Experiment that can't afford to fail
Reform of any kind in China is never easy. When it is concerned with university education, a tightly controlled sector, the task is even more daunting. The recent series of problems that have plagued a pioneering reformist university in Shenzhen speak volumes about the enormous difficulties in overhauling the rigid system.
South University of Science and Technology of China has been touted as the future for mainland universities. Modelled on universities in Hong Kong with independent administration and curriculum, the institute was given rare permission by the Ministry of Education to operate free of Communist Party bureaucracy. The attempt, endorsed in the 2010 central government blueprint for education reform and development for the next 10 years, is commendable. It is charting an unknown course for a sector that is in urgent need of reform to keep up with rapid development in China.
But recently the experiment has suffered another serious setback with the formation of a new decision-making council, 20 members of which are provincial and city government leaders. And Xu Qin, the council chief and city mayor, is poised to take another backward step by setting up a Community Party committee to supervise operations. The move, described by the university president Zhu Qingshi as an 'inevitable choice under China's reality', has raised strong doubts as to whether the reform can be sustained.
It takes strong political will and support for any reform to succeed. Regrettably, the momentum appears to be dwindling as the university has been hit by one controversy after another, among them the resignation of three professors from Hong Kong in protest against the management. These negative developments will only deter other universities from attempting change. If the central government is sincere in making academic reform a success, every effort must be made to curb party controls and bureaucratic interference. This is an experiment that cannot afford to fail.