China’s SUSTech is in a serious hurry to succeed

The plans for SUSTech capture the boldness of the country’s ambitions to create in years universities that can match century-old powers

February 1, 2018
Chinese kids
Source: Getty

The appeal of the instant is obvious and all around us. It’s tempting to suggest that this is a new addiction, fuelled by constant fixes of social media sites such as Instagram (the clue’s in the name).

But the truth is that humans have always been partial to quick results and instant gratification. How else do you explain microwaves or the Pot Noodle?

Higher education – whether study itself, research or the building of institutions – does not tend to fit this mould. Time is required to immerse oneself in a subject in the way a university education demands. Research is often painstaking, a process of small steps, dead ends and only occasional dramatic breakthroughs. And age, so the age-old wisdom goes, is crucial to the development of what are now commonly referred to as world-class universities.

The evidence for this is plain enough. While we know about the particular strengths of younger universities, the fact remains that the average age of a university in the top 200 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings is more than 200 years.

But current developments in China will test the “old means best” theory more thoroughly than ever before, with a combination of incredible investment, sky-high ambition and exceptional momentum on key research metrics in science and engineering in particular.

In our cover story, ahead of the THE Asia Universities Summit next week, we visit the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in Shenzhen, part of China’s extraordinary growth zone in the Pearl River Delta, to take the measure of an institution on a rapid upward trajectory.

We also spend time in nearby Hong Kong, with its wealth of established universities, to consider how these neighbouring institutions compare, compete and collaborate – and what their future holds.

Shenzhen itself is a near-instant city, built at such astonishing speed that it grew from little more than a collection of villages to a metropolis of about 12 million people in just a few decades.

This growth, stemming from its status as China’s first Special Economic Zone when the country began to open up to investment and private enterprise, is part of a wider story of development that has, in the same period, turned the Pearl River Delta into the world’s largest continuous urbanised area.

Within this megalopolis, Shenzhen has traditionally focused on manufacturing – now, however, this is transforming into the idea of the city as China’s answer to Silicon Valley.

If this is to be realised, the role of universities and research will be key, and in our feature we hear how this is being approached at SUSTech, and in particular the funding and facilities being made available to lure scientific talent from across the world – including returning expatriates.

For universities that are having to fight to maintain funding levels elsewhere in the world, it’s a sobering thought that, as a relatively young insurgent, SUSTech is not even part of China’s elite, which are being given extra financial support under the government’s “Double First Class” project.

This excellence initiative is similar to approaches taken in many countries with ambitions to increase the number of top-ranking universities in short order. In China’s case, it will funnel additional resources to 42 institutions with the aim of accelerating their progress between now and 2050.

The success of attempts to build world-class higher education institutions and systems in truncated timescales has been mixed – some of the ambitions voiced in the Gulf a decade ago, for example, have proved to be too bold to deliver on.

But China is a different proposition, with marked success already in core areas of science and engineering and a diaspora of high-flying Chinese academics to tap into.

The country is also pulling in large numbers of international students, expanding its regional ambitions through the much-heralded Belt and Road project, and is making major investments in basic research – a significant shift of emphasis for some of its institutions.

It’s not plain sailing. China has a potential problem with oversupply of graduates, for example: its graduate unemployment rate is about 16 per cent, and the graduate salary premium has declined in recent years.

But given the scale of ambition (and just scale full stop), be in no doubt: Chinese progress has the potential to reshape the tectonic plates of global higher education – and in decades rather than centuries.

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