Competition for places in the best schools and universities in Taiwan is intense, and there is a thriving industry of private "crammers". Politicians take pride in the expansion of public sector education and its role in Taiwan's industrial success. The republic's constitution requires that at least 15 per cent of the annual budget is spent on education. This compares with around 5 per cent in the United Kingdom, and current spending on education in Taiwan is about 19 per cent.
International research ranks Taiwan eighth on a league table of skills, with the UK lagging in 24th place. Singapore comes first. The third annual White Paper on economic competitiveness, issued in June, reports that the UK compares well with competitors in higher education performance, but says that recent gains in achievements at craft and technician levels must, at the very least, be maintained to close the skills gap.
Last year's report of the Advisory Scottish Council on Education and Training Targets showed Scots have relatively better qualifications compared with other parts of the UK. The report also showed that progress towards the Government's target of having 70 per cent of 19 year olds attain technician level or university entrance qualifications by the year 2000 was very poor. Only 51 per cent of Scottish young people had achieved this level, compared with 80 per cent in Germany.
Earlier this year at a conference on vocational education and training in Taipei we were able to discuss with our Taiwanese hosts how their country has transformed itself from a mainly agricultural economy into the 13th biggest trading nation in the world. Taiwan has a huge trade surplus, a per capita income of $12,000 (Pounds 8,000) and virtually no unemployment. Manufacturing has shifted towards value-added products such as golf clubs, computers and electronic goods.
The deputy Minister of Education told us that his country's achievement is a direct result of investment in technical and vocational education. Convinced of the importance of this relationship, the Taiwan government has plans to raise further the skill level of its workforce by expanding higher education and promoting in-service training. Studies in the UK, reported in the White Paper on competitiveness, show us falling behind many of our competitors in higher level skills in new industries such as electronics.
While our universities face annual cuts in funding of around 4.5 per cent over the next four years, Taiwan's proposals amount to a vice-chancellor's dream, and include a plan to increase the number of institutes of technology from seven to 25 by the year 2000. Expansion in higher education will include funding for academic research and teaching departments in high-tech areas.
Taiwan has a dual system of vocational and general high schools. About 80 per cent of senior school students are in separate vocational high schools, but this heavy emphasis is beginning to worry educationists concerned that the pace of change in industry and commerce requires workers with more generic skills, particularly in communication and problem solving. They plan to expand high school places until the vocationalgeneral divide evens.
On visits to vocational schools and institutes we saw first-rate teaching accommodation and technical resources, as well as excellent library and individual learning facilities. The schools and colleges were set in pleasant surroundings, well maintained and had excellent cultural and leisure facilities. We got an impression of happy, motivated students and teachers, and we were also impressed with the high degree of co-operation from employers and community organisations.
Commitment to education was evident not just in directly vocational aspects of the curriculum: concern for the environment and advancing the needs of minority groups are two areas targeted in the government's development plan.
Walking through the crowded streets and alleys of Taipei, we met smiling young children, giggling coyly as they greeted us in English, a reminder of the importance that all Pacific rim countries now give to fluency in foreign languages.
Malcolm Rifkind as Foreign Secretary has invited praise for his government for increasing foreign language lessons in Scottish primaries.
Yet here the majority of five-to-11 year olds still have no access to languages teaching. Meanwhile Taiwan has made foreign languages compulsory at all levels of education - and funded the move.
There are many factors influencing Taiwan's economic success. The country is strongly committed to capitalism, yet there is something essentially socialist in ideals which appear to receive broad support from the people. Confucius taught reverence in social relations and belief in universal access to education. The Taoist tradition emphasises harmony. These qualities have become embedded in the education system. This is strikingly represented in mottoes universally proclaimed by educational establishments. The words, "integrity, simplicity, accuracy, diligence", appear in a university prospectus.
University principal, Professor Chang, stresses the importance of students ". . . learning professional techniques but also laying equal stress on ethics, knowledge, athletics, gregariousness, aesthetics and techniques, so that they may have maximum exposure to both humanities and science and technology. " This concern for balance is symbolised by the principal's visiting card - equal prominence is given to his academic title and chairmanship of the students' table tennis league.
We asked him if he had any messages for educators in the West. He said we could learn from the ancient Chinese values which emphasise help for others; family ties need to be strong to provide the best support for children; and teachers and students should love each other as Confucius taught.
We were impressed with what we saw, but it would be wrong to conclude that Taiwan's education system leaves ours standing still.
Students are very respectful of their teachers, and this reverence appears dependent and conformist. Scottish schools and colleges have worked hard to introduce a diverse curriculum and foster the group-working skills and self-sufficiency, though - a recent report suggests - possibly at the expense of basic maths and science. We have considerable experience of encouraging adults with limited education back into school or college, in developing clearer pathways for further education students to progress to higher education and in supporting students with special needs.
These strengths in our education system are clearly appreciated by the Taiwanese. The availability of a well-educated workforce and good educational institutions will have influenced decisions to build large manufacturing plants in Scotland. It is difficult to compare countries with vastly different history and culture, but there is little doubt that we can learn a lot from Taiwan.
Graham Connelly lectures at the Scottish School of Further Education, University of Strathclyde. Stephanie Young, is director of ASCETT.