'When I was in the plane flying to Taiwan, I was nervous. I did not know how I would be received. But, from the taxi driver who explained everything on the way from the airport, to the student who looked after me and took me to the best restaurants, I've been very happy.' So says Zhang Haiqing, from Yangzhou , Jiangsu - the only mainland student at Kaohsiung's National Sun Yat-sen University. She is attending classes in Taiwan for one semester under an exchange programme. After a fierce debate, Taiwan has decided to admit mainlanders as full-time students to its universities. In November, Taiwanese Education Minister Cheng Jei-cheng announced the island's government would recognise mainland academic credentials and open its universities to mainland students from August. 'We want to stimulate academic exchanges between students across the Taiwan Strait, facilitate mutual understanding and maintain Taiwan's image and dignity,' he said. His ministry will restrict numbers to between 0.5 and 1 per cent of the total admitted, and most people expect 1,000 to 2,000 mainland students to be admitted this year. The National Sun Yat-sen University started accepting exchange students from the mainland in 2004. Ms Zhang advises her classmates to follow her. 'Taiwan is very good. The scenery is lovely and the students are good to me. I do not talk politics. Studying is not so different to the mainland, but we do not have to study Marxism or pass an exam in it. I would like to work in Taiwan in future.' The minister's announcement was the result of years of debate over whether to open degree programmes to mainland students, who have been visiting Taiwan on short-term exchanges for several years. Taiwan's universities face a serious shortage of students, forcing faculties to close or merge, especially in newer private colleges. The island has the lowest birth rate in the world, and last year the government announced measures aimed at increasing it by 2015. For decades, foreigners and overseas Chinese have attended Taiwan's universities, but many are now attracted by the rise of the mainland and its universities. As the number of applicants has fallen, so have entry requirements. All this persuaded the universities to argue for the admission of mainland students. Each year, nearly 10 million mainlanders apply to university, of whom half succeed - meaning a market of 5 million who want a tertiary education. But allowing even a small number is controversial in the pressure cooker of Taiwanese politics. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party argues that mainlanders would take places and jobs from Taiwanese students. 'Recognising Chinese diplomas and allowing Chinese students to attend universities in Taiwan is a highly complex issue,' DPP chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen said in October. 'Any decision could change the basic structure of the two sides across the Taiwan Strait.' Such opposition persuaded the Taiwanese government to limit the number of mainland students and impose restrictions - they will not be able to work part-time outside the campus, extend their stay, seek employment in Taiwan after graduation or register for professional exams. Taiwanese students at Sun Yat-sen campus echoed the concerns. 'I welcome mainland students,' said Chan Chi-yu, a first-year student in electronics. 'But we should control the number and length of stay, so as not to influence local students. There is so much human talent on the mainland. They are very competitive.' Hsieh Wu-chang, another student in electronics, said: 'There would be many applicants, so we can pick the best ones. They should be allowed to work in Taiwan for a year after graduation.' Li Ming-teh, a student in psychology visiting the campus from a university in Chiayi, southwestern Taiwan, said the government should not set limits: 'We should judge students on their merits and competitive ability, not their origin. If they want to stay on and work, it should be up to them.' In the race to attract mainland talent and education fees, Taiwan is competing against Hong Kong and countries all over the world. But, for a mainlander considering a university in Taiwan, several issues remain unresolved. It is unclear whether the academic qualification he or she receives will be recognised on the mainland. There is also the wider political uncertainty; a future DPP government may not be as favourable to the scheme. So Taiwan will remain behind the US, Europe and Australia as the first overseas choice for most mainland students. Attending a Taiwanese university will not improve their English, one major objective of foreign study. Chu Jingtao, a scholar at the Taiwan Research Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, said mainlanders should choose famous schools in Taiwan and study subjects in which they were strong, such as information technology, health and medicine. He said Taiwan 'has an excess of qualified people in many sectors. It will be very difficult for Chinese students to find work after graduation, except for specialists in new technologies, new materials and new forms of energy.'