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CHINA: How a 'model' university hit the rocks

A bold experiment in China to set up a university free of Communist Party control appears to have run aground in its first year of operation, with experts saying the university president, although a distinguished academic, may have bitten off more than he could chew in taking on the party structure.

The experiment to set up South University for Science and Technology (SUST) in Shenzhen has been closely watched both in China and internationally for signs that the authorities may be willing to stomach innovation in higher education and greater autonomy for university administration.

Instead it has been a litany of setbacks for its high-profile President, Zhu Qingshi, with botched recruitment of professors and its much-vaunted university council intended to replace party control of the university, now stacked with party members from the Shenzhen city authority.

In January Zhu told official media: "One of the biggest hindrances to Chinese universities turning out research talent is the rampant bureaucratic culture on campus."

He said he was looking to Hong Kong for inspiration as well as institutions in the West where he had been a visiting professor, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brookhaven National Laboratory in the US, Oxford and Cambridge in Britain, the National Research Council in Canada and the University of Paris in France.

But now he says "things are too sensitive" to speak out openly to the media. And the indications are that his moves towards institutional reform have stalled.

"This is a hot topic right now in China, everyone is talking about it," said Ruth Heyhoe of the University of Toronto and an expert on the Chinese education system.

"Zhu is a very distinguished professor and a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He wanted to profile a new model of a university and he did a few things that have caused a furore," said Heyhoe, an advisory professor to 10 universities in different regions of China.

One of the problems was that the institution was launched with much fanfare and its independence from the authorities was lauded without enough attention to how a brand new university could be autonomous in a system that does not allow autonomy.

It attempted to model itself on the successful Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). But three Hong Kong advisors from HKUST quit SUST in June amid a blaze of publicity and recriminations, and the Hong Kong team claimed Zhu was not fit for the job.

But others believe it was a tough task for any university president. "Zhu seemed rather unprepared to start up a new university," said Cheng Kai-ming, a professor of education at Hong Kong University. "He was trying to do too many things, breaking political taboos and running a new university and that seems to be beyond his capacity."

According to one source close to SUST, Zhu has been in the post for two years yet done little planning. The view of those close to the project is that it was too rushed and that the institution opened in March with its first students before sufficient faculty members or a proper curriculum were in place.

Even members of the council, the university's governing body, were not informed how many permanent academics had been hired. "Next year's curriculum is not certain yet. One class was cancelled just before the university opened," said one insider, speaking to University World News on condition of anonymity in July.

Not a single professor was working full-time when SUST's doors opened to its first cohort of students in March, though by June Zhu admitted to having two full-time teaching staff.

"Some students said a professor showed up once and never surfaced again, so the class had to be taught by people who were called in," the insider said. He believes the institution should have waited to begin classes in September, when more professors had been hired. Recruiting good professors would have also helped establish the university and helped devise a strong curriculum.

Sources at HKUST involved in that institution's establishment in Hong Kong 20 years ago, pointed out that it took four to five years to set up a curriculum at HKUST and recruit the first cohort of students. A faculty of some 100 top-notch professors was in place before the first students were recruited.

Instead of faculty, however, Zhu's main focus has been student recruitment. He describes his first students as "trailblazers".

"His idea of university independence was to take students outside of the national exam system (gaokao)," said an insider. The national exam has been criticised for dampening imaginative thinking and several top universities in China are experimenting with bypassing the gaokao in recruiting students, albeit on a small scale. But without the gaokao, students may find that their degrees are not validated by the authorities.

An education ministry spokeswoman pointedly reminded SUST in March that institutions should run "according to the law, to adhere to the nation's fundamental education system and protect the legal rights of the students with institutional agreements." This was widely interpreted as warning students not to bypass the gaokao.

"Zhu was very ambitious in wanting to abolish the exam system. Other people working with him found that it is not going to work. He wanted to move very fast and others wanted to set up the system within the university first. There were many procedural issues," said Albert Chan, Vice-chancellor of Hong Kong's Baptist University, which operates a branch campus in China's Guangdong province and is allowed to maintain Hong Kong-style university autonomy from the Communist Party as an overseas institution.

"Zhu wanted to start something totally new and untested, something that has never been done in China. Zhu is very gutsy. He did not get the approval of the ministry of education but wanted to go ahead anyway," said Chan, who will share a podium with Zhu this coming October at HKBU in a 'dialogue with scientists'.

SUST's inaugural class of 45 students was recruited using an independent series of examinations, even though Zhu himself revealed that top Shenzhen officials had asked him to let the students sit the gaokao, and acknowledged that his decision to start enrolling students without approval from the education ministry was illegal.

Meanwhile a great deal of attention has been paid to the university council, which was to be an alternative to government-appointed officials as the decision-making body of the university. Doubts first emerged in April when the Shenzhen authorities announced that they would select the two vice-principals. This was seen by many as a violation of the university's intended autonomy.

No one disputes that setting up a council is a major reform in itself, regardless of who the council members are. Less than a third of SUST Council members will be government officials. Less than one third will be university members, and more than a third will be academics, society and business leaders from outside the university.

But because of the lack of professors at SUST, those from government currently outnumber those from within the university.

Half of the 20 members of the first council appointed on 16 July were provincial and city government officials, including the Shenzhen mayor as council chief. Other council members include four Shenzhen entrepreneurs, six current and former university chancellors, and party chiefs from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

And this is probably a deliberate move by the Shenzhen authorities, according to experts.

Setting up the council "is a big step. It is like opening the floodgates. You legitimise a system [that does not include the party]. I don't think Chinese leaders are willing to tolerate that kind of political impact," said Cheng Kai-ming of Hong Kong University.

Many believe that Zhu has not managed to push the boundaries of the education system. "Zhu's problems are not caused by a change in China's university system, but a difference of opinion in how to run the university," said Albert Chan of Hong Kong's Baptist University

"On the mainland law and order is important. You have to know what direction the country is moving to, you don't want to be blocking that movement," Chan told University World News.

Some believe the authorities have now wrested power from Zhu, even though he was originally hand-picked by the Shenzhen city government. "Shenzhen city has tried to find a way to solve the problems, they have put a lot of money into it [SSUT] and want to see it succeed," said the University of Toronto's Ruth Heyhoe, speaking in Hong Kong.

Many, including the three Hong Kong advisors, believe SUST needs to be revamped from scratch if it is to have a future. Li Jianshu, a mathematics professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and one of the original advisors to SUST, told University World News that an immediate change of university leadership was necessary to save the university from failure.

Others believe that a faculty of strong professors may have been able to back Zhu and good university foundations may have given the Shenzhen leadership greater confidence in SUST's ability to go its own way.

Cheng Kai-ming believes there currently a deadlock at SUST. "I don't think it will go anywhere. The best scenario is that it recruits a competent [new] president and once it is going smoothly then they can bargain with the party leadership."

"This issue demonstrates the weakness of the Chinese higher education system. It is not just about party control but the whole mentality in higher education which forbids people to innovate" Cheng said.

* Linda Yeung contributed to this report. See her news story here.

Related links

CHINA: 'Model' university criticised by advisors
CHINA: Setback for reforms at new university
CHINA: Ministry issues list excluding new college
CHINA: Universities still have problems
CHINA: More autonomy for universities
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