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February 10, 2011

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Rare university scraps wooden bureaucracy

PHYSICAL chemist Zhu Qingshi knew he was defying China's academic conventions and traditions when he began setting up the country's first "autonomous university."

But it soon became clear he would have to break the law as well if he were to free his staff and prospective students from the shackles of what he sees as bureaucracy that stifles innovation.

"People dislike bureaucracy on campus and the use of one-time exams to evaluate students," says Zhu, president of the experimental South University of Science and Technology (SUST) in Shenzhen, bordering Hong Kong.

"But it's difficult to change and many of our efforts have challenged the existing legal frameworks."

He acknowledges that his decision to start enrolling students last month - without approval from the Ministry of Education (MOE) - was illegal.

Chinese law requires anyone wanting to open a university to first operate a junior college. Only if this proves successful, will an MOE evaluation committee approve its upgrading to a university. "SUST had no time or requirement to go through the full procedure. We needed to bring in the best researchers and the best post-graduates. But without approval to enrol, that was illegal."

The lack of "requirement" refers to the backing of the Shenzhen government. Deputy Mayor Yan Xiaopei has said that if Shenzhen wants to remain the front runner of China's economic reform, the city must have a world-leading university to support its development potential.

Directly under the Shenzhen government, SUST, was established in Nanshan District with an investment of more than 2.5 billion yuan (about US$373 million). The MOE conferred its approval of the project on January 10 - seven weeks ahead of the planned opening on March 1.

Sleepless nights

Zhu, also a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said he had many sleepless nights waiting for the official endorsement to get the ball rolling.

"People matter most. Without approval, students and teaching staff felt insecure as they were venturing into unknown territory with me and facing an uncertain future," says Zhu.

At the retirement age of 64, Zhu was handpicked by the Shenzhen government to organize a feasible new operating model to better tap the research and innovation potential of young Chinese.

"I've been thinking hard over the past year on where and how we go," says Zhu. He looked to the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and recalled his visits as either a guest scientist or visiting researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brookhaven National Laboratory in the United States, Cambridge and Oxford universities in the United Kingdom, the National Research Council of Canada and the University of Paris in France.

Finally, he decided: "We will not have bureaucrats. A council will be established to lay down rules and policies and monitor everyday operation but stay detached from academic activities."

Chinese professors and university managers are usually part of the state administrative hierarchy. Principals, for instance, normally have a rank equivalent to a city mayor or provincial deputy governor.

Zhu, who enjoyed deputy governor-level status when heading the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, Anhui Province, gave up his bureaucratic ranking, turning the SUST into China's first university headed by a professor. "One of the biggest hindrances to Chinese universities turning out research talent is the rampant bureaucratic culture on campus," says Zhu.

"In my university, all faculty will be stripped of their administrative rankings. If presidents and professors focus on seeking administrative privileges, who will pursue academic excellence?"

Given that the presidents of Chinese universities are appointed by higher government authorities, campuses are run according to administrative priorities and professors with experience in education have little say, Zhu explains.

"As a result, kowtowing to authority and having subordinate lower levels have evolved into the dominant campus culture, which dampens academic enthusiasm," he says.

Attractive pay

Three Chinese academicians and a handful of renowned scientists have joined the SUST, drawn by an annual salary package for leading professors of around 1.15 million yuan, much higher than that for domestic peers, but lower than the international average. In March, the first 50 students will be admitted, each with a scholarship of 10,000 yuan a year for tuition and living expenses.

Uniquely among state-run universities, the SUST can bypass the national student screening process - the national university entrance examination - to independently enroll students and confer degrees based on its own criteria.

SUST enrollment tests assess academic achievement as well as imagination, understanding and innovation. One question, for instance, requires examinees to use two circles, two triangles and two lines to constitute as many graphics as possible.

Unlike other new college students who must choose their majors before admission, students at SUST are required to take two years of basic courses before registering their majors with the university's institutes.

Zhu's vision is for all faculty to double as teaching and research and development (R&D) staff. They will give specialized courses, but R&D must be interdisciplinary so as to broaden the horizons of students and allow free development.

Thousands of high school students and their parents have swarmed into the campus, which is still under construction, for recruitment orientation.

Yang Zhaosen, father of a third year high school student, traveled almost 2,000 kilometers from east China's Shandong Province to talk to Zhu.

"I think it's worth giving it a try. My son did not always perform well in the traditional test-oriented education. This new way of teaching might bring out his potential," says Yang.

Chen Jiawei, 16, from Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province, was impressed by Zhu's orientation speech. "My sister is studying in the United States. I am excited because Zhu's description of the SUST sounds so much like my sister's university. I will be back with an application."

But Shenzhen Foreign Languages School third year student Zhan Wenbin was skeptical: "It's too good to be true. I will apply for the enrollment exam, but the national college entrance exam is still my major objective."


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