The Executive Yuan should Confront Taiwan's Brain Drain
China News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
November 10, 2009
Recently the domestic media reported on the difference in starting salaries for beginning university professors in places such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Chinese Mainland, and Singapore. The discrepancy has many knowledgeable individuals worried. The data shows that accredited universities in Hong Kong, Singapore and mainland China offered starting Assistant Professors salaries three to four times as much as those offered by National Taiwan University. Even ignoring elite schools, 15% of all universities on Mainland China offer new teacher salaries higher than those offered by universities on Taiwan. National Taiwan University, the Academia Sinica, and other institutions are having difficulty recruiting outstanding professors. The Executive Yuan's Science and Technology Advisors have also warned that over time, talented people on Taiwan will gradually be lost. If we are unable to attract talent to Taiwan, we will wind up with nothing.
Over the past decade, the economic situation on Taiwan has not been favorable compared to other Asian regions. In terms of real wages, university professors have gone 10 years without a salary increase. But society on Taiwan is highly populistic. Many people demand coercive egalitarianism. But in a knowledge economy, the driving force behind economic growth is research and innovation. If we are unable to offer higher pay to R&D personnel, then our economy will decline. Everyone's income will decrease. Put simply, the consequence of radical populist refusals to tolerate salary increases for others, will be salary cuts for oneself.
In fact, enhancing R&D competitiveness on Taiwan does not require increasing the salary of every university professor. It only requires a small increase in budgets, a minor operation, in order to have an effect. This is how it can be done:
First, under current rules, universities may set up visiting professorships, and enjoy some degree of flexibility in setting salaries. Therefore, experienced, internationally sought after professors with outstanding teaching records, may receive higher than average salaries. But universities have no flexibility in how much they pay new, inexperienced professors. Our reforms call for increases in the salaries of some new, inexperienced professors, rather than a comprehensive, across the board salary increase.
Second, there are 170 universities on Taiwan. Perhaps fewer than 20 of these are competing with Singapore, Hong Kong, and other places for talent. Therefore only a few universities need to increase their salaries in order to compete for qualified personnel. In other words, not all universities require salary increases -- only those under international competitive pressure.
Third, not every professor has an objective need for a salary increase, even at internationally competitive universities such as National Taiwan University and National Cheng Kung University. Some disciplines are internationally unpopular. Some professors have less than outstanding records. Therefore only a few disciplines actually require salary increases.
In short, attracting talent does not require across the board salary increases. Distinctions must be made between experienced and inexperienced professors, between better schools and lesser schools, between better teachers and lesser teachers within each school. The problem seems complicated. But one merely needs to grasp two principles. (A) Distinctions must be made within schools, in accordance with university autonomy. (B) Distinctions must be made between schools, in accordance with school performance and international competitiveness. Grasp these two principles, and the details will be a simple matter. Because salary increases will not be across the board, any budget increases will be insignificant.
According to newspaper reports six months ago, the Academia Sinica made just such a proposal to the Executive Yuan. Its proposal was endorsed by the Ministry of Education, the National Science Council, the Central Personnel Administration, the DGBAS, and well-known universities on Taiwan. The proposal inclued even the necessary budget and the means of raising the funds. Alas, as soon as such motions encounter political obstacles, they are either stalled or derailed. Basically the Academia Sinica proposed to increase management budgets for university research projects. It would allow professors' salaries to vary. Allocations would be determined by each university, in accordance with its own internal procedures. But recently the Ministry of Education said it wanted to make fundamental changes in the payroll system.
Basically, we agree with making professors' salaries variable. This flexibility must be linked with the university's performance in research. Only then can salaries reflect the realities of international competition for talent. Even if the Executive Yuan intends to make fundamental changes in the payroll system, it must create a system that is flexible, that reflects the distinctions between one school and the next, between experienced professors and inexperienced professors, and between one discipline and the next. The approach proposed by the Academia Sinica reflects the aforementioned real world distinctions. Objectively speaking it is highly feasible. The Ministry of Education may wish to start from scratch, and come up with some other flexible system. But if one wishes to ensure the aforementioned three types of flexibility, one cannot avoid linking salaries with research funding. If the Ministry of Education cannot come up with a better approach, it should consider accepting the current proposal. Surely it cannot cite long-term planning as an excuse to do nothing for the next half year. Loss of competitiveness on Taiwan is a serious problem. The Executive Yuan must urge its agencies to work harder, and swiftly offer corrective measures!