How betting on smart talent can help Macau economy make the shift away from casinos

Wei Zhao says a focus on ‘discovery learning’ is creating graduates fit for the age of innovation, and able to serve the needs of society and economic diversification

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 October, 2016, 1:06am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 October, 2016, 1:06am

As a new school year begins, it’s a good time to revisit an old question: what is the purpose of university education?

Universities have often been accused of not being responsive to the economic needs of society, in that education is not in sync with its developmental aspirations.

In his recent visit to Macau, Premier Li Keqiang ( 李克強 ) called on the city to diversify its economy, so as to reduce its dependence on a single industry, i.e., gaming. One non-gaming initiative now before Macau is to become a “smart city”, using big data to reconfigure its systems in transportation, tourism, medical and government services.

Economic miracles ... are often performed by those with the courage for risk-taking, not just those with technological savvy

A second non-gaming initiative is hi-tech research into Chinese medicine. State-of-the-art research facilities are up and running at our university. The Guangdong-Macau Traditional Chinese Medicine Science and Technology Industrial Park in the neighbouring Hengqin free trade zone is already operational, and promises opportunities galore to industry participants.

Chinese higher education faces the challenge of designing a system that produces graduates fit for the age of innovation, as the age of low-tech exports draws to a close. But, for us, innovation is not just a matter of providing technological education. Economic miracles, you might have noticed, are often performed by those with the courage for risk-taking, not just those with technological savvy. In this regard, China has an edge over its neighbours. Many in the West dismiss the Chinese as shameless copycats. But they fail to see that unique Chinese genius: the nose for opportunity, and the stomach for taking risks.

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Thus, in our approach to a modern university education, we put the focus on helping students achieve self-realisation through self-knowledge. We value “learning by doing”. Blessed with the space and the resources to build an extensive residential college system, we promote discovery learning in all its forms.

We also defy the conventional wisdom that there is no room for elitist excellence in a democratic system. Our Honours College has become a natural habitat for overachievers and a vehicle for leadership incubation.

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Finally, we send students overseas, on the theory that a radical change of environment often triggers a personal transformation, as students return with their minds and eyes opened.

Smart machines may threaten to displace humans from many occupations. But there is one area in which machines can never replace humans – the nurturing of individual talent. The university’s focus on individual development will ultimately serve society’s needs and the premier’s appeal for diversification.

Professor Wei Zhao is rector of the University of Macau