From where I sit: Bureaucrats' worst nightmare

October 29, 2009

When Zhu Qingshi accepted the presidency of the South China Science and Technology University (SCSTU) last month, one and a half years of searching finally came to an end. Notably, Professor Zhu became the first university president in China to be chosen by a selection committee and an international headhunting firm.

Although SCSTU is not yet open and will not recruit its first students until 2010, the appointment has been widely acclaimed as a breakthrough.

Traditionally, university and college presidents are nominated and appointed by local government and the Ministry of Education, but the process has been criticised for stifling China's higher education sector with unnecessary bureaucracy.

In the case of Professor Zhu, although the municipal Shenzhen Government rubber-stamped the decision, the appointment was based on the work of Russell Reynolds Associates China and a 16-strong selection committee.

Southern Metropolitan News reported that Russell Reynolds Associates China won the bid to find presidential candidates against four competing international headhunters in 2008.

Finally, a shortlist of ten candidates was provided to the selection committee on the basis of 12 months' worth of interviews, surveys and evaluations of 200 candidates from home and abroad.

The selection committee was made up of prestigious scientists and university leaders: half were members of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, while Hong Kong, the UK and the US provided one representative each. The result was unanimous.

But the appointment is in the spotlight for more than breaking with traditional procedure: Professor Zhu, an academician with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and former president of the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), is famous for his outspoken criticism of the country's higher education system.

After he took over USTC in 1998, it became the only university openly to boycott the Ministry of Education's policy of expanding enrolment because he firmly believed that expansion would damage research and teaching standards.

Professor Zhu's model for the SCSTU is its neighbour, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, which was ranked 35th in the 2009 Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings, 14 places higher than Tsinghua University, the top-rated mainland institution.

His ambition is that graduate students will account for 50 per cent of SCSTU's total student numbers, and he wants half of the faculty to be drawn from overseas.

In a recent interview with Shenzhen Evening News, Professor Zhu emphasised that the key to the new university's success will be "debureaucratisation".

The majority of Chinese scholars support Professor Zhu's stance. As Zhang Ming, professor in political science at the People's University, pointed out, the SCSTU could be an "ice-breaking project" in China's higher education system, analogous to Shenzhen becoming the country's first Special Economic Zone 30 years ago.

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