Educational breakthrough puts students in a class of their own
Education is one of the last frontiers in cross-strait relations. It took the Taiwanese businessmen of Dongguan four years of complex negotiations to win approval to set up a school for their children so that they would not have to be separated from their families.
It was harder for the Ministry of Education to approve a Taiwanese school than one for Americans, French, Germans, Japanese or other nationals because of the political sensitivities.
The businessmen received approval in October 1999 and opened the school in September 2000 on a site of 20 hectares in a rural township in northern Dongguan. It has 1,760 students, from kindergarten to senior high: because of the remote location, all live on campus. It is not permitted to accept children of mainland parents. The Taiwanese business communities of Kunshan and Shanghai followed suit and have established similar schools in their two cities, with 600 and 400 pupils respectively.
Students, who study traditional and not simplified characters, receive a certificate that allows them to apply for universities in Taiwan and the mainland. Its graduates have been accepted by Beijing, People's and Zhongshan universities.
'We use teachers and class materials from Taiwan but avoid issues that are sensitive, such as some post-1949 topics,' said the school's secretary-general Wei Wan-ling. It does not fly the Republic of China flag or play its national anthem. 'Students can take extra classes in Taiwan, to prepare for the exams.'
Major changes in cross-strait education are likely during the four-year term of office of Ma Ying-jeou. The government of Chen Shui-bian would not recognise Chinese educational qualifications, making it impossible for its students to enrol in Taiwan's 90 universities. But as the birth rate falls and foreigners increasingly choose to learn Putonghua in China and not Taiwan, these universities face a serious shortage of students; some face closure. Students from the mainland are the obvious market to make up the shortfall. A survey of Taiwan university chiefs found 90 per cent in favour of admitting them.
During his election campaign, Mr Ma promised to open the door to mainland students. This would require a change in the law, recognising secondary school diplomas from the mainland and allowing mainland students to take the entrance exam. The government will also have to address the issue of whether they could work in Taiwan after they had graduated with a Taiwan degree. This is a sensitive issue, with many on the island fearing they would lose their jobs to better qualified mainlanders. The mainland is more liberal. Thousands of Taiwanese study in mainland universities and can work in the country after their graduation, in whatever companies they choose.