Huey-Jen Su, FICHET chairperson, Taiwan
President of Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University, Huey-Jen Su, is also the chairperson for the Foundation for International Cooperation in Higher Education of Taiwan. Tasked with promoting the country’s international cooperation in higher education, FICHET was established in 2005. In this PIE Chat, Su spoke about Covid-19’s impact on Taiwan and considers if its government’s relative success will give institutions an advantage going forward.
The PIE: How has the pandemic affected support and inclusion for international students in Taiwan?
Huey-Jen Su: In general the policy should remain very aggressive about the potential of bringing students back to Taiwan. We have a high standard on the border quarantine policy, and that has affected the regular or scheduled inbound travel for new or returning international students.
“Financial support is available… to specifically sponsor and support the inclusion of international students in our society”
But support in both financial terms and in institutional policy terms, are very much alive. That includes how we actively expand the level of online or distance learning for nearly every single student; there is quite a bit of flexibility.
Financial support is available, granted either by the government or by the civil society to specifically sponsor and support the inclusion of international students in our society.
The PIE: At the outbreak of the pandemic in Taiwan, how many students stayed in Taiwan?
HJS: The first national announcements for quarantine alerts for Covid-19 came in January in Taiwan – roughly the last week of our previous fall semester and the beginning of our winter vacation in our school system.
I noticed that a great percentage of our foreign students actually remained in the country or on campus because of the trust and the confidence and high performance of Taiwan’s quarantine effort. Nearly all of them have remained in our campuses since that.
The PIE: Have students had different experiences depending on which institution they’re studying with?
HJS: I’m also head of the second-largest research-intensive top tier university in the country – we also have one of the country’s largest medical centres. Therefore we were amongst the very first academic institutions that were able to put together a university policy, and guideline to ensure that the students’ health and safety.
That very quickly became the publicly available template for the other institutions to follow. You can easily imagine universities of smaller-scale would not have as much professional support or resources to prepare those guidelines.
The PIE: That would certainly have made it more difficult…
HJS: Yes. But to specifically respond to your concern, yes, in a way, a more prepared institution did have the benefit of preparing earlier, but soon others very quickly caught up to have an appropriate thorough and sufficient operating manual.
I am very proud, not only of my own institution but also of all my peers in the country. I think we did bear in mind that the better we can look after and take our students and faculty, regardless of local or international, would be the best way to deliver or to reflect our commitment of being a socially responsible institution.
The PIE: How have students remained engaged and connected to their peers?
HJS: We have been very lucky and fortunate to have maintained as vital as a lively campus life as we can for all students. And that has very much been attributable to the great and successful quarantine effort by not only our government but also every individual and institution in the country.
“I am very proud, not only of my own institution but also of all my peers in the country”
Thus far, almost every student, at least in our campus, has remained physically meeting together regularly, either in the classroom or in student clubs or extracurricular activities.
The PIE: Have things changed much on for students on campus?
HJS: We’ve been very much carrying on ordinary and regular lifestyles as we can, and with proper masks and a very carefully gauged social distancing [initiatives] implemented for social venues. And that has proven to be successful – even our hospital, our practical training and laboratory facilities have been all carrying on regularly.
Of course, at the height of the pandemic period for Taiwan in March, we temporarily stopped some indoor gathering for big groups of more than 100 people. But since then, the pandemic situation’s been well controlled and we have relaxed a few of these restrictions.
The PIE: Do you think the country’s response will help Taiwan attract more students in the future?
HJS: I hope so. We seem to be proving to the international community that we are not only capable, but ready, as well as responsible for what we do as teaching and research institutions. [We have] ensured that studies of students would not be either stopped, postponed or affected should there be any further pandemic situation coming to our society.
[Universities] have aggressively increased the percentage of teaching English as a medium for almost all graduate courses and increasingly so for undergrad courses. We are ready for students and [we offer] very reasonable tuition.
We were lucky that we were not affected as much, but we should not overlook this opportunity to change or prepare for change, because maybe we will forever lose that opportunity or that challenge to better ourselves for an unpredictable future.
“We are ready for students and [we offer] very reasonable tuition”
The PIE: What sort of opportunities do you see going forward?
HJS: I think on the technical side, we are seeing in the grace of development and very exciting breakthrough of technology or educational technology being developed every day, probably faster than ever.
But again, we should be cautious in how we bring that technology properly into our curriculum and not forget that at our core – and an important treasure of campus – is for people to continue seeing and meet each other as real human beings.
There’s a lot of important things and growing that we learn on a physical campus. When we successfully adopt and include virtual education or distance learning, on one hand, we should, but on the other hand, we should be just as cautious about not overlooking the true value of on-campus education.
The PIE: One other thing I wanted to ask about you’re time at Harvard. How was that experience for you, and would you choose to study in the US if you were a student now?
HJS: You know, when I studied there nearly 30 years ago, it was a very different international geopolitics situation than today. The political environment did not seem to be so much linked to policy by the individual higher institution. And the level of academic freedom seemed to be a much more widely accepted sort of underlying principle for any higher tuition.
“Almost every student, at least in our campus, has remained physically meeting together regularly”
I would like to think that the United States continued to have the confidence and commitment to keep those values. So if that’s the case, I would love to [study in the US again]. I had many beautiful and important learning experiences in Boston that carved who I am today.
The PIE: In a recent survey, international students suggested challenges in Taiwan included the costs of living, as well as loneliness, the language barrier – connections with local communities. Do you think that this pandemic would change the answers to that survey if it were taken today?
HJS: My humble observation with my own student group here, which is one of the highest density institutes in Taiwan in terms of international students, I found that because of this pandemic, they end up realising that they might have to stay here for longer than what they thought.
I guess what they have found is that if they are engaging with society with some level of confidence, supported by the institution, they will find that barrier is not as huge as what they think.
The PIE: Have you seen examples of this?
HJS: International graduates from my nursing department voluntarily organised an online webinar with faculty experts [during the pandemic]. Very quickly, they got more than 6,000 participants registered from all over the world.
So they are seen by the Taiwanese community, and they feel they can be as connected globally as anywhere, even being in Taiwan. And that’s a very important sense of confidence-building for them.