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Industry-focused universities tackle Chinese skills gaps

Written by: Pola Lem
Published on: 4 Feb 2022

Employees work on the production line of silicon wafer at a factory of GalaxyCore Inc. to illustrate ndustry-focused universities tackle Chinese skills gaps

Source: Getty

China’s new crop of privately backed, industry-focused universities could help meet skills gaps and jump-start innovation, academics said.

At the end of last year Chinese businessman Cao Dewang came one step closer to establishing his institution when he signed an agreement with the city government of Fuzhou to build a university for developing applied research and technical talent. The Fuyao University of Science and Technology is one example of a handful of such endeavours taking shape in the country, which experts say could provide a blueprint for further development.

“These new types of universities could bring innovation to HE in China; they can respond to changes faster, and their collaboration with the industries…is very much mandated [so] it would be easier for the government to drive changes through them,” said Ka Ho Mok, vice-president of Lingnan University Hong Kong.

Their development comes at a time when Chinese institutions are struggling to keep pace with the country’s ambitious manufacturing aims. Because it is “extremely difficult” to reform China’s government-run universities, Beijing has tried to encourage other forms of universities to evolve, such as those borne of partnerships with overseas institutions, which “bring new models of delivery and innovation in university governance”, said Professor Mok.

But unlike NYU Shanghai or Duke Kunshan University, Fuyao and institutions like it focus on a specific industry.

For instance, the Nanjing Integrated Circuit University, founded in 2020, aims to address a skills shortage in the semiconductor industry. Similarly, the Dongfang University of Technology, or Oriental University of Technology – which has yet to receive its official English name and is under development in Ningbo, sponsored by chip businessman Yu Renrong – tackles industry gaps.

“China is now in great need of ‘new times’ technicians and workers in the different manufacturing organisations,” said Zhiyong Zhu, a professor of sociology and educational administration at Beijing Normal University. “From the perspective of central government, private funding can possibly set an example…that [a] public university controlled by the government could learn from.”

Still, these new institutions will need to overcome certain hurdles if they are to succeed, Professor Zhu cautioned. For one, they will need to find appropriately trained lecturers.

“It is difficult to employ the teachers with [innovative] viewpoints and visions of learning, teaching, knowledge…because it is highly possible that most of those teachers are trained by public universities,” he said.

Such institutions will also need to have the kind of university governance to “encourage innovation and institutional autonomy”, said Professor Mok. He stressed that this should be accompanied by stable government policy and “sufficient [and] stable funding support”.

For its part, China’s Ministry of Education will likely need to adopt a different set of evaluation criteria for performance measures “if they are serious about new ways of operation being sustained”, and the government will need to adopt a different university governance framework “for supporting institutions with more flexibility in management in response to rapid changes”, he said.

Besides tackling the logistics, any university with private backing will also need to ensure its backers don’t run into disagreements with the government, warned Philip Altbach, a professor at Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education.  

“I suspect an issue with these initiatives will be the government’s crackdown on private initiatives of all kinds,” he said.