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China experiments with a “bureaucrat-free” research university in Shenzhen

On 1 March 2011, China’s first “bureaucrat-free” research university – South University of Science and Technology (SUST) – will enrol its first 50 students. Remarkably, each of these individuals was admitted without having to go through the rigid national student screening process. No less notable, SUST’s president, 64-year old physical chemist Zhu Qingshi, is the first university president in China without a state administrative rank. Normally, Chinese university presidents and professors are appointed to their positions by higher government authorities and hold concurrent political/administrative posts equivalent to city mayors or provincial deputy governors. Not so in the case of SUST.

The launch of SUST marks a notable first milestone in what will likely be a long, slow reform process to “de-bureaucratize” university governance in China. SUST’s president, Professor Zhu, has been outspoken about the urgent need to do away what he perceives to be the innovation-stifling bureaucracy in Chinese universities. His bold advocacy of university self-governance (by academics) and strong position on the issue of academic freedom have received hesitant responses from China’s Ministry of Education. However, there has been enthusiastic backing from the Shenzhen Government, which has invested RMB 2.5 billion (EUR 250 million) in SUST in the hope of keeping its position at the forefront of China’s economic development.  Indeed, Shenzhen is China’s first Special Economic Zone and borders Hong Kong, which is China’s first Special Administrative Region. The two cities have been working closely to develop their higher education and R&D sectors in response to China’s national plan to develop southeastern China as an experimental region for scientific development and innovation by 2020.

Looking to the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) as an example and ally, SUST has set ambitious targets of recruiting 20 top professors to head 20 “first-class institutions” in three to five years.  Whether the HKUST model will work in China remains an open question for many reasons, however, not least of which is the fact that the culture of academic freedom in the two special regions is not (yet) quite the same.   

Xinhua Insight – Culture and Education

Press release, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology