Education has played a critical role in Taiwan’s transformation from a society composed mainly of barefoot peasants to one with growing numbers of well-heeled consumers. The educational system has allowed children from poor rural households to earn university degrees in science and technology, thereby allowing a level of upward social mobility found in few countries. It is not uncommon to find blue-collar workers and Ph.D.’s in the same generation of a family.

Furthermore, the quality of primary and secondary education in Taiwan is excellent by world standards. Taiwanese and Chinese cultures both traditionally place an extremely high value on education and good studying habits are cultivated from an early age.

Nine years of education are compulsory for all children, and the government claims that 99.9% of all eligible children are enrolled in school. However, Aborigine youth often do not complete the full nine years, the fishing industry is permitted to employ children below the minimum working age of 15, and the government also has programs allowing youngsters to work in factories by day and go to school at night.

According to the most recently available figures, nearly 80% of Taiwan’s students go on to high school, although most go to vocationally-oriented schools. Forty-four percent of the high school graduates attend junior colleges or universities, and many of the remaining students receive some form of post-secondary vocational training. Taiwan is home to 121 colleges and universities, including state-supported and private institutions. The government estimates that education spending accounts for nearly six percent of GNP; the constitution calls for the authorities to spend 15% of their annual budget on education, but this level has generally not been attained.

Unfortunately, in the past, educational policy has focused not only on providing the intellectual infrastructure needed in an industrial society, but on social control. At all levels of the school system, students receive a heavy dose of KMT propaganda, and in high schools and colleges, "military instructors" have guarded against what the ruling party calls "thought pollution, " i.e., dissident ideas. However, the trend lately seems to be one of slowly de-emphasizing the ruling party’s presence in the schools.

Another problem is that Taiwan seems to have adopted some of the worst features of Japan’s educational system. As in Japan, students who wish to attend colleges and universities must pass a difficult standardized examination. From junior high school, college-bound students spend long hours in class, completing homework lessons, and attending supplemental "cram schools." They face years of weekly tests and daily quizzes. Also, in another parallel with Japan, students who fail the college entrance exam often undergo nervous breakdowns or commit suicide. Securing a place at the prestigious school like National Taiwan University or Chengchi (Public Administration) University practically guarantees a student a good job upon graduation; in a final parallel with Japan, many students cease to exert themselves intellectually once they get into the best universities.

Until recently, Taiwanese students have tended to avoid political involvement. In the early 1970s, during a period of liberalization, some students and professors, mainly at NTU, became involved in protests over Taiwan’s growing diplomatic isolation; a few of them went on to look at the negative social consequences of rapid economic growth. Others gave up practical activity for abstract theorizing using Marxist concepts. A final group of liberal academics sought to press for reforms, and were active in promoting political dialogue a decade later. By the mid 1970s, though, the government had cracked down on campus activism. When students who supported the political opposition began working on political campaigns, the government promptly created legal restrictions on student involvement.

In the mid-1980s, students began to stir once more, spurred in part by a new group of younger professors who had earned their degrees overseas and had continued to participate in exchanges with foreign scholars. Also, students outside of science and technology departments were no longer facing a future of guaranteed job security that offered material rewards for conformity. Among science and engineering students, controls on free inquiry were hampering creative thinking. Taiwan’s ever growing diplomatic isolation and the possibility of forced incorporation into China stood in glaring contradiction to the KMT’s propaganda about the glorious future return to the mainland. For students as for other Taiwanese, the status quo is no longer so comfortable, and challenging the party no longer seems so costly.

As in most countries, many students remain apolitical and primarily concerned about their economic future. But a growing group of students at colleges around the island has become increasingly vocal about the future of Taiwan and restrictions on academic freedom. Students have joined in efforts to promote environmental protection, sough an end to censorship of campus publications, pressed for the freedom to form clubs and organization, gained the removal of KMT party officials from campuses, called for an end to the campus spy system, and insisted that the government fund education at the constitutionally mandated level.

Professors have also called for change. At NTU, they formed a faculty association in 1986, which has since demanded an end to campus surveillance and a new law governing universities. Faculty, like students, have played an important role in the environmental movements and the debate over constitutional reform as well as openly discussing the future of Taiwan.