Home Geography Global Perspectives on Human Capital in Early Childhood Education: Reconceptualizing Theory, Policy, and Practice
Taiwan: Moving toward University Provision for All?
With a significant drop in the birth rate in Taiwan since the 1980s, the emphasis on seeing children/students as human resources for national development in the future has been politically emphasized. For example, as highlighted in the plans and objectives of the Ministry of Education in 2015,
implement the White Paper on Human Resource Development and establish forward-looking innovative mechanisms for human resource development, focusing on strategies to actively cultivate a highly-skilled internationally competitive workforce with multifaceted expertise, and prove a strong reliable basis for nation to pursuit sustainable development. (MoE, 2014b; italics added)
Children are now politically constructed as “human resources” for the future. Embedded in this system of reasoning is a narrative of education as investment through which appropriate education should be held accountable for producing and cultivating highly skilled future workers/laborers. Thus, the linkage between education at the present moment and economic productivity in the future is formed and legitimatized through contemporary reform discourses in Taiwan. Quality education for young children is deemed a key investment for cultivating them as human resources.
One of the most recent reforms in ECEC is the Early Childhood Education and Care Act (MOE, 2013) through which the two systems of nurseries (which focus on care) and kindergartens (which focus on education) were officially integrated and merged into one comprehensive preschool “educare” system in January 2014. Embodying multiple purposes and objectives, this Early Childhood Education and Care Act has created and legitimatized ways of (re) structuring preschool education under the bandwagons of quality and affordable educare for all. In the midst of multiple critical issues concerning ECEC, in the great divide between public and private preschools, this reform has interjected controversial debates on what constitute quality and appropriate preschools.
Currently, nearly 70 percent of the preschools in Taiwan are privately owned and operated. This high percentage of private preschools has promoted a market approach to ECEC in Taiwan in which critical issues concerning quality, affordability, and accessibility are becoming great concerns for all stakeholders (Lee, 2012). Recognizing the lack of public preschools and the expansion of private educare for children, this Early Childhood Education and Care Act has interjected opportunities for private preschools to become/change into nonprofit institutions while promising more investment through public funding to increase the establishment of public preschools for all children. The government is proposing to raise the percentage of public preschools from 30 to 40 percent of ECEC to ensure provision of quality preschool educare for all. Seeking to address and “fix” age-old problems in ECEC, current foci of reforms have centered on the themes of quality, accessibility, and affordability for all children. In particular, the fact that private ECEC tuition is often higher than the tuition at some private universities is a much-discussed political issue (Yang, 2000). Therefore, with the issue of limited space in public preschools and the trend of high costs of private preschools, the sociopolitical conditions of the early childhood education voucher have emerged since the late 1990s. Not surprisingly, these subsidies are rationalized using the language of human capital.
Taiwanese Preschool Vouchers: "Coupons” for All to Purchase Quality Educare?
How has the preschool voucher policy been positioned politically? As articulated by the Ministry of Education,
To care for the welfare of society and pursue justice, beginning at the start of the 2000 school year, preschool education coupons are issued to subsidize children aged five who are enrolled in registered private
kindergartens and daycare centers in the amount of NT$10,000 each
In its early days, this voucher policy provided tuition subsidies only for five-year-old children who were attending “legal” private kindergartens and daycare centers. However, facing challenges from different stakeholders, this voucher policy has gone through multiple modifications and revisions, increasing the face value of the voucher, as well as extending it to public preschools to keep its original promise of social justice by increasing accessibility and affordability as well as providing quality educare for all children.
For parents, the initial voucher policy was only benefiting those who were able to afford private preschool educare for their children. In other words, parents who were able to “afford” private tuition were receiving vouchers as “coupons” for their children’s private educare, whereas parents who could not afford private educare for their children were classified as not “voucher worthy.” The original voucher policy functioned as a strategic policy that was wearing the skin of “free to choose.” Parents were transformed into “smart consumers” who were supposed to know how to choose legal private preschools for their children and were rewarded with tuition coupons as subsidies from the government. Therefore, the following critical questions have arisen: Who is being privileged through this voucher policy? What about preschool vouchers for children who are under five years of age? What kinds of “social justice” is this voucher policy promoting and advocating? Which groups of parents are being included while others are being excluded in receiving vouchers as coupons for their children’s quality educare?
For preschools, this voucher policy enables government regulation of private institutions. In order for preschools to be voucher-worthy institutions that can attract children’s enrollment to survive in the preschool market, private preschools need to become licensed by the Ministry of Education through a legal registration process. The process of becoming licensed entails several dimensions of government regulations that include a quality assurance process, safety codes, qualified preschool teachers, and reasonable tuition rates.
For the Taiwanese government, this voucher policy has come to represent the government’s “will to share the financial burden of raising children” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2011). In a recently revised version of this voucher policy, both public and private preschools have been voucher worthy since 2011. Responding to the move toward universal preschool education, in the revised voucher policy, children attending public preschools can receive NT$14,000 whereas children attending private preschools can receive NT$30,000 as tuition subsidies. What this revised version of the voucher policy for all children in both public and private preschools implies is a shift toward a universal five-year-old program for all children in Taiwan.
Critical issues of affordability, accessibility, and quality for all children are not “fixable” through preschool vouchers. However, while falling short of meeting its promise of addressing social justice, the preschool voucher policy in Taiwan has opened up new discursive spaces for the reimagination of the planning of ECEC. In debating what would be the best solutions for equitable and quality ECEC in Taiwan, discussions on moving away for preschool vouchers to universal provision for all children have started to gain public attention. In the midst of a national crisis of low fertility rates in recent years, the desire for an affordable, quality, and equitable educare system is brewing.
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