China’s ‘MIT of Greater Bay Area’ is a bid to turn southern region into innovation powerhouse


As part of its ambitions to turn the Greater Bay Area (GBA) into an innovation powerhouse, China is building a new university focusing on science and technology in the Southern Chinese region and has enlisted industry veterans from one of the nation’s top universities to lead it.

The GBA is the Chinese government’s scheme to link the cities of Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Foshan, Zhongshan, Dongguan, Huizhou, Jiangmen and Zhaoqing into an integrated economic and business hub.

Dongguan, in Guangdong province, is already the manufacturing hub of China. One out of every four smartphones in the world is made in the city and there are a number of hi-tech enterprises clustered in the city’s Songshan Lake District, including a major research and development facility by tech giant Huawei Technologies, and an integrated national science centre.

The first campus of the Greater Bay Area University – dubbed a potential “MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) of the GBA” – will also be in Songshan Lake District. Construction is expected to be complete and the first students enrolled in 2023.

The institution will be led by top mathematician Tian Gang and administrator Dai Changliang, who have worked for decades at Peking University.

Tian, who is heading the preparatory team for the new university, is the former vice-president of Peking University and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences who has won many awards for his mathematical contributions. Dai, who will serve as a “second-level” head at the institute, was previously the deputy head of the human resources department of Peking University.

As well as hiring experienced leaders, Dongguan city will invest at least 10 billion yuan (US$1.5 billion) to build the university and has allocated more than 330 acres of land for the project.

Dongguan Mayor Xiao Yafei told the local media that constructing an innovative university was the best way to achieve cooperation with other cities in the GBA, including Hong Kong and Macau.

In a previous interview with mainland media, Deng Jiangnian, head of the GBA Research Institute, a think tank founded by the Guangdong provincial government, said GBA University would differ from other local universities because it would “first, be international in its operation and secondly, serve the local community”. He said the university should focus on science and technology and become the “MIT of the GBA”.

Yang Aiping, professor and deputy head of the School of Public Administration at the Guangzhou-based South China Normal University, told the Post the naming of the GBA University was politically and socially significant as part of the broader plan to integrate the Greater Bay Area.

While Dongguan was a manufacturing centre, it lacked collaboration on research and industry with other areas, and the university could provide support for this in future, Yang said.

Peng Peng, executive chairman of the Guangdong Society of Reform, a think tank connected to the provincial government, said the country’s industrial transformation had convinced the government of the need to cultivate skilled talent such as elite engineers and senior mechanics at universities.

“The construction of the GBA University is government led, with the help of the resources of famous universities. It is not comparable to any other local private universities,” Peng said.

“Dongguan has the financial resources, of course, as a world-class manufacturing base, and the support of the Guangdong provincial government. Financial resources, industrial demand and the faculty and management personnel are very important,” Peng said.

GBA University will not be the only new university in town. In recent years, there has been an accelerating trend of Hong Kong and Macau universities building campuses in Guangdong.

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in Guangzhou and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Foshan are both under construction, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Shenzhen recently started taking enrolments.

Chinese authorities have been pushing for vocational education reforms in recent years, hoping to transform the former “factory of the world” into a manufacturing powerhouse, addressing the problem of overpopulation in some industries accompanied by a shortage of senior, skilled workers.

Just last month, plans by education authorities to merge universities with vocational schools into vocational-technical colleges in several provinces, including Jiangsu and Zhejiang, sparked massive protests by students and parents. Students argued that this would lead to a “devaluation” of their diplomas.

Summer Hou, 30, a high school teacher living in Dongguan said: “I look forward to this ‘MIT in the GBA’, so my students will have one more choice and a good university in their hometown.”

Gao said she expected housing prices in Dongguan to continue to rise with the establishment of the university. “The situation of low-paid workers is increasingly hard,” she said.

ARTICLE BY South China Morning Post

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