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University passes stiff examination

Updated: 2012-11-21 09:12
By Wu Wencong and Chen Hong ( China Daily)

A new establishment may provide a template for reform of China's system of higher education by directly appointing its principal and delegating decisions to its own academic council, report Wu Wencong and Chen Hong in Shenzhen.

If it were not for the nameplate on the small, locked gate, one could mistake the university for a high school. Through the gate, the entire campus is visible: two main buildings in the foreground, with a small running track behind them, while a dormitory and canteen stand in the distance.

Few Chinese universities shut their campuses to the public in this way, but the South University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, is not a run-of-the-mill establishment.

University passes stiff examination

Students leave the classroom after an exam at the South University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, Guangdong province. [Photo / Xinhua]

Since its earliest days in late 2010, the establishment has gained enormous public attention and has been hailed as a pioneer of education reform in China.

Usually Chinese university principals are appointed by the central government or local authorities, but the school has made a name for itself by delegating policymaking to a board of directors instead.

China Daily was offered a rare opportunity to take a behind-the-scenes look at an institution that has been at the center of controversy since its inception.

The university board has the right to investigate and approve management, financial reports and long-term development plans, according to guidelines outlined by the local government in July 2011.

The publication of the guidelines was hailed as a historic step, because it was the first time that the policymaking rights and responsibilities of a university board and a local government had been laid out in detail.

The establishment's 20-member board of directors includes government representatives, the university principal, representatives from the management team, faculties and eminent members of local society.

Also, professors have the final say on important issues, and the gaokao - the national entrance exam that is the only method of admission at most other Chinese universities - is only one of the criteria in the application process.

The university's establishment was contentious. In February 2011, the first batch of 45 students was enrolled, but crucially because they had refused to take the gaokao exam, there is a strong possibility that the students will not be awarded a government-approved qualification.

However, some of them competed against seniors from prestigious international universities as part of an Asian universities team in the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, which was held in the US on Nov 7.

Campus life

At the gate, two security men patiently explained to a continuous stream of callers that the university is not open to visitors and that they have to contact a student or a teacher to gain access.

The two main buildings are color-coded. The white one houses teachers' offices, while the red one contains lecture rooms, laboratories and a library. Despite its small size, the red building is large enough to accommodate the 233 students on campus. The typical quandaries at larger Chinese universities, such as overcrowded study areas, are not a concern. Tables and large couches, ideal for group discussions, are dotted throughout the corridors.

The vigilance of the security guards means that students feel safe to leave their expensive mountain bikes at the front of the building, many of them unlocked, a practice unthinkable at most of the nation's educational establishments. Meanwhile, laptops are left randomly on desks at lunchtime and cellphones often lie unattended on canteen tables.

All the above are indicative of the carefree, possibly unworldly, campus environment created by the university.

Sitting in the canteen, freshman Liu Jia explained the meticulous plan for his leisure time: On Monday through Wednesday evenings he studies; on Thursday and Fridays he plays computer games for a limited time; and he swims at the gym on the weekend.

Liu had hoped to study at Xiamen University in Fujian province, famous for its spacious, beautiful campus, but he was drawn by the heavy focus on chemistry at the SUST and reconsidered his application.

Like his peers, Liu enjoys the quiet campus environment created by the control-gate system and expressed no regrets at having chosen the newly founded establishment, pointing out that the campus is attractive and the food in the canteen is tasty.

Moreover, the relative isolation of the campus, located far from the city's downtown, may mean a lack of extracurricular activities compared with other universities, but for Liu, it's a bonus.

"Of course it's not bad to have plenty of choice, but it may prove to be a distraction and hinder you from distinguishing what you are really interested in," said the 19-year-old from Henan province in central China.

He admitted that his gaokao score was lower than most of his classmates. That puts him under more pressure and so he needs to study harder to catch up. He usually rises at 7 am and studies until midnight, but he said some students stay in the study room until 4 am.

"Most of the students here competed in the Science Olympiad in math, physics and chemistry when in high school. Studying very hard, even during the summer and winter vacations, is nothing new to us," said Liu. "All we care about is a peaceful environment in which to study."

He left the canteen to go to his dorm to collect some books and head to the library. He planned to use his free Wednesday afternoon to study for the forthcoming mid-term exam.

The dorm is the envy of Liu's high school friends, who are studying at other universities. The room has only three beds, a separate bathroom and an air conditioner. The single disadvantage is that the only Internet connections in the building are in the communal areas, which close at 11 pm.

Liu said English used to be his weakest subject, but he was forced to improve to survive at the university because the textbooks for almost all classes are in English and some contain as many as 1,000 pages.

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