Features | Society | East Asia

China’s Non-state Universities: What It Takes to Succeed

What happens when a local Chinese tycoon establishes a non-state university with private funds?

By Olivia A. Halsall for
China’s Non-state Universities: What It Takes to Succeed
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

Educational philanthropy encompasses many traditional Chinese values. Confucius said, “by three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” State appropriation and Chinese nationalism, however, are not to be confused with Confucianism.

While Xi Jinping’s efforts at national rejuvenation use the Confucian emphasis of “modesty, the arts of peace, and the vision of oneself as a set of relationships” as its framework, anything that falls out of line with these values has no place in Xi’s China. More and more communist-red banners are popping up all over cities – particularly outside schools and universities. 

So, what happens when a local Chinese tycoon establishes a non-state university with private funds? And how can a privately established university offering vocational courses continue to charge high fees when they fall short of students’ expectations? Both in China’s southern Guangdong province, Shantou University and Baiyun University are non-state higher education institutions. The difference in nature, thought, specialization (and quality) between them has resulted in the pending failure of one, and budding support of the other. 

Historical and Social Background  

In the late Qing Dynasty, privately-run establishments were encouraged in the face of China’s “intellectual war” of sorts with the West, and ultimately accounted for around a third of China’s higher education institutions. Nankai University and Xiamen University (which are now under state control) were two of the most prominent. Nankai University was founded in 1919 by Yan Xiu and Zhang Boling – the latter a graduate of St John’s University, a foreign-led establishment then dubbed the Harvard of China, which was founded in 1879 yet closed down in the 1950s. Xiamen University was founded in 1921 by Tan Kah Kee who once said “everybody is responsible for the rise or fall of the country,” and whose legacy remains to this day through continual scholarship and scholarship programs. For both Nankai and Xiamen, the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) ushered in a wave of nationalistic, patriotic sentiment. Government resources were allocated to state universities to “re-nationalize,” whereby private universities were left with unstable, insecure resources and a weakened quality in professors and equipment. Their survival relied on state-funding. Hence, until 1949, private universities were gradually adjusted, reorganized, and ultimately merged by the CCP. Reluctantly, Xiamen was successfully reformed in 1936, and Nankai in 1946. 

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Due to the lack of political and religious duality encountered in the West, higher education establishments in China are generally unable to deflect state power. Worse, in the event of financial difficulty, they are dependent on it. While one-off donations may be made by celebrities, politicians, businessmen and other social groups due to intimate guanxi – connections in Chinese – in reality, continuous investment is needed. Private donations to private establishments in China stay within intimate, closed circles as social consciousness is predominantly based on family relations, geographic proximity and kinship. This has failed to create an institutionalized mechanism for public donation and philanthropy whereby (theoretically) society puts in and gets back. Where society’s influence could be greater than state influence, sadly it is not. Today, history is repeating itself and the CCP is re-tightening its ideological grip – university campuses, the theoretical heart of universal, liberal thinking, is a strategic place to start. 

Shantou University 

Shantou University was founded as a public university in 1981, in a joint establishment with the Ministry of Education, the Guangdong provincial government and the Li Ka Shing Foundation. The latter, it’s predominant financial backer. Despite having co-founded and poured nearly $10 billion Hong Kong dollars ($1.3 billion) into Shantou University, for the first time in 18 years, 90-year-old Li Ka-shing (and his son Richard Li Tzar-kai) were not in attendance at the class of 2019’s graduation. 

Shantou’s goal is that of “achieving, (acquiring) knowledge, persevering and promising.” It takes a student-centered approach to its scholarship, offering the latter a “different learning experience” and ultimately giving society “a different direction.” Students have cited the university’s “international resources” as well as “cultural exchanges and lectures” as reasons for having initially opted for it above others. Now however, both Chinese and non-Chinese teachers must attend ideological classes. The CCP has accused the school of illegal religious infiltration, and now asks for closer monitoring of internet searches – particularly “enhancing the management” of foreign teachers, who must undergo a political background check.

For now, the Li Ka Shing Foundation plays a significant financial role in the university’s operations. Recently, it was announced that all new 3,100 first-year undergraduates would receive free education throughout the duration of their degree – a unique undertaking of 100 million yuan ($14.5 million) per year. It is said the foundation will also provide an additional 125 million yuan per annum to fund medical and business faculty research in the domain of innovation and technology. 

One project Li Ka-shing was especially hopeful about was the establishment of Technion Guangdong Institute of Technology (TGIT). In 2013, the tycoon donated $130 million to Haifa-based Technion Israel Institute of Technology, one of Israel’s leading private universities, boasting many impressive alumni. In 2013 it was the only university outside the United States to feature on Bloomberg’s ranking of the top 10 universities whose graduates are CEOs of top U.S. tech companies. The vision for such an unprecedented collaboration was to “become a world-class international institute to conduct cutting-edge research in the fields of science and technology” – ultimately nudging the high-tech industrial ecosystem in Guangdong province forwards. 

Amid Li Ka-shing’s absence from the recent graduation ceremony, university President Jiang Hong, who is also its Communist Party secretary, made no qualms about reinforcing the CCP’s values. “I’m glad this generation of young people, who grew up with Coca-Cola and U.S. dramas, can still show anger towards the [U.S.’s] hegemony, protect the nation’s interests, defend the national stance and be vigilant to their responsibility… It would have been difficult for Shantou University to achieve what it has today without people like Li Ka-shing, who does his best to love his country, hometown, and care about the world.”

The struggle is now turning ugly; it is rumoured Li’s son Richard Li Tzar-kai could be asked to leave the school’s governing body, having joined only in June 2018. It had been Li’s intention for his son to “continue my mission and work.” In response to claims the relationship between the foundation and the university have waned, Chinese media remain adamant Li Ka-shing’s support is solid and that rumours of him being exempt from the school board have been “seriously misrepresented.” At the same time other reports simultaneously badmouthing him for supposedly withdrawing investment from the mainland. At Shantou University’s campus, where the Li Ka-shing Foundation once had an office, their logo is now gone. 

Baiyun University  

In 1989, Ketao and Shaohua Xie, both Guangdong natives, founded Baiyun University; 10 years later it was accredited by the approval of the Chinese Ministry of Education as Baiyun Vocational and Technical College (BVTC). Within a decade of the non-state private university being authorized to deliver bachelor degrees, in 2016 it became one of the first group of “Higher Education Undergraduate Universities under Experimental Transformation” as nominated by the Guangdong provincial government, and in 2018 it became one of “the China 100 Digital Engineering Universities.”

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Baiyun’s homepage is cluttered with statistics. It notes the university is home to 13,000 students who live on campus (200 of which are apparently party members), there are 10 overall departments, 77 speciality majors and 200 digitalized study course platforms. The teaching facilities comprise of 1,000 square meters of high-tech business incubators, 2,000 cooperative school-run enterprises, 272 specialized teaching spaces and 40 on-campus business training centers – worth whopping total of 200,000,000 yuan ($28.2 million).

In Guangdong province, only 42 percent of secondary school graduates go onto higher education, compared with 48 percent nationwide. Amid the traditional perception of private education focusing their outlook on international, bilingual standards, one of the reasons for Baiyun’s continual success as a non-state establishment is its intimate links and cooperation with the CCP. Liu Jianfeng, the Communist party general secretary at Baiyun University, is un-ideological and pragmatic. “Public universities are more focused on following the government plan and ideology. We are training up human resources to meet the demand from the marketplace.”

Baiyun boasts a beautiful campus featuring 24/7 security “to provide intimate and safe services” in addition to a library, karaoke room, supermarket, 3D cinema and various sports and entertainment facilities “so that students can feel like they are at home.” Yet students complain the reality of attending Baiyun is not the picture-perfect image outlined on its website. In an elaborate blog post outlining “30 things we love to hate about Baiyun,” students complained of being chastised for forgetting their student card, for parents having to register at the university gates if they want to visit the child, the electricity being turned out at night, the absurdity of party member classmates wearing “primary school-like” uniforms, and the constant blasting of the national anthem in corridors. 

One of the main qualms, however, is the extortionate tuition fees. Students at Baiyun pay between 18,000-35,000 yuan annually, the most expensive being a Sino-Australian cooperative education project. This is a high rate compared to their state university counterparts who pay between 4,500-8,000 yuan annually. Accommodation sets them back another 1,500 yuan, a high price to pay for an eight-bed dorm with shoddy air conditioning. The students joke that the cleaning lady has a PhD – which they laugh might justify such high fees. 

Even though Baiyun doesn’t quite do what it says on the tin, and the university experience might be more heavily influenced by the CCP than anticipated. Xie Shaohua, executive director of China Education, says such high fees are easily to impose “because vocational training helps solve social problems, it has always received support from government, and we think it will go on receiving support.”

Compromising China’s Higher Education Global Competitiveness 

Education in China is stratified. Parents and students opt for the education style most suited to them, which has resulted in a budding private education industry. For the wealthy, international schools slipstream students into Western universities for a hefty price. For the rest of China, state schools feed students into state (and now some non-state) universities. 

Non-state options like Shantou could have provided for many a progressive, financially viable, and quality-assured university experience – a cheaper alternative for those that are unable to buy their way into world-leading establishments. If non-state higher education wants to benefit from China’s opening economic reforms, and capitalist market (with Chinese characteristics), it must toe the line with the watchful CCP. Baiyun is the model example of how to cater to the market’s demands while retaining the desired Chinese values and behaviors. 

Contradictions arise upon further reflection on non-state, and even foreign-led higher education initiatives in China. Tsinghua University’s Schwarzman Scholars is an elite one-year master’s program that was founded in 2016 by American financier (and long-term friend of Donald Trump), Stephen Schwarzman. As of yet, the program has had little interference from the CCP – perhaps because it draws together “risk-takers” from the likes of Cambridge and Harvard, and is designed to “prepare young leaders to deepen understanding between China and the rest of the world.” Its intentions are wholesome and it’s outcome likely to be mutually beneficial. 

The irony of China’s resistance against an infiltration of Western ideology comes at a time in which the elite are sending their offspring abroad to study, and the nation is trying to attract foreign professors to bolster its university rankings and research. The Economist recently reported that “even in China, one-size education does not fit all.” People are paying for types of education that the state doesn’t provide. So, either China compromises on its promulgation of values and rules, or it risks losing global competitiveness for it’s higher education establishments, whether state or non-state. 

Olivia A. Halsall is an incoming MPhil Education candidate at the University of Cambridge. She recently graduated from the University of Birmingham with 1st class honors in BA Modern Languages (Chinese Mandarin and French) with Business Management, during which she attended Tsinghua University as a recipient of the CIS Confucius Language Scholarship. For the past year, she has been working in Shanghai as a tutor, freelance journalist and Sino-UK consultant for education startups. See her media project here: https://66hands.com/