More Channels, More Inequality? the Debate around University Admissions Reforms

Written by Jen-Chen Chao.

Image credits: exam by Alberto G./Flicker, license CC BY 2.0

Up until the 1990s, all university applicants in Taiwan were allotted university places based solely on their test scores on a standardised exam. This was generally seen as leading to a high-pressure environment in which students had to prepare endlessly for a high-stake test. Recent attempts by the Government have tried to alleviate some of this pressure whilst also promote the learning and developments of students. For example, the ministry of education abolished the former national standardised exam, known as 大學聯考 and implemented a multi-channel university admission system in the 2000s. Every student still has to take a standardised exam, now known as the General Scholastic Ability Test (GSAT大學學科能力測驗) in January or February of their last year of high school, but the importance of this test result depends on the application channel used. Nowadays, students typically earn admission to universities through one of three main channels. In order of total percentage of admissions achieved through such channels, the channels are the Application Program(申請入學); and the Assigned-Subjects Exam Program(指考分發) and “The Star Project” (繁星推薦). 

The Assigned-Subjects Exam program is similar to the old system. It had long been the most common application, but it was overtaken in 2015 by the Application Program. The Assigned-Subjects Exam program is currently based entirely on a second exam, the Assigned-Subjects Exam (ASE大學指定科目考試) which students who apply through this channel must take. Despite previously being the predominant system for university entrance, it now serves more as a back-up option for those who do not secure a place through the Star Project and the Application Program. 

The Application Program is a kind of holistic review program that measures both exam and non-exam achievements. All applicants are first screened by their scores on the standardised exam, the GSAT, using the standard set by each department. Then, in the second section, university departments can evaluate those who pass GSAT screening by holding their own independent tests; requesting additional material like personal statements and high-school transcript, and/or inviting students to interview in the department. 

The youngest and the least commonly used of the three systems is “the Star Project,” which began in 2010. This system is based off results from the GSAT and is designed to create more spaces for students from traditionally less privileged schooling environments. In the Star Project, all high schools can put two best-performing students from each of the three high school streams on the list (liberal arts, engineering, and medicine). Departments of universities then choose these students mainly based on their academic performances in high schools and then distinguish students by their GSAT scores if they have the same in-school performances. 

Despite admission reforms having already been underway for nearly 20 years now, criticism has been mounting in recent years as the changes are starting to be felt more deeply. Since the Application Program became the most common stream for entrance in 2015, it has been subject to much more public scrutiny. This shift did not happen by chance; the changes in the distribution of the placements was the result of an active push by the Government aimed at fully implementing multi-channel admission system. 

A screenshot of a cell phone

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Chart 1. Data collected and provided by Yi-Wen Chen.

Diverse admissions or “deep purse” admissions? 多元入學 or 多錢入學?

Both those in favour and against the reforms have been more active in recent years. Many critics and some well-organised parental associations contend that the new admission programs systematically benefit advantaged students and worsen educational inequality. Other parental associations, some liberal officials, and some educators maintain that the changes have been positive and have helped improve the admission system. The debate has been fought across the media and in various press conferences.  The importance of the once dominant standardised exam has been declining, and the role of non-exam performances has become more salient in the admission process.

When the standardised exam ASE is not as dominant anymore, and the increasing share of the Application Program makes extracurricular activities more important, controversies about the admission system have been arising. Parents in the anti-multi-channel-admission camp assume that students from wealthy families have better opportunities to join extracurricular activities during high schools, and thus can take advantage of the second section of the Application Program since this program would consider these non-exam performances. These people have a strong and entrenched belief that the standardised exam is the fairest criteria to admit applicants. Therefore, some influential parental organisations on the opposing side have argued that this new system is not fair in the sense that it would broaden the existing social inequality between students from different family backgrounds. Some of the parental groups that oppose the policy called the admission system “deep purse admissions” (多錢入學) as opposed to the official name of the policy, “diverse admissions” (多元入學) and mobilised to protest against the Government, demanding to dismantle the multi-channel system and rebuild the old one. The officials in the Ministry of Education defended the policy and argued that the system could better help students develop their interests and potential. 

Many Taiwanese economists and sociologists have now begun trying to answer this question empirically. For example, recent research has suggested that the Star Project has allowed more rural students to enter prestigious universities. Nevertheless, most of the existing studies lack the information on students’ family socioeconomic background, so they cannot directly answer whether the admission programs benefit students from advantaged/disadvantaged family. Instead, these researches could only comment on a rural/urban divide. Although there may now be more students who do not hail from the top high schools in Taipei, this is not the same as there being more students from poor or minority backgrounds per se. 

I, along with researchers, have been striving to collect survey data to answer the puzzle of whether the Application Program is more favourable to the wealthy or advantaged family. The preliminary results of these studies suggest that the standardised exam may not be that fair as thought by those parental groups. Still, these efforts are only limited to certain universities, especially top-tier schools. Also, we still know little about the decision-making process of reviewers in the Application Program, which requires more data-collecting and interviews. There is still much more work that needs to be done to understand what effect these reforms have had, and hopefully, this will allow us to build truly more equitable systems. 

Jen-Chen Chao is a Graduate student in the Department of Sociology, National Taiwan University, studying educational inequality through quantitative methods. 

This article is part of a special issue on higher education and inequality.

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