The administration of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou is considering loosening controversial restrictions on mainland college students as a talent drain and low birthrate reduce the number of local students.
A review of the so-called "three restrictions and six nos" policy is expected to start following the end of the Lunar New Year holidays, slightly more than three years after the island admitted mainlanders to study academic degrees full-time.
"We are going to conduct a comprehensive review, along with the education ministry, of the current restrictions, as part of government efforts to attract more mainland students," said Wu Mei-hung, spokeswoman for the Mainland Affairs Council, the island's top planning body for mainland policy.
Wu said that the council had been working with the relevant authorities to relax the restrictions.
"These [relaxations] include recognising diplomas from several more mainland universities, allowing mainland students to take part in our skills certification tests and simplifying school application procedures," she said.
Taiwan opened its door to mainland university students in September 2010. Cross-strait relations had thawed two years into Ma's presidency that had seen marked policy shifts to engage Beijing, a former bitter rival since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949.
But the open door was hampered by the "three restrictions and six-nos" policy pushed through by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party and the Taiwan Solidarity Union in the legislature in the name of protecting local interests.
These refer to a strict set of guidelines for mainland students, including a strict yearly quota of 2,800. Mainland students are barred from receiving national health insurance, getting scholarships, working part-time jobs off campus, taking civil service examinations or working in Taiwan after graduation.
The restrictions - criticised as unfair, inhuman and discriminatory by the mainland students - are blamed for discouraging mainland students from studying in Taiwan.
"We hope the Taiwanese government can treat us as human beings," said Qia Xilin, a mainland student who studies social science at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
Qia was particularly upset over the Ma government's reluctance to allow mainland students to join the national health insurance programme while permitting other overseas students to do so.
Another unpopular restriction bars mainland students from government scholarships and serving as teaching assistants in schools. Both options were open to other overseas students, said Li Jia, chairman of the mainland students association at National Chengchi University.
The effect of the restrictions is evident in the relatively small number of mainland students who chose to study in Taiwan - last year there were fewer than 3,000 enrolments. Including those coming for short-term programmes or as exchange students, the number last year stood at about 10,000.
At a January 9 meeting with 175 Taiwanese university and college presidents and vice presidents in the southern city of Tainan, the president called for the restrictions to be relaxed.
Ma said that in the face of a global hunt for talent, Taiwan should not confine itself by continuing to set limits on mainland students, especially when the low birthrate of the past decade or so threatened to reduce the number of local students.
Last year, Taiwan's birth rate fell by just under 40,000, or 17 per cent, to only 195,000 births, compared with 2012. By 2016, Taiwan will see 30,000 unfilled student enrolment openings because of the plunging birthrate, according to the Interior Ministry.
"These restrictions not only over-protect local students, but also reduce their ability to compete with others," said Lee Yun-chung, an assistant professor of general education at China Medical University in Taichung, central Taiwan.
Lee suggested that mainland students be allowed to stay and work after graduation, which he said was one way to keep talent on the island.
More than 10,000 Taiwanese students studied on the mainland last year.
More than 5,000 Taiwanese professionals, including lawyers, accountants, doctors, architects, real estate agents and pharmacists also cross the strait each year to sit qualification exams that allowed them to practice in the vast mainland market, according to local job banks and headhunting agencies.
"It is time to open up the door wider to mainland students," Ma said, adding that mainland students should be allowed to join the island's national health insurance programme in the name of fairness.
Council officials said the review could start soon after the Lunar New Year, but its findings would still need approval by the legislature.
"The government sent a draft to the legislature last year for revisions to the regulations, but no progress has been made so far," a council official said.
She hoped that, with the DPP adopting a more friendly attitude towards mainland civilians, the revisions could be approved by lawmakers in the new legislative session next month.
Earlier this month, the DPP declared it would no longer be hostile to mainland students and spouses in Taiwan, and would encourage more exchanges and dialogue among think tanks with the mainland.