Scott Sommers’ Taiwan Blog

The American University System

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on February 11, 2010

I’d like to thank the blogs Global Higher Education and University Politics for this link from the Huffington Post, How American Universities Became Hedge Funds.

While the aim of the original article is to describe financial changes in the American university system and the damage they did to education, it contains a great deal of information about how American universities are organized. I was particularly intrigued by this description of academic labour.

The twin engines of increased debt and an emphasis on research have fueled a third new market force, which is the academic free agent system. In order for universities to remain highly ranked, they feel that they must compete for the best faculty, and the best faculty are often defined by how much other schools are wiling to pay them. In the UC system, for example, there is an official salary scale, but over 85% of the faculty are now off the scale, and this means that many of them have negotiated private deals with a dean. Not only does this system turn everyone into competitive individualists, but it also circumvents the peer review process that is supposed to be at the heart of the modern democratic university (emphasise mine).

Taiwan is increasingly moving toward placing university faculty in something more like a free market. Officials from the Ministry of Education have spoken at my school describing their envy of the University of California system. It is ironic then that the Huffington’s article positions the UC system as the paradigmatic example of this marketized education system.

Doctoral Studies at National Taiwan Normal University – The First Semester

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on February 3, 2010

I haven’t posted for a while. Last June, I announced that I would be starting a Ph.D. at National Taiwan Normal University and I’ve been very busy with that and with a book I’m putting out later this year. I have now finished the first semester. This post is about my experience and some comments for those thinking about doing something similar.

The program is great. In what I am doing, it’s the best program I could imagine. A number of my friends tried to talk me out of doing a doctorate in Taiwan and convince me that studying in the United States or Canada would be better. I considered this seriously and visited several schools to meet faculty and talk with graduate students. I have no regrets about my choice.

The Program

I am registered in the Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling. Educational Psychology is a very old department and dates back to the origins of the school when the KMT came to Taiwan. In the past, during martial law, my department was deeply involved with the administration of schools in Taiwan. One might consider it a bastion of Blue politics. This would be hard to tell now, however, the strong connection with public education remains. Many of my classmates are teachers and counselors in public and private schools.

In addition, in my department all first-year graduate students take a course which for lack of a better translation I call the ‘military education class’. In all likelihood, it used to be the class run by the school’s military officers back when there was martial law. Another foreign student in our department from the Czech Republic agrees with me that it seems to be a military education class. Although she said in Czechoslovakia, they got to shoot guns and wear gas masks. In our class, we have to meet 2 hours every week and hear talks from faculty about their lives, research, and what they think about life. I am told that other departments in the Faculty of Education have a similar course, although I know that academic departments in other parts of the school have a different and less rigourous way of handling the requirement.

The largest part of the department is Counseling Psychology. There are over 50 masters students and some number of doctoral candidates. The reason for this is a mystery to me. Apparently, there exists some connection in Taiwan between the study of counseling and working in Human Resources. I spoke with one of my classmates about this and she explained that Counseling Psychology is viewed as a profession. Like an MBA, it attracts students who don’t really know what they want to do, but don’t want to get a job yet.

I am in the Educational Psychology program. This is divided into 3 sections; cognitive psychology, social psychology, and measurement. I am in measurement. Much of the work in this section is related to testing and formal evaluation. In fact, the leading test designers in Taiwan all teach here. This includes my advisor, Dr. Lin Sieh-Hwa, who is the chief designer of the Basic Competency Test used to regulate entrance into senior high school. This year most of my courses are related to measurement and statistics, including IRT, multivariate statistics, categorical methods and structural equation modeling.

Without exception, these are the best taught classes in methods that I have ever had. In fact, when I was a student in Canada, I took many classes in statistics and measurement at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. My classes at NTNU are easily the best. I don’t know whether this is because I’m older and more motivated or better positioned. I tend to think the real reason is that the professors are extremely well informed and organized. Often, methods classes like these are taught by professors who are not experts and do not directly do research in methods but are involved in research with a heavy reliance on methodology. Either that, or they are experts but are completely blind to the fact that others aren’t leading researchers in their field. Perhaps because it’s a department that trains educators, none of this is true for the professors I’m studying with. I can honestly say that I’ve learned more about measurement and statistics this term than from all the other classes I’ve taken in the area combined.

Another issue that frequently comes up in personal conversation is supervision. I have been told by Taiwanese and foreign graduate students about terrible problems they have had getting in touch with their supervisors. To be fair, this is a major problem for people I know studying in the USA and Europe, as well. One of my colleagues who is doing a PhD in the USA can not get  any cooperation from his supervisor. A PhD student at leading American university I visited last year told me that his advisor, whose name would be familiar to many readers, was “…not much use if you need him to read papers and give advice. Last year, he was in (a foreign county) and you couldn’t reach him at all for the whole year.”

I have had no problem with this at NTNU, nor has anyone in my department. I see my supervisor regularly. I could probably talk to him every day if I needed. The professors who teach my classes are all easy to find. In fact, they always seem to be at school. If I have a problem, I just drop by their office. I understand this is not always the case in Taiwan. Nevertheless, I have been very fortunate.

The Credibility of a Taiwan Degree

 One of the questions that comes up most often in the discussion of education in Taiwan is credibility of degrees. There appears to be an impression that degrees from Taiwan lack credibility outside any but the poorest economies. Apparently I have been interpreted as having said this. This is not correct. Degrees from Taiwan should be fine – if other conditions are also met.

Graduate degrees are like any other kind of professional education. If they aren’t plugged into the network, you’re going to have trouble. If you graduate from a program here and then move to another country to work, you will almost certainly not know any one who is doing the hiring. Your advisors will probably not know anyone and things like letters of reference from them won’t mean very much. In addition, the networks of colleagues you made in class will vanish. It won’t matter how hard-working or ingenious you were in class, no one will know. I have seen the same kind of thing happen with Taiwanese returning from overseas education. Once they’re out of the network of their advisor, it doesn’t matter how good their work was at grad school.

There is a way to handle this. If you have a significant amount of published research, this will speak for itself. Increasingly though, the market is such that even this will only get you noticed and not guarantee employment. Most full-time faculty appointments in North America now start with significant publication records.

One Final Warning

Unless you’ve been in hibernation for the last year, you’re sure to know there’s a world-wide economic disaster. One of the effects of this has been to hammer university employment. Faculty at many universities are now accepting pay cuts to handle institutional crises. This includes schools like the University of North Carolina, the University of California system, the University of Hawaii, and these are just the cases I know about.

My point is that with massive cuts being absorbed by existing faculty, it’s not likely there will be much hiring going on. There is no foreseeable end to this problem and it’s possible that the solution will be a system that does not look at all like the ones we graduated from. It’s not unimaginable that Humanities and Fine Arts will simply no longer exist (1, 2). The images of the university like those modeled here do not feel so far away anymore. In a market like this, an application from someone you don’t know, that no one in the department knows, from a school no one understands, is not likely to get much attention unless it’s supported by a significant research record.

So What?

I think a PhD at a Taiwan university can be a great opportunity for some people. It can be a big waste of life, as well. The decision to do this has to be well thought out and well researched to make it a good experience.

In my previous post, I laid out some of the questions you should address before you think about enrolling in a program. With the current academic job market, I would add one more. You have to know what you want to do with the degree. It’s not realistic to believe that without significant academic experience you’ll be able to move very far. On the other hand, as much as movement is possible in the new reality, a strong research record is essential. There are fewer and fewer good jobs available in academia and what will get you noticed is correspondingly greater. But a doctorate from a Taiwan university will not put you outside the game if you can meet other standards.

Also see this post.