University challenge

People who have spent time in Taiwan will tell you that Taiwanese take education very seriously. From the cram schools for grade schoolers to the cram schools for middle schoolers to, well you get the point. Everyone, it seems, is studying something. Whether you put it down to “Confucianism” or the simple fact that exams have a disproportionate influence on the trajectory of peoples’ lives, educational achievement is prime indicator of success.

Most Taiwanese politicians are highly educated. Granted, mafia types and other unsavoury characters have pitched up in the legislature (and, some would say, the Cabinet) from time to time, but generally speaking, the level of achievement is highly impressive.

I will post something on this later in the campaign about how candidates flaunt their academic credentials. For extra spice, this year’s presidential contest pits graduates of two prime education brands, Harvard and the LSE. Until I compile the data on the candidates’ mentions of their educational backgrounds, I give you a glimpse of how international print media have covered the issue.

At some point during the 2008 presidential campaign, it struck me that I couldn’t turn on CNN or open the FT without seeing “Harvard-educated” in connection with (then challenger, now incumbent) Ma Ying-jeou. To be fair, I imagine many Harvard graduates find it hard to avoid mention the greatest university in the world every now and then, and if other people want to talk about it what’s a Harvard grad to do?

So, I asked Nexis to give me major English newspaper reports that included the candidate’s name, and institution of highest degree (I checked that all the returned articles were kosher) in the three month period prior to the relevant presidential election. For 2012, I asked for the preceding three months, and these latest figures are likely to change.

Candidate Year Status

Party

               Institution

Mentions

Lee Teng-hui 1996 Incumbent

KMT

Cornell (PhD)

181

Peng Ming-min 1996 Challenger

DPP

Paris (JSD)

1

Lien Chan 2000 Incum. VP

KMT

Chicago (PhD)

10

Chen Shui-bian 2000 Challenger

DPP

National Taiwan University (LLB)

33

James Soong 2000 Challenger

Ind

Georgetown (PhD)

18

Chen Shui-bian 2004 Incumbent

DPP

National Taiwan University (LLB)

9

Lien Chan 2004 Challenger

KMT

Chicago (PhD)

16

Frank Hsieh 2008 Incum. party

DPP

National Taiwan University (LLB)Kyoto (ABD)

4

4

Ma Ying-Jeou 2008 Challenger

KMT

Harvard (JSD)

55

Ma Ying-Jeou 2012 Incumbent

KMT

Harvard (JSD)

27

Tsai Ing-wen 2012 Challenger

DPP

LSE (PhD)

      2

Three things stand out. First, Cornell in 1996 is obviously exceptional. In the twisted logic of cross-Strait relations, Lee’s speech at his alma mater led China to launch missiles off the coast of Taiwan. Second, with the exception of Chen Shui-bian in 2000, DPP candidates’ education is not as salient as that of their KMT counterparts (don’t call conspiracy yet, because)… Third, KMT candidates (and Soong) all had graduate degrees from elite American schools, whereas DPP candidates, while respectable, can’t match their pedigree. Journalists, it seems are just as education brand conscious as many Taiwanese.

So can the LSE stack up against Harvard in the presidential campaign? Maybe it has the right touch of exoticism for Taiwanese should they be jaded from hearing too much about the greatest university in the world.

Mail me at jonathan.sullivan@nottingham.ac.uk, follow me on Twitter @jonlsullivan, or access my published and working papers at http://jonlsullivan.com

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