Asian Institutions Turn To East For Higher Education

27 Dec 2011

Immigration News

Setting up an outpost in mainland China has become increasingly common for the world’s higher education leaders. From New York University to Stanford, Western institutions are eager to establish a foothold in a country with one of the fastest growing economies.

Now just next door in Hong Kong, where the higher education sector has often looked to the West for inspiration, universities are expanding their mainland presence. They are concentrating on Shenzhen, the Pearl River Delta metropolis a short train ride from Hong Kong.

One Hong Kong University is finalizing plans to build a campus in Shenzhen, and others are stepping up their research efforts there.

Not only does Shenzhen offer universities from Hong Kong, where land is at a premium, space to expand, but it also provides them with a chance to get closer to some of the industries driving China’s economic growth and tap into the mainland’s pool of research funding and seemingly insatiable demand for higher education.

“It seems natural for universities in Hong Kong to get in there and play a role in upgrading talent, especially in science and technology,” said Gerard Postiglione, director of the Wah Ching Centre of Research on Education in China at the University of Hong Kong.

While mainland institutions still fall under the control of the Chinese government, analysts say the “one country, two systems” arrangement, which has allowed Hong Kong to continue to function under its own laws since sovereignty was returned to China in 1997, should help ensure that Hong Kong researchers who work on the mainland enjoy the same type of academic freedom so highly valued on their home campuses.

The authorities in Shenzhen, where demand for highly skilled labour is surging, have encouraged Hong Kong institutions to set up shop, first by inviting them to open research offices in buildings in designated zones and then, in some cases, granting them land to establish their own facilities.

Chinese University of Hong Kong, which began establishing research institutes with mainland partners in 2006 and opened its own research institute the following year, is trying to finalize its most ambitious project on the mainland to date — the establishment of a Shenzhen campus designed for 11,000 students.

“It is our belief that the Shenzhen campus initiative will help Hong Kong diversify her economy and increase her competitiveness, as well as contribute to the important process of educational reform of China,” Professor Xu Yangsheng, vice president of Chinese University, said in an e-mail.

“It will also help realize our vision to be a first-class comprehensive research university acknowledged locally, nationally and internationally. Moreover, it will serve to create more student internship and job opportunities and help the university forge closer ties with industry.”

The university does not yet have a date when it hopes to begin construction, but it has already signed agreements with the Shenzhen municipal government, which has agreed to set aside a piece of land for the university to use without charge, and Shenzhen University, which would be a joint partner.

The campus would be financed primarily through tuition and a subsidy from the Shenzhen government. Mr. Xu of Chinese University said it was also expected that the campus would attract “considerable national research funding.”

City University of Hong Kong was already employing a rising number of mainland researchers when it decided to take up an offer to open an office in the Shenzhen Virtual University Park, a special area established by the local government, in 2000.

The university’s Shenzhen Research Institute, which is now home to about 100 researchers, moved into its own building in January. It already has four research centres that focus on biotechnology, information technology, environmental protection and telecommunications, and there are plans to add two more.

Wong Hon-yee, associate vice president for knowledge transfer, said employing mainland researchers on the mainland was a cheaper and easier alternative to bringing them to Hong Kong, where they had to obtain work visas. He said the university also realized that it would be easier for researchers to connect with leading industries in Shenzhen if they had a local presence.

 “When we want to transfer some of the research deliverables to industries, the market is right there,” he said in a telephone interview.

While City University provides the seed money to establish the research centres, Mr. Wong said the centers had been able to access mainland government research funding, which they used to finance ongoing operations.

Meanwhile, the University of Hong Kong is planning to open a 2,000-bed public teaching hospital in Shenzhen early next year.

It already operates the Shenzhen Institute of Research and Innovation, which focuses on science and technology research in fields like biomedicine and engineering, in facilities in the Shenzhen Science Park.

“While we maintain strong links with major centres like Beijing and Shanghai, Shenzhen offers a unique opportunity because of its relatively young history but very forward-looking community and the geographical proximity and an increasingly porous border,” said Paul Tam, pro-vice chancellor and vice president for research at the University of Hong Kong. “It allows us to push the frontiers of collaboration without compromising the core activities of the main campus.”

Professor Tam said the mainland offered the university’s researchers alternative sources of funding and more space to carry out research. Conducting research on the mainland also allowed joint research in important areas like infectious diseases, stem cells and regenerative medicine, logistics and clean energy, he said.

“There are research areas that are best developed in this interface of Hong Kong and mainland China,” he said.

While the Chinese government has a history of exerting control over academics, Hong Kong universities say there have been no instances where their researchers have felt that their academic freedom has been restricted.

Professor Postiglione, who heads the policy, administration and social sciences division in the University of Hong Kong’s education faculty, said while there were differences in university governance and academic culture between the mainland and Hong Kong, he believes that the leaders of Hong Kong universities would not be willing to compromise on academic freedom at their mainland operations.

“They would only set up there if they could provide the kind of education and research environment that they have in Hong Kong with respect to academic freedom and open intellectual thought,” he said.

Professor Postiglione said while he expected that researchers at Hong Kong universities’ Shenzhen facilities would be able to operate freely on campus, their off-campus activities may be more restricted. For example, while academics in Hong Kong could freely take part in weekend protests, this may be more difficult for those working on the mainland.

While the universities have so far focused on research in science and technology, Professor Postiglione said it could become more problematic if they branched out into humanities and social science.

Professor Tam of the University of Hong Kong said ensuring that researchers enjoyed academic freedom was “nonnegotiable.”

“We see no concern, but of course we will always be vigilant,” he said. “The H.K.U. professors wherever they work — whether it’s in Shenzhen or London or Zimbabwe — will still adhere to the highest standard of academic integrity and will therefore expect to have academic freedom.” 


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