Will Taiwan get lucky with the surge in foreign students?

 Music pumps, alcohol is consumed, hormones are released, bodies gyrate! It’s another Ladies’ Night at the Brass Monkey pub in downtown Taipei, for many folks a great way to release their mid-week tension. But could this cross-cultural revelry also be part of the answer to making Taiwan more internationally competitive?

 Maybe! Because tearing up the dance floor are a group from the “Foreign Students in Taiwan” club at their weekly “International Mingle”. FSIT’s ranks have continued to swell in recent years – their FB page now has almost 15,000 members – part of a steady increase in the number of foreign students that many hope will make Taiwan wiser in the ways of the world.

 Taiwan needs more foreign talent! Every year, up to 30,000 ambitious local professionals leave to work in China, the USA, or other places where salaries are higher and opportunities more diverse. In addition, about 56,000 Taiwanese annually go abroad to study in the USA, the UK, Japan, China or Korea – among other countries. After graduation, many of these find jobs in China, Europe or the USA.

 This is a serious loss, as the native labor force is shrinking due to age, and comes at a time when Taiwan needs its best and brightest to compete in a global economy increasingly driven by innovation.

  However, while government measures to attract foreign professionals to Taiwan to fill this gap have been limp, the number of foreign students in Taiwan has been growing impressively. From 2006 to 2014, the total number of foreign students – whether for degree, diploma, short course, exchange program, or Mandarin language training – went from 27,000 to almost 93,000, an increase of 66,000. Of this 93,000, 33,000 were from Mainland China, and 20,000 were “overseas compatriots” i.e. ethnic Chinese not from the PRC without a Taiwan ID card, often from Hong Kong or Malaysia. That’s a lot of Han bodies, but still leaves 40,000 students per year from other cultures, an increase of about 23,000 from 2006.

 Out of a total of 1.3 million college students overall, that’s not much – only 3%. But it’s still much higher than the overall percentage of Westerners in the workforce. And on campuses with international MBA programs and Mandarin training centers (NTU, NTNU, NCCU, to name a few), it’s even more noticeable.

 This leads to all kinds of cultural exchanges: local students and staff have a chance to interact with students from around the globe: Russia, India, Turkey, Italy, Latin America, as well as North America and Western Europe; foreign students get to experience the Taiwanese. Everybody gets lucky!

 That is something the FSIT and its co-founder Daniel Tarpy are best at. Tarpy was born into a multicultural world. His dad was a US navy sailor in the Vietnam War, and Tarpy himself was born in ‘the PI’, the Philippines. His parents took a position as missionaries in Taiwan, which is why Tarpy lives here. In 2011, he was involved with TedX at Ming Chuan University, where he is now doing his master’s in global affairs, and in the same year he and some classmates started the FSIT. The vision was, he says, “to integrate the world, to have less violence, more understanding.” The group has held arts and games events, big parties – as well as their weekly “mingle” at the Brass Monkey. Naturally, with university students, there is a lot – ahem – ‘going on’. Romance between foreigners and locals is nothing new to Taiwan, and Tarpy says that about half of foreign students date each other and the other half date locals. He says that the biggest cross-cultural pattern here is Caucasian on Taiwanese, but notes that there is a shift toward increasing numbers of Taiwanese men with Caucasian women. That’s one indicator of cross-cultural influence. Another is the growing number of Taiwanese students who seem totally at home around foreigners. “Some students just seem more comfortable with an international crowd. Others don’t. You can really tell the difference.”

 But while this spike of foreign students is helping future professionals to be more open minded and comfortable working in close-quarters with a multicultural crowd, can it really make up for the brain drain?

 Thanks to recent changes in government policy, foreign students can now get part-time open work permits. Many of them give language classes (privates) or work as servers. Also, after graduation, they can get a 6-month visa extension to look for jobs, and don’t need to meet the normal requirement of two years of work experience before they can be hired by Taiwanese companies. Many stay on as teachers or do sales and marketing jobs for local companies exporting to their own countries, and a lot of ethnic Chinese from Southeast Asia work in the ICT industry.

 But not only are their numbers far fewer, they also lack the experience of those heading abroad. In fact, many argue that the brain drain cannot be stopped unless its underlying cause is addressed – low salaries. Why would top talent come here if they are seduced by better paying rivals like China? And why wouldn’t an adventurous young Taiwanese engineer, facing the grim realities of local salary levels, want to get some experience in Silicon Valley?

  It’s a hard one: in the age of offshoring, automation and AI, salaries are not likely to rise significantly. And in terms of this recent bulge in foreign students eventually fulfilling Taiwan’s needs, no one knows how long it’s really going to be!

 The FSIT Students in Taiwan is a lovely group of bright young people who were very kind to me and I hold them in high esteem. If you are bored and want to blow off some steam, go to the Brass Monkey’s Ladies’ Night on Thursdays, dear reader, and say “Hi!” to Daniel Tarpy and friends. You’ll have a blast!


About jaydeegroot

I am a Canadian writer, editor, researcher and trainer living in Taiwan. My primary areas of interest are cross-cultural relations and processes, in the context of global social change.
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