China’s unconventional university gets mixed welcome

The university is scheduled to open in June 2012 Copyright: South University of Science and Technology of China

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[BEIJING] A start-up university in the south of China hopes to begin a revolution in Chinese higher education.

The South University of Science and Technology of China (SUSTC), based in Shen Zhen, near Hong Kong, aims to break free from the traditions and formalities of the country’s educational system — such as national entrance exams for students or administrative ranks for professors — and focus instead on creativity and thinking outside the box.

But the project has had a mixed reception and has been criticised by academics from other universities, as well as a few who have already departed from SUSTC.

SUSTC is still under construction — scheduled to open in June 2012 — but received its first batch of 45 students to a temporary campus in March. The students did not have to take the national entrance exams required by the Ministry of Education, skipping the final year in high-school that they would have spent preparing for them.

The aim is eventually to enrol 1,500 undergraduates and 500 graduate students in science and engineering, and to dedicate a significant budget to research.

"I hope SUSTC will be a new model for China’s education revolution that could also promote China’s scientific system revolution," said Zhu Qingshi, president of the university.

He said that the university hopes to hire 20 to 30 leading professors soon. The university, supported by the Shenzen City government, will pay some of them an annual salary of nearly US$180,000.

But, despite the high salaries and a chance to test new teaching methods and spend more time doing research, some professors have turned their back on the university, and others are reluctant to join following criticism in the mass media.

Some have accused Zhu of following only his own ideas, and disregarding the students’ needs.

"The university cannot say it is revolutionary because it is not putting a robust system in place ", said an article in the newspaper South Weekend last month (16 June). It was co-authored by three professors from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, who left SUSTC earlier this year because of differences of opinion with Zhu on how to run it. They say that breaking free from national entry tests and nationally awarded diplomas does not constitute an educational revolution.

Cao Zexian, a physicist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Physics, criticised Zhu for enrolling the students while important infrastructure is still missing.

"Before enrolling students, SUSTC should recruit enough highly qualified faculty members, build enough systems and an excellent library," he said. "As a parent, I dare not let my son be the experimental university’s guinea pig."

Zhu told SciDev.Net that he had been under "tremendous pressure" but said that he remained committed to adopting new methods to challenge China’s educational system.

And some have welcomed Zhu’s revolutionary spirit.

"I think everybody should be optimistic and tolerant of a pioneering university," said Gong Peng, a professor at Tsinghua University, China and the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States.

Parents of the university’s students have expressed their support.

"Our children are not hostages for the president Zhu to achieve his own purpose, instead, Zhu was ‘kidnapped’ by our children," they wrote in an open reply to the South Weekend article.

Meanwhile, the students themselves wrote an open letter (1 June) in support of the university saying they want to pick up real skills and ability, and not just a nationally recognised diploma.