The Ministry of Education has given its much-delayed seal of approval for a plan to build the mainland's first ultra-modern university to rival the world-renowned California Institute of Technology, or Caltech.
South University of Science and Technology of China (SUSTC) founding president Dr Zhu Qingshi said he had received a Ministry of Education directive dated December 24 endorsing a Guangdong provincial government plan to build the university's infrastructure and recruit teaching staff.
The approval came more than three years after the Shenzhen city government put forward the plan to build a modern university as part of a reform push under a central government medium- and long-term education development blueprint running up to 2020 and a similar reform plan for the Pearl River Delta region.
The plan has also set off heated discussions, as SUSTC holds promise as an experiment that could lead to the overhaul of the entire university system on the mainland. The current system has been heavily criticised for losing quality teaching and creativity because of bureaucracy.
Zhu, a former president of the University of Science and Technology of China was headhunted by the Shenzhen government. He is making it a priority to cut down bureaucracy, starting by scrapping the giving of official ranks to staff - something all other mainland universities do.
He said it was a relief to have the ministry's approval, but he still felt as if he were 'walking on thin ice' in dealing with government bureaucracy - especially since the school has to apply for separate approvals for student recruitment and accreditation to issue diplomas.
His frustration over official red tape was underscored by a comment he made late last month, when he said they might have to go it alone in recruiting students as the ministry's approval was not in sight. Student recruitment was supposed to start in September, but instead, Zhu said, SUSTC would recruit 50 top Chinese students in a trial run in March.
China National Institute for Educational Research professor Chu Zhaohui said SUSTC's ability to go forward free of ministry interference to build a modernised university was an ideal situation.
However, the ministry has made it clear that it is not ready to abolish the administrative status quo, and the fact that it is the provincial and municipal governments backing the new university plan, but not the central government, speaks volumes.
'Instead, a modernised university should be set up in accordance with a university charter approved by a legislature, a people's congress in the region [whether provincial or municipal],' Chu said. 'So the future management of SUSTC will always be a delicate balancing act, but Zhu's team might just push the envelope further as long as the ministry does not flash a red light.'