Academic Culture in Taiwan: Fairness

Back in January I posted some general thoughts about teaching here in Taiwan. Today I would like to talk a little more in detail about one aspect of Taiwanese academic life which has consistently struck me as different from that in the US: the emphasis on fairness. Of course, fairness is important in the US as well, but it seems to me that a concern with procedural fairness often trumps other concerns for Taiwanese, whereas in the US we are more willing to except unfair procedures if we feel the outcome is still legitimate. I notice this at all levels of academia, from the student who told me to fail her on the final exam, rather than rescheduling it around her eye operation, because it would be “fairer to the other students,” to colleagues who hesitate to punish a student for plagiarism because of the possibility that they might not have caught all the students in the class who plagiarized.

This attitude is widespread in Taiwan and can be found in other areas of life as well. My favorite example is the Taiwanese driving test, which is done on what looks like a miniature race course. The skills tested on this test are very particular to the test itself. You have to avoid rubber bumps in the road which sound an alarm if hit with the tire while completing various types of maneuvers: parallel parking, pulling into a parking spot, making an “S curve” forward and backwards, etc. It is like playing a life-sized computer game. Because the race track is so standardized, you can train on a practice course identical to the test course. Instructors will tell you exactly how many times to turn the wheel at each location. If you memorize their instructions, it is very hard to fail. (There is no need to even drive at normal driving speeds, you can take the test as slowly as you like.) This is very different from the driving test I took in NY which tested some similar maneuvers, but took place on a normal street with other cars and at a normal driving pace. Taiwanese would object to such a test because there is the NY version of the test relies too much on the judgement of the person administering the test, and so the test might not be the same for every candidate. (A friend who claims to have been failed on the NY test because she is an immigrant woman would probably prefer the Taiwanese system.)

Recent educational reforms have shift from a single national entrance exam towards the US system of having people directly apply to universities. While reformers point to the advantage of moving away from high-stakes testing (which the NCLB is belatedly imposing on the US educational system), many parents and teachers object to the possibility of increasingly unfair outcomes. Now, one could argue that a system partially dependent on how much parents can afford to pay for cram schools isn’t exactly “fair,” but for Taiwanese parents the new system imposed the possibility of personal preference, family connections, and perhaps even cultural capital, making it much harder for them to know the rules of the game. The end result was that Taiwan never fully abandoned the national exams and currently has two systems: you can apply directly to the university, or you can get in via the national exam.

From my perspective, as trained scholars, we should be trusted to make professional judgements about issues like plagiarism, student qualifications, etc., but I often run up against the objection that this would not be fair. While I don’t exactly disagree, it isn’t clear to me that the seemly more objective measures my colleagues propose are any less subject to bias. I’m still grappling with the exact nature of the differences, but I think I’m simply more willing to demand that my judgement be given some authority on the basis of my training, whereas my colleagues generally want to look for some external measure to which they can point in case their decision is challenged as being “unfair.”

4 thoughts on “Academic Culture in Taiwan: Fairness

  1. In Taiwan fairness = sameness, and = outcome fairness. Teacher pay everywhere is the same, for instance. At my old university the “____ of the year” were rotated around each department, so each year a different department had students win valedictorian, student of the year, etc. God forbid the students win on merit, that would not be fair. In many universities grades are dictated from above — average grades should be 80 for all classes, is a common number I have encountered at several universities. One reason students here show so little interest in learning is because merit counts for nothing.

    Similarly competition is prevented by the MOE. The number of students a university may accept is limited by the MOE for each department based on a complex formula. All teachers are paid the same. All promotions go through the same system, etc. Sameness = fairness. In the US where I am from, we practice opportunity fairness, everyone has the same opportunity (ideally) but outcomes sort by merit (ideally).

    One reason for all this heavyhanded centralized control is the rampant corruption of all aspects of social structure in Taiwan, where the appearance of a thing = being a thing. Hence the testing system does not so much ensure fairness — it is biased heavily in favor of mainlanders — as it prevents money from ruling the system. Imagine if NTU suddenly said it would accept applications without tests for all student openings. Everyone would simply hand over red envelopes stuffed with cash to ensure that their kids were chosen (this already occurs at certain high schools). The system would become completely corrupt. National Taiwan U is already overwhelmingly a wealthy family school, but the testing system also provides that all-important appearance of fairness.

  2. I’m enjoying the Taiwan-focus – my bachelor’s was in Chinese and I studied in Taiwan, and I’m about to start a masters in soc anth at Oxford, so this feels doubly relevant to me. I certainly understand now why the driving was so appalling out there. I’d heard that driving test pass rates were close to 100%, but I didn’t realise that it was due to the test being on a standardised track. (Here in the UK, it’s even more rigorous than in the states, and I know people who had to take the test six times before they passed. Learning to drive typically takes at least six months. It’s not so subjective, either – there’s a consistent marking system applicable to all maneouvres and road driving.)

    I suppose it goes to show that societal attributes have upsides and downsides to those living in the society. The upside of fairness is the neat queue that appears when you line up for the MRT, and the downside is a greater likelihood of dying in traffic…

  3. I just have to:
    “I certainly understand now why the driving was so appalling out there.”
    and in the US too?

  4. Compared to the UK or Europe? You bet. Driving is taken seriously here – we live in bubble wrap as it is. When I took my test (nearly five years ago), it was already very strict, but the regulatory body recently made it even more difficult, especially the theory test. When my mother took the New York driving test, she hit the curb in a manoeuvre, which is an automatic fail here. The examiner just said that it was okay – it’s just “guidance”.

    In the UK, speed limits are also quite a bit higher on average, and the vast majority of cars are manual (in fact, I’ve not once seen an automatic in this country). But the number of RTAs pales in comparison with the USA. It’s just different driving culture, I suppose. It’s certainly not the case that UK drivers are just inherently better. It’s just that the standard required before you can get onto the road is that much higher.

    Anyway, no one can beat India or the Philippines. A cabbie in Cebu told me that the head instructor of the whole of the Philippines once took a US driving test and failed. Probably apocryphal, but I could believe it from the roads.

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