The Shenzhen-based educator who was pushing radical reform of the tertiary education system a year ago now admits he has had to adopt a more moderate approach to get his university off the ground.
Zhu Qingshi, the 66-year-old president of the South University of Science and Technology of China (SUSTC), is seeking to build a university free of the bureaucracy that plagues many tertiary institutions on the mainland.
SUSTC raised eyebrows last year and prompted three advisers to quit when it recruited 45 students without going through the gaokao, mandatory national college entrance exams that some criticise as too rigid and overly broad. Students who do not go through the national exams cannot get a degree accredited by the Ministry of Education, which could damage their career prospects.
This year, Zhu said SUSTC was waiting for the ministry to approve its request for full accreditation before deciding how to go ahead with its planned recruitment of up to 200 students.
'It's natural that you need to step back a bit or make some compromise when you encounter some problems,' Zhu said last week in Beijing. 'But we should never lose sight of moving the reform forward.'
The university was modelled on Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Zhu said he wanted it to rival the California Institute of Technology in five years.
Full accreditation would give SUSTC the authority to award accredited degrees, but sceptics argue such conformity threatens to condemn SUSTC to the same future as any other public university on the mainland, where red tape is rife.
A mainland university can only begin recruiting postgraduates after three years as a fully accredited undergraduate institution, and university administrators with official ranks have a greater say in school management than academics.
The decision to let the students bypass the gaokao last summer led to the resignation in June of three HKUST professors who had been advisers to the fledging university.
They accused Zhu of leading SUSTC away from its original goal of becoming a top research-oriented university, saying he had failed to put in place a good faculty or develop adequate oversight and accountability mechanisms.
It has recruited 60 professors and teaching staff around the globe, including 12 part-time professors from Hong Kong and Shenzhen, to teach six majors in five departments.
Zhu said that the remaining 43 students had been offered positions by a number of big firms even though they have three more years of study to complete.
However he admits that it is largely up to regulators to decide how far he can push the envelope in cutting red tape.
Zhu, a renowned chemist, has also had to allow the Shenzhen municipal government to appoint a university vice-president with senior official rank to work alongside him.
He said that he and regulators do not differ in principle over the need to reform the education system on the mainland because its institutional flaws could lead to an even broader problem for the country - a lack of creativity.
He said that a decision on whether students should be recruited via the gaokao was a technicality and the core problem was that the exam regime was so generalised that those with real talent in certain fields could be kept from applying because they fail to make it through the exams.
'We've agreed on an experiment to try to answer the resounding question of why our school system has so far failed to nurture some world-class talents over the years,' he said. 'And we're simply looking for a really practical way of moving it forward.'