Taiwan Government Scholarship Award: An Awarded Archaeologist’s Observation

Written by Jiun-Yu Liu (劉俊昱).

Image credit: 畢業生出席 by 總統府/ Flickr: CC BY 2.0.

Taiwanese scholarship of government sponsorship for overseas study is considered the most prestigious scholarship issued by the government because of its long history, low award rate, and the amount of financial support. In addition, the applicant needs to pass the examinations to receive the award. The Qing government started the predecessor of this scholarship in imperial China, then sponsored by the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship Program, and finally became the current award that administrates the Ministry of Education (MOE) of Taiwan. 

Due to the award’s historical background, it is designed to support young students/scholars to pursue overseas higher education training on designated topics (needed by the government). After training, those scholars are missioned to bring new knowledge, technology, and ideas back to their homeland. Hence, those designated topics usually go with contemporary government policies and the development needs of society and academia. While previous awardees needed to return to Taiwan immediately after receiving their degree, the recent award rule adjustment allows awardees to stay overseas for postdoc research or full-time job for ten years maximum. Eventually, the awardees still need to return and serve their homeland for the equivalent amount of time of the sponsored period.

Over the years, this Taiwanese scholarship has sponsored many talented researchers who contribute significantly to Taiwanese society. Still, we also see opinions on cancelling this award and adjusting the scholarship rules. As a former awardee and archaeologist, I share a few personal observations and thoughts.

Public and Academic Needs

Archaeology, a subject that attracts the general public but is a more research-oriented discipline, has been awarded several times. For the past twelve years, the scholarship has offered eight awardees in archaeology, topics including two underwater archaeology offers (2009, 2010), three scientific archaeology offers (2011, 2012), and three Southeast Asia offers (2020, 2021). Although based on my understanding, there were three more awardees of archaeology before 2009, no online information is available. These offered sub-fields reflect their contemporary government policy, like underwater archaeology and Southeast Asia archaeology, and the needs of archaeology in the academic realm, like scientific archaeology. 

One of the missions of the awardees is to bring what they learn back to Taiwan. This is understandable when awardees are sponsored by the state and must fulfil the obligation. Similar systems, like the state-funded teacher and doctor training program, have a long history in Taiwan. Those funded professionals need to provide their service to designated institutes for a certain amount of time. Hence, the Taiwanese scholarship awardee must return to Taiwan, but the only requirement from MOE is to stay in Taiwan, even without a job. The awardee needs to find a position through their effort. When there is an ‘industry’ to return, like hard sciences and disciplines with industrial applications, awardees can easily devote their knowledge to the private or public sectors. However, for research-oriented subjects, I thought it would benefit our society more if the MOE could arrange contract positions in colleges, government agencies, or think tanks for those freshly trained professionals who can contribute what they have learned overseas. In the case of archaeology, contract positions in the Ministry of Culture and Center of General Education in universities are ideal. The former relates to policy-making and even practice regarding underwater archaeology, and the latter role in teaching archaeology and culture is widely needed for General Education centres.

Awardees’ Contribution during Overseas

From 2009 to 2021, there were eight awardees in archaeology. From a long-term (decade) perspective, this scholarship offer seems well-paced since archaeology is a small academic group in Taiwan. However, when taking a closer look at the offered years, there was a gap between 2012 and 2020. That means a whole academic generation does not have this government-sponsored opportunity. In addition, this also means the loss of stable connections and collaborations between Taiwan academia and other countries via young scholars. Ideally, if not every year, a constant offer every other year would provide good momentum for academic progress and maintain connections. 

In addition to academic development, the state-funded awardees are talented scholars who would contribute significantly with the insights of their professionals during their training overseas. It is especially beneficial when the academic diversity of the awardees is high in this scholarship (usually is). In the case of promoting Taiwan in foreign countries, for instance, scholars with backgrounds in cultural studies, like Indigenous Studies, archaeology, and contemporary studies, could contribute to the event of cultural promotion by Taiwan governmental agencies or local Taiwan-related associations. Those awardees would widen and deepen the event content with their expertise and also prevent inappropriate cultural appropriation, especially when using Indigenous Taiwanese cultural elements by Han Taiwanese promoters. In addition to raising cultural awareness in the overseas Taiwanese community, cultural events are an ideal venue to demonstrate the soft power of Taiwan for overcoming the challenging diplomatic situation. 

During my doctoral training at the University of Washington in Seattle, graduate students and young professionals held several cultural events with the help of local Taiwanese communities and TECO (Taipei Economic and Culture Office), ranging from movie screenings to semi-academic talks to promote Taiwanese culture. Those events not only served as socializing activities among overseas Taiwanese and their families but indeed attracted people from diverse backgrounds who wanted to understand Taiwan more. While our previous efforts were bottom-up by young professionals instead of top-down by governmental agencies, I think it would be worth developing our trial into a more formal, organized, and long-term collaboration between scholarship awardees and Taiwan/Taiwan-related oversea agencies. However, this idea will need more administrative support from multiple government agencies. 

Administrative Supports

Speaking to administrative support, the Education Division, Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in San Francisco, provided significant help during my scholarship period. While there are many tedious and outdated regulations, the agent in the office carried their best to support the awardees. One crucial but challenging task for the local Education Division to work on is scholarship budgeting. From its history, this ‘prestigious’ scholarship was designed to support scholars to focus on their academic training, but worry-free support may not always be the case. For example, I needed to travel back and forth for fieldwork during my awarded period. Still, I was unaware I needed to ask for permission from the MOE first (which was written in the contract between me and MOE). The officer in the Education Division in San Francisco quickly and smoothly assisted me in communicating with the MOE and eased my nerves. From what I experienced, the Education Division officers understand how vulnerable and how a new person doing a PhD could be. Although with some minor turbulence, my award duration was a smooth flight with their assistance.

One thing that the officers could not manoeuvre was the way of issuing the award stipend. Because I didn’t have enough cash, I needed to acquire a short-term student loan from my university, pay my tuition, and then use the tuition receipt to request reimbursement later. This bureaucratic process inconvenience indeed disturbed me to a certain extent. However, with years of suggestions from the awardees to MOE, the overseas Education Division now has the authority to issue funds in advance for the awardees to pay for their tuition. 

Speaking about money, although the sponsored amount seems abundant compared to Taiwan, it is a tied budget when living in Seattle, where I studied. The subsidized tuition is just enough to cover my expenses at the College of Art and Science, but for the students in Law school, where the education is higher, people need to pay partially out of their pocket. As for the stipend, one wouldn’t be able to support their basic living if they chose to stay in a university dorm. New awardees may face a more challenging situation of this post-COVID with a higher inflation rate and a risky environment. We need a more flexible budgeting system that could catch up with the rapidly changing world to support our government scholarship awardees.

Conclusion: What are the Expectations of the Awardees?

What is our society’s expectation toward these Taiwanese scholarship awardees? While returning and contributing to Taiwan was the original purpose of this scholarship, in its current state, we have to ask, does returning immediately after graduation contribute the most to Taiwan? In the US higher education realm, we have noticed that the number of Taiwanese scholars is reducing, which leads to less academic and social/political influence. From my point of view, to have Taiwanese social science and liberal art scholars in the US higher education realm is equally important as TSMC setting up factories in Arizona. The influence and subsequent impact of higher education are subtle but profound in the long-term perspective. Hence, adjusting the ‘immediate return rule’ of the scholarship is a positive move.

Finally, since the government officially sponsors the awardees with the vise code J (government-sponsored), do we expect the awardee to do more during their overseas times? If the answer is yes, then flexible budgeting is needed to provide a more worry-free environment. Otherwise, recent adjustments to the scholarship rules seem to fulfil the minimum needs of awardees, at least. This scholarship contributes significantly to Taiwan’s academic and social developments and will continue its mission from what I observe. 

Jiun-Yu Liu is a 2009 awardee of the Taiwan Government Scholarship Award for Overseas Study. He is an archaeology curatorial associate at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.

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

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