A Chinese scientist is planning to establish the mainland's first university outside the government bureaucracy as a major step in the educational reform.
Usually, leaders of Chinese universities are given administrative grades as government officials. Presidents of some key universities are ranked at deputy minister or governor level, while faculty heads enjoy the similar grades as a deputy mayor.
"We aim to establish a small-scale school like the California Institute of Technology, where faculty and students enjoy utmost freedom and autonomy in research and study, an environment that breeds true major academic achievements," said Zhu Qingshi, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences who served as president of the prestigious University of Science and Technology of China for 10 years.
The planned South University of Science and Technology of China (SUSTC), with Zhu as president, will be located in Shenzhen, China's first economic special zone adjoining Hong Kong.
Zhu expressed his frustration at the heavy bureaucracy in China's higher-learning institutions, which he believes is mainly responsible for China's lack of world-renowned scientists.
No scientists from the Chinese mainland have ever won a Nobel prize with research conducted in the mainland.
"The bureaucracy within schools turns professors into officials, who pursue higher positions instead of academics," he said.
Universities in China, most of them state-run, are managed in a way similar to government organs, where government-appointed school leadership decides virtually everything in school affairs.
"We should establish a performance-based school instead of a rank-based institution. Respect will go only to those who are outstanding in their research, teaching or administration," Zhu said.
He was "very satisfied" with the newly published draft of national education reform outline, which called for the removal of bureaucratic management in higher-learning institutions.
To ensure academic freedom, Zhu said the SUSTC would be governed by a council composed of provincial and municipal officials, community leaders and representatives from faculty and students.
The council would appoint the school leadership, but it would not intervene in day-to-day affairs or academic matters, he said.
Whether the SUSTC can meet Zhu's ideals hangs on the "crucial" regulations of the school that are being formulated. Upon completion, the regulations would be referred to the local legislature to be passed as law.
"We are taking it slow. Given its importance, we cannot afford any missteps. The regulations would ensure school governance by its professors and autonomy in academic affairs by establishing a system in which the roles of the government and the school are clearly defined," he said.
As passionate and determined as he is for the reform, he is equally aware of the onerous task he has embarked on, describing his job as "treading on thin ice."
Just recognized by Shenzhen government as a legal entity, the school was recruiting world-class scientists with attractive pay offers and plans to enroll its first class of 50 students this fall.
"Professors at our school would earn no less than their counterparts in the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. We are in contact with some big names both from home and abroad," he said.
The school was preparing to set up a foundation to solicit and manage donations, said Zhu. Several entrepreneurs in Shenzhen had pledged large sums, enough to cover all costs for students.
Zhu explained his design of the SUSTC's logo.
"The core of the logo is the torch, which I hope will light the way for reform of China’s higher-learning institutions," he said.
While acknowledging the arduous reform requires time and effort, he said, "We won't be alone. The reform will achieve success someday."