Incubating Overseas Talents for the Future Policy? Uncertain Investment in the Taiwanese Scholarship

Written by Yu-Kai Liao.

Image credit: Graduation by Images Alight/ Flickr: CC BY 2.0.

A doctoral scholarship is crucial for many PhD students to start their academic careers without financial worries. In 2016, I obtained the Taiwanese scholarship of government sponsorship for overseas study (Hereinafter “the Taiwanese scholarship”) on the subject of Disaster Management and Climate Change. With the support of this scholarship, I successfully received the PhD offer from Durham Geography. Winning this scholarship is as competitive as other scholarships, but Taiwan’s Ministry of Education determines its funding subject and obligation.

This article illustrates how the Taiwanese scholarship incubates overseas Taiwanese doctoral students for future policy. However, it is an uncertain investment for the Taiwanese government since there is a foreseeable gap between governmental visions and individual interests. In addition, even though doctoral students receiving the Taiwanese scholarship must return to serve in Taiwan, it is very flexible in practice to complete this obligation and contribute to Taiwanese society.

A Foreseeable Gap between Governmental Visions and Individual Interests

The Taiwanese scholarship has a strong rationale to incubate intellectuals (or talents) in target industries or fields by funding Taiwanese students. Every year, the Ministry of Education will recruit scholars in specific fields to organise grant committees to decide what major fields the Taiwanese society is looking for in the future. For instance, due to the New Southbound Policy in 2018, the Taiwanese government has encouraged students to obtain their degrees in Southeast Asia countries. In another example, Taiwan aims to transit to a green energy society by developing offshore wind farms. In the last three years, the scholarship has been looking for potential researchers studying civil engineering on offshore wind plants or marine ecology on animal conservation. The Taiwanese scholarship has been profoundly tied to its national policies.

According to the Ministry of Education statistics, from 2012 to 2021, the number of applicants for the Taiwanese scholarship decreased from 1,011 to 352 people.

Although numerous factors may impact a student’s decision to apply for the Taiwanese scholarship, there is a foreseeable gap between government visions and individual interests. In 2019, the Taiwanese government provided ten scholarships for studying in Southeast Asian countries, while only 20 applicants signed up for the New Southbound Policy funding scheme. As a result, only a few people planned to look for doctoral degrees in Southeast Asian countries. Furthermore, some specific research topics may only be grouped under particular disciplines, which may discourage interested applicants and prevent the government from finding those who are truly passionate about the fields. For example, I have heard some sociology students complain that the Taiwanese government only wants to fund the major field of Social Enterprise, which requires backgrounds in both sociology and management and is usually taught in Business School. This targeted major field closed the door for developing other major fields in sociology. Even receiving the scholarship offer, recipients might not research the target fields the Taiwanese government wants to promote.

Our personal interests might not fit with the governmental visions, but applicants must learn how to link their research interests with the funding bodies’ criteria. As an undergraduate student, I was determined to pursue my doctoral degree in Human Geography. While Human Geography is a theoretical discipline rather than a practical-oriented subject, the Taiwanese government is not interested in investing in this field. To obtain a scholarship, I chose to apply for the major field of Climate Change and Adaptation Strategy, which is closer to Geography. After coming to Durham Geography in the UK, I have been working on the operation and influence of commercial shrimp farming in the Mekong Delta under climate change and market reforms. In my heart, I know that this project does not fully meet the national expectation. However, I believe it can still contribute to Taiwanese society by expanding its research focus to Southeast Asian Studies.

There are always gaps between national expectations and realities, but it does not mean that the Taiwanese government does not allow any gap between them. After all, there are so many uncertainties in conducting a doctoral project, such as the original proposal might not work out in the fieldwork or experiment phase. In other cases, some PhD students cannot finish their degree for personal reasons. 

A Strict Obligation in the Contract but Loose in Practice

According to the contract of the scholarship, all the funding recipients have obligations to return to serve in Taiwan for 3-4 years, depending on the length of the funding period. However, it is possible to postpone the obligation up to 10 years if recipients can obtain a job in foreign academia and private companies. In contrast, the British scholarship from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is open to international students and does not have this return requirement.  

In this given circumstance, people studying sciences and social sciences might have different opinions on this obligation. PhD students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine) tend to apply for other scholarships without this return obligation since they are more “competitive” in the job market and prefer to secure their freedom in the future. By contrast, PhD students in humanities and social sciences have more difficulty obtaining a PhD scholarship and are less likely to have a lucrative job outside academia after graduation. In recent years, the Taiwanese government has provided scholarships without any policy agenda and return obligation, which might benefit doctoral researchers. These scholarships are jointly funded by the Taiwanese government and prestigious universities, such as the University of Oxford, University of Cambridge, Washington University, University of Southern California, and other universities. 

Although the obligation looks very strict on the contract, there are many flexible ways to handle the obligation in practice. If recipients can provide fair reasons to the Ministry of Education, they always support our academic career plan to arrange the time of return obligation. Instead of worrying about the obligation, finding an ideal postdoctoral position or a lectureship worldwide is more competitive. Like many other scholarships, the funding body cannot guarantee recipients any job position. They must face the competitive job market and sort out their future by themselves.

The Taiwanese scholarship is a public policy tool to incubate future talents for national development plans. However, this doctoral scholarship is an uncertain investment. For example, students might not conduct their initial research projects reviewed by the grant committees because of uncertainties in the fieldwork or experiment phase, which the government recognises. Furthermore, this policy-oriented scholarship requires recipients to return to serve the Taiwanese society for 3-4 years. Therefore, this scholarship is not preferable for doctoral students in STEM than humanities and social sciences since there are more scholarships without any obligation for STEM students. Nevertheless, the obligation of the Taiwanese scholarship might seem very strict in the contract, but many flexible plans exist to complete the obligation and contribute to Taiwan in practice. In other words, the scholarship is an uncertain investment for the government but might return to Taiwanese society in unpredictable ways with surprises.

Yu-Kai Liao is a PhD candidate in Geography at Durham University. His dissertation is Making shrimp economies and hydro-social lives: the hatchery, the shrimp farm, and the laboratory in the Mekong Delta.

This article was published as part of a special issue on “Taiwanese scholarship of government sponsorship for overseas study.”

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