So many new universities – Where will the staff come from?

As part of China’s plan to turn Southern Guangdong province into a technology hub – under the Greater Bay Area plan for Hong Kong, Macau and nine cities in Guangdong with a combined population of 72 million – 11 new universities are on track to open for enrolment this year alone, with many more planned for the next few years.

Some are brand new institutions and others are branch campuses of existing universities or expanded new campuses with new degree-awarding powers. But with such fast and massive expansion, some experts question whether they can attract enough faculty with doctoral degrees to ensure the quality education the region aspires to.

While state-run media likes to describe the Greater Bay Area project as a competitor to Silicon Valley, others say it is still well behind China’s own science and technology hubs in Beijing and Shanghai, which have the pick of the country’s top talent and are also able to attract Chinese with PhDs returning from overseas.

Nonetheless, the plans for Guangdong are ambitious and the speed of construction of new campuses is breath-taking.

According to reports from Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, some 11 new universities will open in the province this year, with many more to come in subsequent years (many of them listed at the end of this article).

In Shenzhen alone, the city government said it would invest some CNY150 billion (US$23 billion) to build 20 new universities and colleges by 2025 to more than double the number of full-time students in the city, to 250,000 from around 103,800 at present.

“Shenzhen authorities have defined a new area, a district called Guangming, where they want to develop four new universities,” said Joshua Ka-Ho Mok, vice-president of Hong Kong’s Lingnan University. “It will take some time as they are developing these universities in phases.”

Shenzhen Normal University and Shenzhen Conservatory of Music will complete their first phase of construction and start recruiting students this year. Shenzhen University of Technology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in the Guangming Science City is expected to be completed by 2023. Other plans for Shenzhen include an Institute of Creative Design, and Shenzhen Ocean University.

Zhongshan, one of the Greater Bay Area’s cities, has only one comprehensive university. But the new Sun Yat-sen University of Science and Technology is coming up in the city, with a focus on graduate education.

Need to ‘catch up’

Guangdong, China’s most populous province, is having to catch up as well as fuel its transition from a manufacturing to innovation hub. The gross enrolment ratio or GER of China’s higher education sector hit 54.4% in 2020, according to figures released this month by the Ministry of Education in Beijing. However, in Guangdong province the GER is lagging behind the national average, at around 46%.

Mok noted that the province was a hub for migrant workers, many of whom do not have a good education. But the province is now making it easier for migrants to get residence permits and allow their children to go to better schools and on to university.

“The Greater Bay Area aims to become one of the major innovative and science [hubs] not only in China but in the world and, in order to do that, the calibre of talent and the higher education system is central to that goal,” said Gerard Postiglione, emeritus professor of higher education at the University of Hong Kong.

“In terms of technical expertise, such as scientists and technicians, the Greater Bay Area is way behind areas such as Silicon Valley in California or Tokyo-Yokohama,” not just in students but also academic staff, “so universities have a major role to play,” Postiglione told University World News.

Hong Kong has five universities in the global top 100 of the QS World University Rankings, and mainland China has six in the top 100, mainly in Beijing and Shanghai; however, Shenzhen and Guangzhou have none in the top 300.

“The Greater Bay Area has been able to draw talent from other parts of the country, and that is still the case; however, it is time to strengthen its own top tier of universities. There is a significant amount of investment going into this,” Postiglione said.

But he noted that attracting quality faculty to so many new higher education projects “is going to be one of the major challenges for the Greater Bay Area, and actually it is a challenge throughout the higher education system in China”.

“There are an increasing number of ‘world-class’ universities in China and government-supported excellence initiatives; however, the system itself, including the Greater Bay Area, has expanded so rapidly that like any rapidly expanding system of higher education, quality assurance is of great significance,” Postiglione said.

Need for faculty with PhDs

Liu Baocun, professor of comparative education at Beijing Normal University, which has a branch campus in Zhuhai, just across the border from Macau, as a joint venture with Hong Kong Baptist University, said at a webinar in January organised by the University of Hong Kong that around 300 universities in China offer doctoral programmes, but this is “far from enough”, given the demands of universities.

“A doctoral degree is one of the most important conditions for a local [university] teacher. Even vocational colleges and local colleges try to recruit new teachers who hold a doctoral degree,” Liu said.

Many education authorities and universities were encouraging their faculty members to seek a doctoral qualification.

“They even pay part or all the tuition fees for their faculty members,” said Liu. But he noted that it was hard for existing faculty to compete with current cohorts emerging with doctorates, or with their own graduates or masters students for more competitive university jobs.

Currently many faculty members of second- and third-tier universities in China are undergoing ‘fast-track’ doctoral degrees which can last for under 24 months and can be done part time. For example, some 50 faculty members of Guangdong province universities and vocational colleges have done these kinds of doctoral programmes in recent years at City University of Macau, a private institution.

“It is a top-up, more like CPD [continuing professional development] or a professional doctorate,” explained Postiglione, adding that it was hard to gauge the quality of such fast-track qualifications.

Several of the newer universities in Guangdong province, which don’t yet have their own accredited doctoral programmes, pay for their lecturers and teachers to do doctoral studies at universities in Hong Kong, perhaps including a stipend at the mainland university as part of it.

“Guangdong is quite serious in trying to upgrade faculty,” said Lingnan University’s Mok, but nonetheless it could be some time before any of the new institutions emerge as ‘world-class’ research universities.

He noted that a large proportion of the new campuses coming up in Guangdong are branch campuses of existing universities, “because if they start from scratch it will take a long time to get the status of accrediting masters and PhDs”.

“It requires a very long process in China. The Ministry of Education has very stringent policies and procedures to confer that sort of degree. And so they are trying very hard to get other universities to work with them,” including universities in Macau and Hong Kong, he said.

Hong Kong branch campuses

The cities of the Greater Bay Area include Hong Kong and Macau, and in Guangdong province they include Guangzhou, Zhuhai, Shenzhen, Huizhou, Dongguan (where tech giant Huawei’s new campus is located), Jiangmen, Zhongshan, Foshan and Zhaoqing.

One way to overcome a shortage of high-quality faculty is to invite Hong Kong universities to set up branch campuses in Guangdong. The Chinese University of Hong Kong opened its Shenzhen campus in 2014, and it soon became regarded as Shenzhen’s top university.

Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (Guangzhou) in the high-tech district of Nansha has recruited its first cohort of 250 graduate students who have started their courses in Hong Kong and will later continue in Guangzhou on a brand-new campus funded by the Guangzhou city government, scheduled to open next year.

The construction of a CNY30.7 billion (US$4.7 billion) Hong Kong Polytechnic University campus in Foshan city was included in Guangdong’s 2020 development plan.

At least two other Hong Kong universities are expanding in Guangdong – City University of Hong Kong in Dongguan, with construction expected to start this year, with expected completion by 2023; and the Open University of Hong Kong in Zhaoqing.

A joint campus with Macau University of Science and Technology in Banfu town, Zhongshan, temporarily named Xiangshan University, is also expected to begin construction on already acquired 1,800 acres of land.

Guangzhou College of the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, positioned as a cutting-edge research-oriented science university, is expected to recruit 6,000 mainly graduate students on its two campuses, which are currently being built.

South China Normal University in Guangzhou, Guangdong University of Technology, Shantou University, Guangdong Ocean University in Zhanjiang City, Guangdong University of Finance and other universities will expand with additional new campuses, while coordinating teachers, subjects, and scientific research resources with the mother campus.

The province is also investing in a number of vocational colleges specialising in health-related and engineering and technical disciplines.

New universities and branch campuses

Some of the new universities and branch campuses are:

• Guangzhou Jiaotong University, a new university with a focus on transportation engineering but expanding “to become among the top five universities in the country” as a comprehensive university, is expected to start enrolling its first students from this year.

• A new 1,000-acre campus of Songtian College of Guangzhou University in Lianhua Town in Zhaoqing, with a total investment of around CNY2 billion (US$307 million), is expecting to enrol its first student in September. After all phases of construction, it will be a comprehensive university with the capacity for 30,000 students.

• Sun Yat-sen University of Science and Technology in Zhongshan, with a public investment of around CNY10 billion (US$1.5 billion), is expected to complete its first phase of construction this year, with all three phases to be completed by 2025, by which time it is expected to have around 10,000 students. It is intended to have 60% postgraduate students.

• Guangdong University of Finance is expected to open for its first cohort in September. When all phases of construction are completed, it will accommodate 15,000 students at its additional CNY2 billion (US$307 million) new campus in Qingyuan city, a town that did not previously have an undergraduate institution.

• Lingnan Normal University is investing some CNY2.8 billion (US$430 million) on an additional new Huguang campus at Zhanjiang, expected to open for enrolment by August. It expects to have 18,500 students, faculty and staff when fully completed.

• A new ‘University of the Bay Area’ with two separate campuses is expected to have some 10,000 students, with 50% being graduate students, when fully completed in several years’ time.

• Foshan City University in the town of the same name, specialising in health and medical technologies, is also under construction.

• A new campus of Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts is to be built in Foshan.

• Shenzhen Normal University is being planned to train teachers “tailor-made for Shenzhen”, in collaboration with other universities in Shenzhen.

• Shenzhen Conservatory of Music, with a total investment of around CNY1.75 billion (US$269 million), is being built at the International University Park in Longgang district, Shenzhen, close to the new campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Shenzhen. It plans to start enrolment this year with around 200 undergraduates, 30 postgraduates and around 10 doctoral students and will be gradually expanded to teach 1,000 students.

• Shantou University is building a new East Coast campus as part of the Asian Youth Games 2021 village buildings and stadia in which the university has invested nearly CNY5 billion (US$768 million). The buildings are expected to be transferred to the university by September and will cater for 10,000 students, in addition to around 16,000 students at Shantou University’s older city campus.

• Shanwei Institute of Technology, an applied science institution being built in Shanwei city, is expected to complete the first phase of construction in June, with enrolment of the first 5,000 students from September. Other phases of the CNY4.218 billion (US$648 million) project will be completed by 2024, when enrolment is expected to be around 11,500 undergraduates and 3,500 graduate students.

• Guangdong Jieyang Institute of Technology in Jieyang city, within high-speed rail reach of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, is expected to be completed in June, and to enrol around 1,000 students from this September in engineering and technology disciplines.

• Zilin College of Jiaying University is expected to open this year in Meizhou city on a 2,000 acre site.

• Whampoa Graduate School and Nansha campus of Guangzhou University, which will eventually relocate to Nansha.