Shi Yigong, President of Westlake University, delivers a speech at the university's inaugural ceremony (COURTESY PHOTO)
China's youngest university, Westlake University, consists of a cluster of buildings on a plot of land encircled by water. It is named after the West Lake, the iconic landmark of Hangzhou City, capital of east China's Zhejiang Province.
"Westlake University officially sets sail," announced Shi Yigong, the university's president and also a world-renowned scientist, on October 20 at its launching ceremony. Shi introduced the university as the first private research university in the history of the People's Republic of China, which is also nonprofit and supported by the government.
The nascent university currently has a small team, with 68 key instructors, 139 doctoral candidates, 96 staff members, 159 other researchers as well as 17 employees of the Westlake Education Foundation, which is financing the school.
Small as it is, it harbors a big dream. Shi said that the university hopes to explore China's higher education reform and become a world science and technology leader.
Meeting the demand
In the four decades since the launch of reform and opening up, China's higher education has made great progress. A number of excellent public universities represented by Tsinghua and Peking universities have come abreast with the world's first-class universities in many aspects, said Shi.
However, currently and in the predictable future, "Chinese universities cannot fully meet the public's desire for high-quality educational resources, nor can they meet the country's need for cutting-edge science and technology to achieve sustainable development and economic transformation," he pointed out.
"This gap needs to be filled by the joint efforts of a generation of people," he said. That is why he and some like-minded people turned to private universities for solutions.
Throughout the modern history of science and education development, private universities have shown great strength because of their flexibility and diversity, Shi noted. A number of private universities, such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, have not only trained generations of outstanding scholars, including many Nobel laureates, but also become the engines powering science- and technology-intensive economic development.
On March 11, 2015, several scholars and people from the business circle submitted a proposal to the Central Government to establish a private research-oriented university. The initiators included Shi and Chen Shiyi, President of Southern University of Science and Technology and former Vice President of Peking University, as well as Pan Jianwei, the arch designer of China's quantum satellite and Vice President of China University of Science and Technology.
On December 10, 2016, the Westlake Institute for Advanced Study, the predecessor to Westlake University, was established, with Shi as its first president.
On April 2 this year, the Ministry of Education approved the establishment of Westlake University and on October 20, it was inaugurated in Hangzhou.
The university is positioned to be small but of high quality. Within the next six years, only doctoral candidates will be admitted. Currently, it only has three schools, namely, science, engineering and life sciences. In the future, even after it admits undergraduates, its total enrollment will not exceed 5,000.
Qiu Min, the university's vice president, recently said that the short-term goal of the university is to build a first-class academic team and have a group of first-class students. In the future, the university will strive to be a first-class university.
The launch of Westlake University has received widespread public attention because of the fact that it distinguishes itself from other universities in that it is private, research-oriented and high-aiming. Most universities in China are government funded, whereas a small number are private.
According to Shi, when the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, there were 69 private institutions of higher learning in the country. In the early 1950s, they gradually turned into public schools. After that, there was no private higher education for 30 years. Since the 1980s, private higher education has gradually reemerged and developed remarkably in recent years. Private universities are becoming an important force in China's higher education system. However, compared with public universities in the same period, private universities are still in the initial stage, and they tend to be small and underdeveloped, focused on vocational skill training to prepare students for the job market. Moreover, a significant number of private colleges and universities are for profit.
The funding of Westlake University is organized by a foundation, the Westlake Education Foundation. China began to implement the Private Education Promotion Law in September 2017, requiring private nonprofit universities to be funded by foundations. However, the law also stipulates that nonprofit private universities should be treated like public ones. "This means that local governments will give nonprofit private universities the same support and preferential land, tax policies and other treatment as public ones," Shi said.
Liu Minhao, Executive Secretary General of the Westlake Education Foundation, told the media that Westlake has three main funding sources. The first is government financial support. The governments of Zhejiang, Hangzhou and West Lake District have given great support in terms of land allocation, construction and scientific research. The second is the donation of the Westlake Education Foundation to cover salaries and benefits for teachers and staff. The third is competitive research funding. In the future, after the university recruits undergraduates, there will also be tuition income.
Liu disclosed that 36 founding donors, including Poney Ma, Chairman and CEO of Tencent Group, and Wang Jianlin, owner of Wanda Group, have contributed a large amount. The university's current 2,000 plus donors come from all walks of life. By the end of September, more than 3.5 billion yuan ($506 million) had been received, he said.
Westlake University also differs from many existing universities in its management method. The university implements a system headed by the university president under the guidance of the Board of Trustees, which is the highest decision-making body. According to Chen Yueguang, member of the Council of the Westlake Education Foundation, under this system, the Board of Trustees should give the university president the greatest discretion to run the school, making the president the soul of the school.
During his inaugural speech, Shi said that teachers are responsible for formulating university governance rules and regulations and submitting them to administration and scientific research teams for implementation. Professional administrative services will free teachers from red tape, he said.
According to the university, it will set up a Westlake University Committee of the Communist Party of China according to law, and the Secretary of the Party Committee will participate in the decision-making of major school matters as a member of the Board of Trustees and the school affairs committee.
Westlake University also departs from many existing universities by using different academic evaluation methods. "We will first assess whether a scholar's research is at the forefront of academia, rather than how many articles he or she has published," Shi said. As long as he or she works hard and is heading in the right direction, the university will have enough patience to wait for five to 10 years for him or her to produce research results that will have an impact on human society, he added.
Making a start
Currently, the university's campus, located in Yunqi Town, Hangzhou, is in operation and the Yungu campus in the same city is under construction. Some internationally renowned scholars have already joined the faculty. Deng Li, former Dean of the Chemistry Department of Brandeis University in the United States, now serves as the Executive Dean of the School of Science at Westlake University. Xu Tian, now Vice President of Westlake, was an associate dean at Yale University. According to Qiu, it is important for the university to attract a batch of first-class international talent who will then bring in other outstanding people.
A new start has been made, but Shi is keenly aware of the difficulties lying ahead. "The road will be bumpy and long," he said, as a new university, Westlake will naturally encounter many difficulties, just like a newborn who will suffer many falls to learn to walk.
In Chen's view, the first challenge is to rally a first-class team as soon as possible. Active recruiting is ongoing, with information issued by Westlake showing that it offers internationally competitive remunerations and benefits as well as research funding.
In addition, more funds need to be raised. The foundation's goal is to raise 20 billion yuan ($2.9 billion). Currently, it is still far from achieving this goal.
At the same time, how to practise the operation system headed by the university president under the guidance of the Board of Trustees and guarantee the leadership role of the Party committee needs to be explored in the future, Chen said.
Xiong Bingqi, Vice President of the 21st-Century Education Research Institute, said that the major initiators of Westlake University are the vice presidents of several prominent universities in China. Thus he asked that if they only bring to Westlake University what they have already achieved, what would be the new things they will create for the country.
In his opinion, the core of higher education reform in China is still to give universities greater autonomy in running themselves, which was championed by the Shenzhen-based Southern University of Science and Technology, a public university approved to be established by the Ministry of Education in 2012 to pilot higher education reform. Xiong said the key to Westlake University's success is whether a real modern university system can be established effectively.
Meanwhile, discussions online have raised good viewpoints. One netizen remarked that whether a university can continuously attract top students is crucial to its development. The netizen thought academic freedom and flexibility in management are the advantages of private schools, while lack of money and other resources is the disadvantage, and it takes time to accumulate resources.
Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo
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