Visiting mainland students are taught a harsh lesson in Taiwan politics
The unfair conditions imposed on students from across the strait may undermine one of the programme's most important benefits
Asked for their first impressions of Taiwan after stepping on a university campus here, many mainland students happily reply "friendly and free".
Wait a few months, however, and some of those same students might have a much less flattering description: "narrow-minded and biased".
Who could blame them? Taiwan has been anything but hospitable to mainland university students since lifting a six-decade-old ban and accepting its first full-time applicants from across the strait last autumn.
Not only are mainland students subject to enrolment caps, banned from part-time work and precluded from getting jobs after they graduate - restrictions not faced by overseas students or Taiwanese students on the mainland - they don't even get basic health coverage. That last point is the most outrageous. Set aside for a moment what denying health care to struggling students does to undercut Taiwan's claim to represent a more sensitive and humane model of Chinese leadership.
The system is patently unfair. The government is withholding a basic service that it readily gives to foreign students and overseas Chinese. In fact, Taiwanese law requires such students to enrol in the National Health Insurance programme after living on the island for four months.
So, while the parents of an American or Japanese student can rest easy knowing their child can see a doctor if something happens while they're studying abroad, mainland parents are forced to accept a health risk as the price of a better education.
There have already been reports of mainland students getting sick and running up huge medical bills they can't afford. Who knows how many have skipped treatment, helping minor ailments potentially become major ones.
There's plenty of blame to go around. President Ma Ying-jeou, who champions closer ties to the mainland, has done a poor job of sticking up for mainland students since signing the deal that allows them to pursue degrees at Taiwan's 164 local universities and colleges.
As the ruling party, Ma's Kuomintang bears much of the responsibility for agreeing, under pressure from the Democratic Progressive Party and other pro-independence groups two years ago, to the numerous restrictions on mainland students.
The government has also agreed to cap the number of mainland students at 2,000, or one per cent of overall enrolment. Not that that matters. Only 900 came in each of the last two years, less than half the number of Taiwanese who study on the mainland. Maybe they've picked up the message they're not wanted.
The DPP shouldn't be let off the hook, either. The party and its allies in the Taiwan Solidarity Union have used every trick - from filibusters to fisticuffs - to keep mainland students out.
Since the spring, they've similarly held back Ma's efforts to give health insurance to the ones already here. DPP chairman Su Tseng-chang says the chief concern is cost, suggesting the programme might add to the insurance fund's deficit. But even a cursory review of the numbers suggests the opposite is true.
The government's health insurance plan would cost NT$14,988 (HK$3,918) annually per student, of which the students would be responsible to pay NT$8,988. The average foreign student has medical expenses of about NT$6,000, meaning the government would make nearly NT$3,000.
Such figures suggest KMT spokesman Yin Wei is right when he accuses the DPP of "opposing the mainland only for opposition's sake".
If so, the DPP is being shortsighted. An influx of eager, Chinese-speaking students from across the strait could help offset Taiwan's declining fertility rate and prevent the closure of colleges and universities.
Moreover, wouldn't letting young, open-minded mainlanders experience the benefits of a free, dynamic and democratic society be the most effective way to advance Taiwan's hopes for a freer, less authoritarian mainland?
Taiwan should be looking for any way it can to show its commitment to human rights and its concern for all Chinese, no matter what side of the strait they were born on.