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Will China’s future answer to Stanford be based in Dongguan?


Dongguan now wants to be an education hub in the Greater Bay Area (GBA)

Such is the blizzard of announcements about new investment in the Greater Bay Area in southern China that some of the projects barely make it into media view.

Someone who evidently knows how to cut through the noise is Xiao Yafei, the mayor of Dongguan.

“The central government has already agreed tentatively to build a high-quality, high-level Greater Bay Area university in Dongguan’s Binhawan New Area,” Xiao told Nanfang Daily this month at a GBA conference organised by the Guangdong-based newspaper.

Xiao knows, of course, that spending under banner central government policies such as the GBA is more likely to be looked on favourably. Dongguan will strive to build the “GBA University” into a leading international college which would also serve the country’s Belt and Road Initiatives, the mayor said, adding that Dongguan is going to invite a university from Hong Kong to set up another campus in the same district.

Talk of how a university is needed to represent the region mirrors some of the speculation earlier this year that a brand new development bank is gearing up for the GBA as well.

But WiC imagines that the backers of this latest plan will have argued that a world-class economy needs a world-class university in the same way that Silicon Valley is home to Stanford. A top-notch institution is missing in Guangdong. None of the local universities get close to the upper echelons in the international rankings and there’s only one candidate that features regularly in mainland China’s top 10 – the Southern University of Science and Technology, which was established in Shenzhen in 2011.

A possible local model might be the private sector university Guangdong Baiyun, which describes itself as “a full time tertiary institute of bachelor degree education”. Baiyun has 18,000 students and 260 laboratories and puts its emphasis on heavily vocational courses in which it cooperates closely with local companies to provide work placements. The Economist recently profiled the institution and pointed out that 92% of its graduates found immediate employment.

Perhaps importantly, the calls for another seat of learning worthy of the surroundings come at a time when tensions with the US are putting more of the onus on local companies to develop world-class technologies of their own.

Tighter visa controls are making it harder for Chinese graduates to do research at schools in the US as well (see WiC453), adding to the pressure for homegrown instruction in subjects like robotics, aviation and engineering.

There’s not much detail on how the new university in Dongguan will choose to focus its efforts. But it’s a fair guess that social sciences and the arts won’t be the highest of its priorities. Here SUSTech (the university established in Shenzhen eight years ago) is an indicator, with its mission to become a leader in fostering research synching with GBA corporate giants such as Huawei, Tencent, BYD and DJI.

WiC is also sure that the promoters of the Dongguan plan will have cited how Stanford has been crucial to the success of Silicon Valley as well. The comparison might sound fanciful but Stanford was a relative latecomer when it was founded in the 1880s, long after Ivy League stalwarts such as Harvard and Yale. Nor did it have much of a reputation until it started to secure state-sponsored funding in areas like electronics in the 1940s. Its engineering school then began to commercialise some of its breakthroughs in the newly built Stanford Industrial Park, leading to success stories from students like William Hewlett and David Packard, who patented an audio oscillator. Hewlett Packard emerged as a major computer manufacturer and companies such as Lockheed, Fairchild, Xerox and General Electric had links to the university’s industrial park too.

That sounds a bit like a blueprint that officials would like to implement in Dongguan, although there was some initial surprise that the new university is being planned there rather than Shenzhen, the most advanced manufacturing centre, or Guangzhou, which serves as the region’s political and administrative heart.

In fact, the sharing out of projects like these is part of the plan for spreading the gains to less-privileged parts of the GBA region. Dongguan has been trying to rebrand itself as more than a lower-end manufacturing base for some time, following a wrenching slowdown after the global financial crisis. Dongguan was also known as China’s “sin city” until a government crackdown on the world’s oldest profession in 2014 (see WiC226).

Now the city wants to be home to companies that build their own brands rather than assembling goods for others and it will be hoping that a new university in the neighbourhood makes that more likely.

Another compelling reason for choosing Dongguan is that the land there is cheaper than first-tier locations, which has been bringing other companies to Binhaiwan, a strategic corridor that puts Dongguan in closer touch with the northern districts of Shenzhen, as well as the special economic zone in Nansha on the southern fringes of Guangzhou.

Local officials told Nanfang Daily that major employers including chipmaker Tsinghua Unigroup, insurance and fintech giant Ping An, and smartphone maker OPPO committed to investment in the district last year, in what they described as “the year of project settlement” for Binhaiwan.

The mention from the Dongguan mayor that he wants one of Hong Kong’s universities to set up a campus in the same district highlights another theme in the educational ambitions for the region.

While Guangdong’s universities don’t feature in the elite rankings, four of the universities from the former British colony do make the grade, and higher education bosses in Hong Kong see the sector as another of the ways that the city can contribute to the GBA as a whole.

Most of Hong Kong’s universities already have joint ventures with partner institutions in Guangdong but advocates say there is scope to deepen the ‘talent pool’ by bringing together their expertise with the type of funding that seems more readily available under the GBA banner.

Another of the key themes is that Hong Kong is a proven leader in providing the grounding in basic research in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Many of its graduates have then moved across the border into China to do further research or apply their knowhow in areas where breakthroughs can be commercialised. This kind of combination is lauded in the start-up legends of commercial drone king DJI, whose founder studied at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, and the facial recognition giant SenseTime, whose creator taught at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Both men spent time refining their ideas in the city before starting their businesses across the border in Shenzhen. Perhaps more of Hong Kong’s graduates might make their way to the new university in Dongguan in future, tasked with searching for breakthroughs in new sectors like smart manufacturing.

That kind of journey also resonates with comments from Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei earlier this year about how Chinese companies are going to catch up in the manufacturing of hi-tech components like semiconductor chips.

Huawei has already built a research and development campus of its own in Dongguan that will accommodate 25,000 employees, although Ren added in the same interview that the Chinese need to take a “cross-border approach to innovation” rather than relying entirely on internal expertise.

In Huawei’s case that has meant setting up research centres in other countries but Hong Kong’s universities are making an argument for how they can serve as ‘super connectors’ between the GBA and the wider world of higher education.

In part that’s due to their academic ties with universities in Europe and North America, something that most mainland universities simply don’t have. The universities also attract a wider range of students with backgrounds of studying overseas, bringing a mix of different views and experience to their work. This is another cultural context that others in the GBA struggle to match, Hong Kong’s university bosses say.

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