. As the population of college-aged people drops and the elderly population rises, local educators have proposed recruiting international students from mainland China and the region, while also running community colleges to serve the elderly. Government officials, like Catholic educators, are also at a crossroads as the number of people under the poverty line increases. Statistics released by the Ministry of Interior show that almost 17,000 families required government assistance in the first half of this year, an 11 percent rise from the same period last year. Among these families, 42 percent are widows or widowers below the age of 65, while 33 percent are single-parent families with children below the age of 18 and with limited or no employment or young children to provide for. The statistics also show a rise of 20 percent over last year of male care-takers as sole heads of household. In light of these developments, Catholic educators have cited the need for Church-based schools to get back to basics by providing a place of love and acceptance for children from needy families. They have called for free schooling and accommodation to enable parents to concentrate on their work and help them regain the ability to provide for their families. In his closing speech to the symposium, Fu Jen president Bernard Li made the point in starker terms. “Educators at Catholic schools must bear the spirit of a martyr, or they should leave this field as soon as possible.” Related reports: Fu Jen marks 50 years of service Partnership aims to train teachers Mainland students favor Catholic study

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