China’s Special Education Zones (SEdZs)

The relocation of the University of Macau to Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, presents a unique frontier of the internationalisation of China’s higher education sectors. Here we look at the ongoing education-related changes in two Special Economic Zones, Shenzhen and Zhuhai. Such is the ongoing and expanding scale of university experimentation in these zones, they may better and relevantly be known as SEdZs – Special Education Zones.

Special Economic Zones 

In August 1980 two cities in China’s southern Guangdong province, Shenzhen and Zhuhai, were designated by China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee as “The Economic Zone Ordinance in Guangdong Province” respectively.  From foreign investment to financial and legal reforms, alongside three others, these two zones have served as dynamic experimental policy hubs since. Nearly thirty-five years later, former President Hu Jintao reiterated national commitment to the frontier role of the zones, assuring in 2010 that the government would always support the “brave exploration” of the zones in their role as “first movers”. Here we look at the frontier higher-education movers in each of Shenzhen and Zhuhai.

Shenzhen, Guangdong Province (proximate to Hong Kong)

In 2010 a new and unique university opened in Shenzhen, the South University of Science and Technology of China. Differences to traditional colleges include that the school offers small-scale undergraduate education more akin to Oxbridge (at least an initial cap of 400 students per year, with just 45 having comprised the inaugural intake); students apply through personal application rather than by sitting the famously competitively rigid and centrally-administered Gaokao university entrance exam; flexibility in deciding course content and graduation requirements. While students attending the school are still required to sit the Gaokao exam, it is more of a formality and results are not made public. The first intake, in September 2012, saw a total of 188 undergraduate and graduate students admitted. Frontier international student exchange partnerships are also being established, including recently and for example with Ghana’s Central University College.

Alongside the innovation underlying the inauguration of SUTC, is the presence of experimental campuses of some of China’s most elite universities. Going back to the 1990s Shenzhen Municipal government negotiated with some of China’s elite universities to set up campuses in the city, which otherwise also had no university infrastructure of its own. Universities responding include none other than Peking University, Tsinghua University and Harbin University of Science and Technology.

From the university perspective Shenzhen offers space to experiment and reform. As vice-president of Peking University (PKU) and Chancellor the Shenzhen campus Hai Wen said in 2010, “Peking University wanted further development but it was hard to implement some of its reforms in Beijing.” As the campus’ website puts it, PKU Shenzhen is “an integral part of PKU’s progression toward becoming a world-class university”. According to its website, the campus is home to eight schools and more than 2,000 students.

The Business School, Peking University HSBC School of Business, for example is different to the School’s Beijing-based Guanghua School of Management, not only in branding. in that in Shenzhen it is a graduate school only. It also offers dual masters degrees with Hong Kong University, involves a rotation of professors between Peking, Hong Kong (University) and Shenzhen, and finally that it necessitates proficiency in English to be accepted regardless for any course. Much the same as the East’s Asia’s now highly regarded National University of Singapore have done before the school intends ultimately to teach near universally in English.

Zhuhai, Guangdong Province (proximate to Macau)

In 2009, the City of Zhuhai in China’s Guangdong Province decided to turn the island of Hengqin into a centre of education, culture, high technology and ecological living. Covering 106km2 the island is three times the size of Macau, and is the emerging host to one of mainland China’s most modern university campuses – the relocation campus of Macau University.

Founded in 1981, the University of Macau (UM) has since been cramped on a site on Macau’s Taipa Island, without room for expansion. The decision to relocate to Zhuhai enables the University provides for a much larger physical area for the campus, of roughly 1km(250 acres) According to the New York Times, the Macau government has paid about $US150mn for a 40-year lease on the site. Funding comes not only from the government of Macau, but also from private donations. Could this indicate a willingness to test a shift toward steady privatisation of some universities in China? In other news this week Michael Yu, founder of New Oriental Education and Technology Group, and ‘god-father’ of outbound students from China.

Classes on the site begin in September students and staff will be able to transfer from Macau to Heqing Island via an underwater tunnel linking the islands. The campus itself is designed by one of China’s most famous artists, He Jingtang, and will have none of the wide-open spaces and monumental buildings of traditional mainland campuses. Rather, the side is ‘people-oriented, modern and IT-based’, according to a quote in the New York Times. With mountain and sea views, the design is said to be a mix of European and southern Chinese architecture.

Not only will it have 3,800 WiFi hotspots, since operating under Macau law it will remarkably be exempt from China’s standard Internet restrictions and censorship. Lease of the site – consider the first time a part of the People’s Republic of China has been offered for rent under foreign jurisdiction, expires in 2049. This coincides with the end of Macau’s “one country, two systems” agreement that was a transition agreement between former colonial ruler Portugal and China, which will again fall under Chinese governance thereafter.

Indicative perhaps of the increasing importance of these areas to China’s economy in the year’s forth, the campus will house three scientific research centres – Information and Electronics; Chinese Medicine and Pharmaceutical Science; and Energy and the Environment. It is hoped too this will help to diverse Macau’s own economy henceforth. Similarly, it is intended that half of the graduate students will be from Macau, while the other half will be from around the world. It will be interesting to see if China guides any of its national scholarship recipients, especially those from Lusophone countries to the new campus. It will ultimately also be interesting to see how much China changes the University of Macau and how much the University of Macau changes China.

This “Special Education Zone” in Zhuhai is not only just about the relocation of MU to Zhuhai, but as in Shenzhen, there are some high profile mainland universities experimenting on a smaller-scaled frontier in Zhuhai. Among them are Jilin University, Zhongshan (Sun-Yatsen) University, and Beijing Normal University. Schools use their offshoot campuses in Zhuhai and Shenzhen to train staff in new ways of teaching and learning, to build cooperation with foreign schools, especially those of Macau and Hong Kong, and to experiment with new courses and research. This is then typically transferred as appropriate, back to the main campus.

Whether the transfer of Macau University to mainland China will ultimately gradually make the University of Macau more like Chinese universities, or rather lead a process of upgrade of Chinese universities toward Macau’s more Western university system is for China watchers to observe over the years ahead. Either way, it is arguably these campuses and universities that occupy on section of China’s emerging research and attempt at creating a new innovation frontier.

Regardless, should China realise its ambitions to globalise its higher education education system, no doubt while retaining distinctive Chinese characteristics, then what happens over the next decade or two in Shenzhen and Zhuhai might again indicate some of the character of what will emerge across China more broadly. While it is early days yet for the “SEdZs”, as distinct from for the role of Zhuhai and Shenzhen as their more than three-decade’s long role as Special Economic Zones, these are definitely the cities to watch to understand elements of pursuit for a more internationalised and frontier university sector.

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Lauren has worked in economic policy and research at the World Bank, World Economic Forum, EIU and for the governments of Sierra Leone and Guyana. She has learned Chinese since 1995, and lived in Beijing for almost six years, on and off since 1997. Lauren has a PhD in Economics from Peking University, an MSc in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and a B.A/B.Com from the University of Melbourne.

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