Monday, October 19, 2009

On aging and education

Agence France-Presse recently published an article examining one of the less-examined consequences of Taiwan's very low birth rate.

More than one in three Taiwanese colleges are likely to be forced to close by 2021 due to a shortage of students as the island's birth rates continue to fall, local media said Tuesday.

Currently, around 300,000 school leavers are eligible to apply for college each year but the number is expected to drop to 195,000 in 2021, the Liberty Times said, citing the education ministry.

In 12 years, more than one-third of the island's 164 colleges are expected to have closed because they can not enroll enough students, forcing about 1,000 professors to lose their jobs, the report said.

Educational officials are not immediately available to confirm the report.

Taiwan's birth rates have been on a steady decline in recent years, and last year there were less than nine newborn babies for every 1,000 women of reproductive age, according to the interior ministry.

Education minister Wu Ching-ji was quoted by the paper as saying the ministry was considering measures for colleges to merge or become private for-profit learning institutes.

The Taipei Times goes into more detail.

Colleges and universities in Taiwan will see their lowest enrollment and highest vacancies when the new school semester begins next month, the latest enrollment statistics released by the Joint Board of the College Recruitment Commission showed.

A total of 76,434 students enrolled in Taiwanese universities, resulting in a record high of 6,802 vacancies on campuses and a ­record-high college admission rate of 97.14 percent, commission statistics showed. That was up from 4,788 vacancies and a college admission rate of 97.1 percent for last school year, it said.

Both admission rates and vacancies at higher learning institutions have been steadily rising in recent years.

Taiwan’s falling birth rate and the rapid increase in the number of colleges and universities that have opened in Taiwan in the past 15 years are the main reasons behind this trend.

In 1986, there were 28 four-year colleges and universities across Taiwan, but the number rose to 147 last year — the result of a government policy to make it easier for high school students to get into university.

[. . .]

Ho Cho-fei (何卓飛), director of the ministry’s Department of Higher Education, asked low-enrollment colleges and universities to remain committed to giving their students sufficient training, no matter how small their student population is.

To cope with this problem, Ho said the ministry would work out a mechanism to require schools with low enrollment to transform or withdraw from the market.

Eighteen college and university departments in Taiwan failed to recruit any students for the coming semester, commission figures showed.

All this is unsurprising, since it's well known that fertility rates, period and cohort, among the Taiwanese population rank among the lowest in the world. Numerous primary and secondary schools have also been forced to close down for want of young students. Taiwan's situation is admittedly extreme, but as the proportions of the young decrease as the proportions of the old increases, educational systems in any aging country are going to have to change. What can be done?

One approach would be for schools to try to recruit students from outside of their catchment area. Barring large-scale immigration to a region, it might be easy fo an educational institution--likely one at the university level--to recruit students internationally. Taiwan is reportedly trying to recruit mainland Chinese students, and Vietnam and the Philippines might also provide potential students through the marriage migration connecting these countries with Taiwan. This is hardly limited to Taiwan, but is worldwide. Certainly in the Canadian universities I've attended international students are quite numerous.

Another approach might be for these educational systems to retool themselves to deal with an older workforce. Greenspan in 2003 observed that aging populations had to increase their productivity to continue economic growth, yet relatively older populations often had relatively low education levels. Creating systems that would allow relatively older people to enter the education system in order to upgrade and renew their skills. Rihpahl and Trübswetter suggest in their discussion paper that this sort of phenomenon has already been going on in Germany.

Both of these approaches will likely be taken, along with others I've not mentioned here. Education systems are going change vastly, that's for certain, but what's not for certain is the possibility for these to adapt more-or-less successfully.


Tony Hollowell said...

Two other solutions:

1. Internet learning, which can potentially reach any student in the world. It will be interesting to see how distance learning via the internet will impact once-secluded schools. So far, the impact has been minimal (University of Pheonix), but it could be a bigger player.

2. Start having babies. There are more consequences to birth control than simply preventing conception, and Taiwan is one of the many countries that are starting to feel the impact. It will be interesting to see how this develops.

Anonymous said...

It takes 19 years after conception to go to college so i don't think 2. is a solution for now

Colin Reid said...

This entry seems to be missing the point somewhat - it's like asking what can be done to save the policeman's job if people suddenly stopped committing crimes. Education is paid for in large part by the government. If there are fewer kids, then the government can spend less on education (and spend more on say health instead), and/or more per student. If they really want to keep the number of jobs in education constant, this means a reduction on class sizes, and consolidating small schools into bigger schools, with greater specialisation of teaching. The long-term result will be a better-educated populace, which ought to be a good thing for the economy and also for wider society. That said, perhaps the Taiwanese are already so well-educated that any further improvements will have limited impact.

More generally, children are dependants. It's a good question as to whether they are more of an economic burden than the elderly, and whether ageing societies gain or lose in terms of productivity (given that, at least judging by how much they get paid, the most 'productive' workers are in their late 50s).