2002 / 11月
Teng Sue-feng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Phil Newell
This March, Chinese Culture Uni-versity (CCU) won the tender to purchase the Taiwan Shin Sheng Daily News building on Taipei's Chunghua Road with a bid of NT$400 million, displaying astonishing financial resources. Generally speaking, private universities like CCU depend on tuition and fees from students for their income, but even when they have their full complement of students, at most they can break even, so they have to find outside sources of income in order to make a profit. Of these, "continuing education" has become a formula for turning lead into gold, and in this regard CCU has been a huge success. It boasts annual revenues of NT$500 million, which, after deducting costs, leaves the main campus with a surplus of NT$200 million. How has CCU turned continuing education into a goose that lays golden eggs?
The building of the CCU School of Continuing Education (SCE), located at the corner of Hoping East Road and Chienkuo South Road in Taipei, has ten stories above ground and four floors below ground; crowds of people pour through the doors day and night. It is a mini-university in its own right, with more than 300 subjects, 1400 classes, and 23,000 students. It has everything you can imagine, from the hottest subjects like computers, business administration, English and Japanese, to more cultured offerings like interior design, flower arranging, and film appreciation, and even a class in how to do autopsies, for which attendance is not what you would call lively.
When you enter the building, the fragrance of java wafts across from the coffee shop on the first floor. The four levels downstairs constitute the digital learning center, which was opened for use only in September. The architect Lin Chou-min, who designed the immensely successful Eslite bookstore chain, was brought in to lay out the learning center. The more than 1000 square meter space includes a wireless Internet zone, a multimedia production area, small audiovisual conference rooms, and a corner theater. Visitors cannot help but exclaim that it is like a "super-luxurious Internet cafe."
From debt to surplus
The man to ask about CCU's decision to enter the continuing education market 16 years ago is Chang Kuan-chun, the moving spirit who has virtually single-handedly built the SCE. He recalls that back in 1986, when he was the director of accounting at CCU, the school was facing serious debts. On one hand they tried to reduce costs, for example by eliminating or restructuring programs which attracted few students (such as marine science or home economics), and on the other to find new sources of income. Colleagues at school were always making fun of him saying, "Whatever we want to do, you just shake your head and say there's no money. If you're so clever, why don't you see if you can earn some money yourself!" The then minister of education, Li Huan, suggested that they follow the example of American universities and offer lifetime education, and as a result CCU decided to try their luck on extension education.
In those days, the site where the SCE now stands on Chienkuo South Road was occupied by the Tsaihsing Primary School. Chang reached an agreement with the principal of the primary school that CCU would rent the premises for two years and then consider buying. Fortunately, three years later land prices in Taipei had not yet begun to skyrocket, and CCU bought the land to build a high-rise. Within a few years this piece of land right at the Chienkuo Interchange of the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Freeway had become worth its weight in gold, and both McDonald's and Starbucks came forward hoping to rent out the first floor.
Both were turned down, Chang explains, because "we don't live off of rents, and of course we wanted to save the best space for the students." It should be noted that the building completed in 1994 left much to be desired because construction was overly hasty; the new facade that you can see today is the result of major renovation work in 2000.
Chang says that the SCE began showing a small surplus in its second year, and CCU decided to invest the profits in upgrading facilities. "Classrooms are the tools of our trade," he says. When the renovation work was completed in 2000, there were more than 30 additional classrooms, and as a result profits for that year zoomed to more than NT$240 million from about NT$140 million the year before. The number of classes also sharply increased, from 960 to more than 1200, and the number of students rose from 20,000 to over 23,000.
An administrator at a private school suggests that academic quality at CCU suffers because commercial interests are given top priority. But CCU is nonetheless able to do well because they have the courage to invest large amounts in continuing education, offer a wide variety of classes, and are professional in their services. Currently more than 280 people work in the SCE, with about two dozen working exclusively on curriculum design and planning.
Chang says that competition in this market has been intense right from the start. A decade or so ago the idea of lifetime education was not nearly so widespread as it is today, and a number of comprehensive universities-including National Taiwan University (Taida), National Chengchi University (Chengda), Fu Jen University, and Shih Chien University-were already offering continuing education. Because CCU lacked experience, in the first year they did very poorly in recruiting students. Chang then reassessed how the school could position itself in the market, and take best advantage of the strengths of CCU. He began classes in real estate administration and childcare, creating a channel for continuing professional training for real-estate agents and kindergarten teachers. It is estimated that over the years 13,000 students have completed the real estate class alone. Since then the scope of classes has steadily broadened, and today there are six major categories and more than 300 course offerings.
"We are very clear about our own role. We are not trying to compete with the national universities, but are like an economy class car-inexpensive but effective," says Chang. He still recalls how back in the 1980s when Taida began computer classes, by 7:30 on the first morning all the classes were filled, which really made the CCU people envious. He admits, "Taida and Chengda have better reputations than we do. Taida merely has to offer a new course and it will immediately be filled, whereas we have to put in a lot more effort to pack in the students."
With his years of experience, Chang says: "You have to be very sensitive to what society wants. We dare to try new course offerings. Offering series of courses is something we thought of ourselves, and we continually consult with human resources experts on trends in the labor market."
The SCE does not depend on CCU to provide its faculty. "We have defined ourselves as being practically oriented, so we want a situation in which SCE teachers are never stumped by student questions. This is a very harsh challenge, so we often recruit faculty from the professional or business world," says Chang. In each and every course the administrators give students a questionnaire, and if the students have any complaints they immediately communicate these to the teacher. If the students' complaints are found to be justified but the teacher does not improve, then the teacher will be replaced.
Working the non-credit fields
In recent years, because the government has been in financial difficulty, subsidies to universities have steadily declined. Universities are all crying poor, and are searching for new sources of revenue. Many schools have turned to classes for credit, offering part-time degrees like EMBAs, charging NT$3000 to NT$10,000 per credit hour.
However, Chang does not think highly of the classes-for-credit market. It was only in September of this year that the SCE began offering their first for-credit class, a course in international business with 25 students and faculty from the UK, US, and PRC, for which they are charging students NT$15,000 per credit hour. "More than 100 universities are offering for-credit courses, and the more there are, the more people will have the impression that they are simply selling diplomas," he avers. This is all the more so given that the admission rate into university is now 60-70%, so how can there be that many people who need classes for credit?
"We are mainly focusing on the non-credit market, providing courses for lifetime learning," says Chang. When the economy is doing well, continuing education is an investment in oneself. When the economy is in a downturn, it is even more important to continue learning to secure one's job and increase one's competitiveness.
Currently the CCU School of Continuing Education has two buildings in Taipei City, with one on Chunghsiao East Road in addition to the one on Chienkuo. There is also a branch in the Taipei suburb of Hsinchuang. A few years ago they even began extending their reach to Taichung and Kaohsiung. Besides carrying on with what they already do well, the SCE will make distance learning a focus of future development, and they already offer 100 courses over the Internet. Chang has also laid out a three-year plan for raising quality. He hopes that within three years they can offer a full tuition refund, no questions asked, to any student at any time. "That might look like a money loser, but it will really pay off in the long run," says Chang, because this is the real key to creating a successful "brand name."
The School of Continuing Education at Chinese Culture University boldly invests in its programs and facilities, and now attracts more than 20,000 students per year. (photo by Yang Chien)
Private schools must be careful not to become overly dependent on tuition and fees for their funds. (Sinorama file photo)