Battle to close academic and vocational divide
"I was really upset when I failed the Joint Secondary Exam and had to go to vocational school. The neighbours looked down on me. But now I'm pleased. I can strip a computer apart and put it together again," says Liu Bin.
Others feel less of a sense of achievement in a society which so respects scholars.
Only 30 per cent of students pass the Joint Secondary Exam (at age 15) for the academic high schools which prepare them for university entrance. The rest must attend vocational schools, considered by many to be a second rate option which often (unfairly) labels them as blue-collar workers relegated to repetitive, industrial jobs.
The 30:70 divide between academic and vocational schooling was imposed by the government in the 1970s to meet the demand of the manufacturing sector for skilled manual workers. However, in a society that values learning, whatever the quality of vocational education - which is high by international standards - many students are involuntarily enrolled in vocational schools only because they failed their 15-plus exams.
This explains the extreme pressure on 12- to 15-year-olds to avoid such a fate. "We have to consider why we are driving students so hard and not allowing more than 30 per cent of students to be successful," said Dr Lee Yuan-tseh, chairman of the council for education. "The other 70 per cent must be allowed to catch up and not be completely neglected as they have been in the past. "
The vocational schools, unpopularity notwithstanding, are considered by many to be one of the successes of Taiwan, turning out well-skilled workers who easily find jobs. But, says Ms Hung Hsiu-chu, a KMT legislator and chairman of the Legislature's Education Committee, this has been achieved at great cost to society by forcing people into areas in which they have no interest.
"The students' right to choose their subject should be honoured," she said.
There are moves to reform the system. Educationists hope an Educational Reform Council document will quicken the pace of change. In response to popular pressure, the council is pushing for the academic stream to be increased to 40 per cent and ultimately to get rid of the 15-plus exam.
The ultimate aim is to increase the academic stream to 50 per cent, but even Dr Wu Jin, the education minister, is sceptical that this can be achieved. He wants instead to make it easier for students to enter universities after attending vocational high schools, so that vocational schools are not the dead-end they are often perceived to be.
Beginning this academic year, vocational students can do add-on courses to enter universities and the civil service.
One of the recommendations of the Education Reform Council is to postpone much of the vocational part of the education until college level, so that students can have more general education and then pursue vocational studies in the specialised colleges and technology universities which have dramatically increased in number in recent years. In part, this is due to the fast pace of developments in technology.
Such reforms have wide support, even among all the political parties - unusual in a country where inter-party rivalries can sometimes be so bitter that legislators resort to fisticuffs. But there is some opposition. "Because the exam system allowed social movement, children from very poor families, so long as they were talented, could make it to the top," said Dr Lee.
In common with countries like Singapore and Malaysia, Taiwan feels a need to be competitive internationally, more so because it lies in the shadow of mainland China.
"Everyone in Asia is doing education reform, but we have a particular urgency compared to other countries," said Dr Wu Jin. "We have to be ahead of the 1.2 billion people in mainland China. We have to be better. But mainland China is catching up very fast, so we have to develop our high technology, and people with higher degrees have to be accommodated."