GBA Brief

Learning by numbers: Shenzhen’s bid to grow its graduate base

Talk that two of the world’s leading universities could collaborate in Shenzhen highlights how the city is hoping to address its shortcomings in higher education.

An age-old saying in Chinese is that “A good name is better than a good face”. Couple that to the Confucian determination to get the best education possible and you’ll get closer to understanding the press interest in news that two of the world’s most respected universities are on the verge of teaming up in Shenzhen.

The rumours started on Shenzhen TV, which reported that Cambridge University’s Judge Business School was in talks with the HSBC Business School at Peking University for a partnership in the city’s newest special zone. 

The two schools – whose parent institutions were fourth and ninth respectively in this year’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings – had plans to set up a joint programme in the Qianhai special economic zone, the broadcaster said.

Cambridge’s connections to China are longstanding. As a selection: it was the first university in Britain to set up a professorship of Chinese (in 1888); it’s the alma mater of Joseph Needham, author of the unrivalled series Science and Civilisation in China; and it was the setting for one of China’s best-loved poems, courtesy of Xu Zhimo, who studied there in the 1920s. 

Shenzhen’s interest in hosting the Cambridge/PKU connection is a lot more forward-looking, of course. Although as many as a fifth of China’s doctoral students are said to be working in the city, nowhere near as many are being educated there. And that is creating status anxiety in a place that has been tasked as becoming one of the most innovative cities on Earth. 

The same concerns extend to the Greater Bay Area in general (excluding Hong Kong, which has positioned its university sector as one of its major contributions to the regional master-plan).  None of the other cities are home to similar seats of learning, which is why we wrote earlier this year about how Dongguan is trying to launch a new ‘GBA University’ that channels some of the Stanford spirit.

Shenzhen has also been feeling sensitive about its academic shortcomings, the China Daily says. It hosted just 104,000 college students in 2018, which is already a mismatch for the recruitment needs of local employers like Huawei, DJI, Tencent, ZTE and BYD. It’s also a potential roadblock to the plan to become a ‘pilot demonstration area of socialism with Chinese characteristics’ – a task assigned by the central government in August.

A major part of this mission is to cement Shenzhen’s reputation as a crucible for innovation. To do that, city planners think that more of the human capital needs to be homegrown, yet Shenzhen University was the sole provider of undergraduate studies in the city until 2012, when it was joined by the Southern University of Science and Technology.

Compare this underdeveloped duo to the 66 undergraduate colleges in Beijing or the 39 in Shanghai and you get a better sense of why Shenzhen thinks that it is falling short. 

Hence the efforts to play college catch-up, which have already brought collaborations from partners including Tsinghua University, Lomonosov Moscow State University and the University of California, Berkeley.

Mostly they have set up study centres and campus offshoots in the city. Perhaps that is part of the longer-term plan for the partnership between Cambridge and PKU too, although the current conversation seems more limited in scope. 

“The Cambridge Judge Business School is involved in an ongoing project with Peking University HSBC Business School, focusing on executive education and an initiative to support and encourage current Peking University Business School students to apply to CJBS for their post-graduate education,” a University of Cambridge spokesperson told GBA Brief. “Although the University is keen to explore possibilities for wider collaboration with Peking University, this proposal does not involve the creation of a school or campus in Shenzhen.”