By Ho Ai Li , Taiwan Correspondent
TAIPEI: For Taiwanese universities grappling with declining enrolments, a much-needed boost may be in sight.
They could welcome their first official batch of Chinese students by the autumn term this year, if Taiwan's legislature lifts a decades-old ban on mainlanders studying there.
While such a move may lift enrolment figures, other problems still plague Taiwanese universities, which are losing their edge to counterparts in Hong Kong and China, say analysts.
Taiwan's Global Views Monthly magazine recently reported fears of a brain drain from Taiwan's higher education sector largely because of its uncompetitive salaries.
Academics in Taiwan are paid less than those of the other 'dragon' economies - Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore - noted Professor Sebastian Liao, secretary-general of the prestigious National Taiwan University (NTU).
In recent years, many top universities in Taiwan have seen lecturers leave for China, attracted by the vibrant development there and more attractive packages. For instance, the island has lost big names like Prof Huo De-ming, formerly of Taiwan's National Chengchi University, now one of the key experts on the Chinese economy at Peking University.
Fears that Taiwanese universities are lagging behind their Asian counterparts have worsened of late. Hong Kong, for instance, has moved aggressively to position itself as an education hub, courting students from China as well as Taiwan.
Just last month, the University of Hong Kong took part in an education fair in Taiwan and offered scholarships worth US$18,000 (S$25,100) over three years to students who do well.
In contrast, Taiwanese politicians are still stuck in the debate over whether to allow more Chinese students and recognise university qualifications from China.
And Hong Kong universities are eyeing not just Taiwanese students, but also lecturers.
They have embarked on a recruitment drive ahead of the switch from three-year to four-year bachelor's programmes in 2012. The change is to align themselves with institutions in the United States and Britain.
They are reportedly planning to hire about 1,000 lecturers, and some of them have approached Taiwanese academics.
Hong Kong universities are offering to pay Taiwanese academics three to four times as much, president of National Chengchi University Wu Se-hwa told the Taiwanese media.
Prof Liao of NTU also noted that pay is a key factor when it comes to retaining staff. Scholars who choose universities elsewhere over NTU often do so because 'they feel that its salary levels are not as high'. He cited the case of a promising colleague who was said to have been offered the chance to head a research centre - specially set up for him - by a Chinese university.
'It's very hard for us to get them to stay. We don't have the resources to counter-offer,' Prof Liao told The Straits Times. 'We can't say we'd build a centre for them too.'
He said the brain drain is not a big problem for NTU, Taiwan's most reputed university. But other less competitive universities may find it tough to retain their staff, he pointed out.
The failure to retain talent highlights a fundamental problem plaguing Taiwan's tertiary education sector: Too many players, too few students, too little resources.
The island of 23 million people has more than 160 universities. More than one in three colleges will have to close down by 2021 because of dwindling birth rates, according to forecasts.
Unlike universities in places like Australia or the US which supplement their revenues by taking in foreign students, Taiwanese universities do not have a large share of international faculty and students.
The hands of Taiwan university leaders are also tied as they have limited autonomy to decide in areas like wage levels and investments.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.