CHINA: Compromises for new 'autonomous' university

The embattled president of the new South University of Science and Technology of China (SUSTC), intended to be the country's first 'autonomous' institution able to carry out world-class teaching and research, has made a rare media appearance to defend his methods of bypassing the rules that currently govern universities in China.

SUSTC President Zhu Qingshi (pictured) appeared on television 25 August after reports in local newspapers in the southern boom-city of Shenzhen, where SUSTC is based, that it would not be able to recruit a new batch of students in March.

If true, it would signify that SUSTC had failed in its attempt to steer an autonomous course.

Despite Zhu's declared ambitious plan to freely recruit students outside the national examination system known as the gaokao, he admitted publically in the interview that the university would not be able to admit students without government approval.

"I am trying my best to get SUSTC on the right track. We hope we can be approved by the Ministry of Education to recruit students before the end of next year," Zhu said.

Referring to the recruitment of graduate and research students, he explained: "If we want to recruit graduate students we first have to apply to the State Council... However, we don't have the right to recruit students yet."

The interview appears to signal a climb-down by the feisty president who originally attempted to go against the gaokao, which he said sapped student creativity and encouraged rote learning. It was seen as his first attempt to achieve the university's autonomy in a rigid national system.

"This March we recruited students through our own exam without the permission of the Ministry of Education. That then triggered the college entrance exam incident," Zhu said.

He was referring to SUSTC's first class of 45 undergraduates recruited in March using the university's independent entrance exams. But the authorities refused to certify SUSTC degree courses, and at least one student left.

Zhu has acknowledged that his decision to start enrolling students without approval from the education ministry was illegal. It later emerged that three Hong Kong professors, who were advising Zhu on the setting up of SUSTC, had warned against the move.

They left SUSTC in March, citing lack of management, curriculum planning, oversight and accountability at the Chinese university as reasons for their departure.

Meanwhile, Zhu had announced plans to hire 330 academics by the end of this year and had hoped to attract professors from abroad. But in the media interview he revealed that SUSTC had no full-time professors.

"The university is empty right now," he admitted. Nonetheless he insisted the institution would still succeed in its mission to become a world-class university.

"Not only the Ministry of Education and Guangdong [provincial] and Shenzhen [municipal] governments but also China's national leaders all want to see the reform move forward," he claimed.

"With their expectations it is possible that we will move forward. We will need to come up with a solution which everyone agrees on," Zhu said.

But the institution's fate appears uncertain.

According to Xiong Bingqi, Vice-President of the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing and an outspoken critic of China's higher education system, SUSTC has yet to produce a constitution than enshrines its autonomy.

"It has been four years since the initial preparation to establish SUSTC, yet the constitution still has not come out. That shows the power struggle inside hasn't been that easy."

Xiong added: "Our government is reluctant to decentralise its power [over higher education]. This makes great difficulties for SUSTC."

He described the new university as a symbol of whether autonomy could work in the current system. In his view, SUSTC's chances of success are "quite slim now. But it does not mean there is no chance at all." A major effort would need to be made by the Shenzhen authorities and by Zhu.

"SUSTC is a very good laboratory for [a higher education] experiment so they should not stifle its enthusiasm," Xiong continued. But "if the result is a compromised one, I don't think it's good. Because then it will become neither fish nor fowl. The only way to establish a modern university system is through total autonomy. There is no other way."

The SUSTC debacle had shown "we can't establish a world first-class university only by putting money into it. If the system does not change, money is no use," Xiong said.

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