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Aging Taiwan population poses conundrum for schools

TAIPEI (UCAN): Catholic schools in Taiwan have reached a crossroads, with some asking whether they should aim at becoming international schools for students from mainland China and southeast Asia, rather than opting to serve the needs of local students.

Further complicating the situation is an educational divide about the focus of meeting local needs. Should schools seek to assist the poor or establish themselves as elite institutions that require high tuition fees?

The Church has been providing education on the island since the founding of Blessed Imelda Girls’ School in 1917. However, during the 1950s several Catholic schools moved from mainland China to settle in Taiwan, while several dioceses and religious congregations opened schools in rural counties.

The peak expansion period was probably marked in 1961 with the relocation of Fu Jen Catholic University from Beijing to Taipei.

More than a half century on, there are now 48 primary, secondary and tertiary educational institutions bearing the name of Catholic and struggling to maintain their viability amid new government measures aimed at improving the sustainability of public schools in the light of a drop in the birth rate.

The resulting competition between public and non-government institutions has created a widening gap between urban schools and their rural counterparts, which are generally run by the Church and have fewer resources.

These topics were on the top of the agenda at a symposium organised by Fu Jen University to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its establishment in Taiwan. In addition, internationalisation, careerism, secularism and competition featured prominently in the presentations given by various speakers.

Government data show that the birth rate began to drop in 1981 and projections estimate that by 2016, there will be 240,000 vacant positions for only 190,000 college-age students.

At the same time, the 2008 population of over 75s is expected to increase from the one million to 1.45 million by 2018.

As the population imbalance increases, local educators are proposing recruiting international students from mainland China and the Asian region, while also running community colleges for those in their sunset years.

The government is facing the same difficulties as the Church in this area. Statistics released by the Ministry of the Interior show that almost 17,000 families required government assistance in the first half of this year, an 11 per cent rise from the same period last year.

Among these families, 42 per cent were widows or widowers below the age of 65, while 33 per cent were single-parent families with children below the age of 18 and with limited or no employment.

The statistics also show a rise of 20 per cent over last year in single male heads of households.

This trend in society is pushing the Church to look more at the pastoral side of educational institutes and work at developing places of love and acceptance for children from needy families.

They have called for free schooling and accommodation to enable parents to concentrate on their work and help them regain the ability to provide for their families.

In his closing speech to the symposium, Fu Jen president, Bernard Li Chien-chiu, made the point in starker terms. “Educators at Catholic schools must bear the spirit of the martyr, or they leave this field as soon as possible,” he said.

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