GBA Brief

Stanford in Dongguan? Why a ‘GBA University’ is being launched in an unlikely place

Dongguan is often perceived as Shenzhen’s poorer cousin, with a reputation for lower-end manufacturing and seedy nightlife. But its bid to rebrand has just been bolstered by news that a ‘GBA University’ is going to be built there. 

World-class economies are generally home to world-class universities. It’s the same for super clusters like Silicon Valley, which has Stanford, or the metropolitan area around Tokyo Bay, which is home to the University of Tokyo, and Tokyo Tech. 

Top-notch institutions are missing in Guangdong, however. None feature in the upper reaches of the global rankings and there’s only one that regularly gets into mainland China’s top ten – the Southern University of Science and Technology, which was established in Shenzhen in 2011. 

Perhaps that helped Xiao Yafei, the mayor of Dongguan, to make the case for a brand new university in the city’s Binhaiwan New Area. The plan has just been confirmed by the central government, he says, with a rationale “to serve the GBA strategy”.

Serve the GBA how…

Xiao could be being streetwise, knowing that proposals with a Greater Bay Area badge get a fuller hearing. But the decision also comes at a time when political tensions with the US are putting the onus on local companies to develop world-class technologies of their own. That means nurturing local expertise, especially when tighter visa controls are making it harder for Chinese graduates to do research at schools in the US. 

There’s not much detail yet on how the new university in Dongguan will choose to focus its efforts. But it’s a fair guess that social sciences and the arts won’t be the highest priorities. SUSTech (the university established in Shenzhen eight years ago) is an indicator here, with its mission to become a leader in fostering research in similar surroundings to corporate giants such as Huawei, Tencent, BYD and DJI. 

Promoters of the Dongguan plan will also have cited how Stanford has been crucial to the success of Silicon Valley. The comparison sounds fanciful but Stanford was a latecomer when it was founded in the 1880s, long after Ivy League stalwarts such as Harvard and Yale. It also lacked much of a reputation until it started to secure state-sponsored funding in areas like electronics in the 1940s. At a similar time its engineering school began to commercialise some of its research in the newly built Stanford Industrial Park. Corporate giants such as Hewlett Packard, Lockheed, Fairchild and Xerox would soon be born. 

But why choose Dongguan?

That all sounds like a blueprint which officials would like to implement in Dongguan. Yet there was some initial surprise that the new university is being planned there rather than Shenzhen, the most advanced manufacturing centre, or Guangzhou, which serves as the region’s political and administrative heart. 

In fact, the sharing out of projects like these is part of the plan for spreading the gains to less-privileged parts of the region. Dongguan has been trying to rebrand as more than a lower-end manufacturing base for some time, following a wrenching slowdown after the global financial crisis. It wants to be home to companies that build their own products, not just assembling goods for others.

Another reason for choosing Dongguan is that the land there is cheaper than first-tier locations. Of course, nowhere in the GBA is too far from anywhere, courtesy of the magic circle effect. But just for good measure, the university is being built in Binhaiwan, a strategic corridor that puts Dongguan into even closer touch with the northern districts of Shenzhen and the special economic zone in Nansha on the southern fringes of Guangzhou. 

Major employers including chipmaker Tsinghua Unigroup, insurance and fintech giant Ping An Group, and smartphone maker OPPO are already committed to investment in the district as well.

Hong Kong has a role to play as well

Putting together the physical infrastructure of roads and buildings is the least of the challenges. What about the human capital needed to make the GBA’s higher education sector into something world-class? 

While Guangdong’s universities don’t feature in the elite rankings, there are four universities in the GBA that do make the grade from the former British colony of Hong Kong. Education bosses there see the sector as another of the ways that their city has an edge. They say that Hong Kong is the local leader in providing the grounding in basic research in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And they claim that their universities will serve as ‘super connectors’ between the GBA and the wider world, through academic ties with peers in Europe and North America that most mainland universities simply don’t have

Policymakers in Hong Kong have been warming to the debate, keen to highlight that there is more than finance and professional services as arrows to the city’s bow. Another common headline is how local graduates are moving to the mainland to do further research or commercialise their knowhow. Hence the lauding of the start-up legends of commercial drone king DJI, whose founder studied at Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, and the facial recognition giant SenseTime, whose creator taught at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Both men spent time refining their ideas in the city before starting their businesses across the border in Shenzhen.