The Rector of the University of Macau (UM), Yonghua Song, is keen on taking the institution to new heights. As UM celebrates its 40th anniversary, the goal is to climb into the ranks of the world’s best 200 universities this decade through an improved focus on research, teaching and internationalization.
MB March 2021 Special Report | 40 years of (modern) tertiary education
Yonghua Song also sees a stronger role for UM in the city’s push for economic diversification whilst highlighting the importance of further promoting transfer of technology to the real economy. New partnerships with universities and companies in the Greater Bay Area are taking shape.
You have been in this position for three years. Tell us about your experience so far at the helm of the University of Macau.
Yonghua Song – I have been fully enjoying working in Macau and at the University of Macau. It is a young, dynamic and international university with a beautiful campus. I pretty much enjoy the local culture and environment. Over these three years, I believe we have achieved some significant progress in some areas as well.
What would you highlight in this respect?
Y.S. – In order to meet the demands of the talents in Macau, Greater Bay Area (GBA) and beyond, we have launched a number of new programs – undergraduate, master and PhD in the fields, which are of great interest for the society and students. For example we launched undergraduate programs in data science, health sciences, master and postgraduate level data science, we are also launching master programs in Fintech, microelectronics, chip design and we successfully launched our DBA (Doctor of Business Administration) program two years ago.
In the era research we established a state key lab in smart cities (State Key Lab in the Internet of Things for Smart City), we have received approval to set up a centre in cancer research and we launched a Zhuhai Institute to integrate in the Greater Bay Area, the Zhuhai UM Science and Technology Research Institute (ZUMRI). So both in education and research we have made significant progress as well.
Forty years after the creation of what was then the University of East Asia, what is the identity of the University of Macau?
Y.S. – The University has grown in both recognition and reputation. We originated from the University of East Asia, a private university, which was the first modern university in Macau. We grew in many aspects – in size, from just several hundred to over ten thousand students, academic programs from a few to a fully comprehensive university and from a local, to some extent, community college, teaching university to a research-led comprehensive university. The distinctive features of UM are its international, multicultural environment, which is largely due to Macau’s history itself, English as the medium of instruction and our internationalized faculty. We are an international research-led university enjoying not just recognition locally, in mainland China and but also international reputation among the top 400 worldwide.
You mentioned international recognition, and since 2015 UM made an entry into the annual Times Higher Education World University Rankings, being among the world’s top 300 universities. The latest ranking places UM among the top 400 universities. Are you satisfied with this?
Y.S. – We celebrate our achievement but we want to reach new heights. With the opportunities offered by the Greater Bay Area and the support given by the Central Government and Macau Government and with the hard work of our faculty and students, our dream is that we want to be one of the leading universities not just in the Greater Bay Area but also internationally. So in terms of ranking our aim is to be among the top 200 universities in five to ten years. And we are very confident that we are on the way in terms of education, research and service.
What is your road map to reach that level?
Y.S. – I believe we have to work on several areas.
One of course is education. We are pretty unique; we have the largest residential college system in Asia. We will further improve and enhance the learning environment for our students, by providing more attractive programs. We are going to grow the student population, particularly in postgraduate programs, from just over 10 thousand to reach about 15 thousand in five years time and to attract more students from outside of Macau in postgraduate and PhD programs.
Secondly, we have our research strategy and our blueprint, which focuses on working with several universities across the world on producing research outcomes and technology transfer to contribute directly to the economic development of Macau, Greater Bay Area and beyond.
Those who cast a critical eye on focusing on international rankings and research, argue it comes at the expense of teaching. They say international rankings have become a sort of obsession. What’s your view on this?
Y.S. – There are two views here. One is that education, undergraduate and postgraduate programs are always the core of the university. Because our number one job is to educate, and nurture the talents of the leaders of tomorrow, that is always the core business of the university. Whatever we do we have to keep that in mind.
Secondly, as a university, we are not just passing the knowledge to our students. We want our students to be creative and innovative. So research is a very important aspect to produce research outcome, which has an impact, not just academically, but also contributing to the economic development. Actually, in our faculty, our academic staff by being research active can do the teaching in a more updated way, not just passing on the old existing knowledge but the newly created knowledge. And teaching students how to be innovative and creative in solving problems by generating new knowledge and technology. Education is our number one job while research is a way to push the quality of our teaching and education. It’s a win-win situation rather than a conflict between education and research.
In recent years, there have been some voices raising concerns over academic freedom. How do you approach this matter?
Y.S. – There are two aspects here. One is that academic freedom in our university is crucially important. We are educating the next generations to solve the future problems, so we have to encourage our faculty students to conduct research in a free manner, so academic freedom is written into the higher education law of Macau and also in our charter. Like in any leading university around the world, academic freedom is a core value of our university.
The second aspect is a confusion between academic freedom and a sort of more political involvement. We have to distinguish between these two. Not to use one to argue the other. We have academic freedom and research. At the same time an education establishment is not a ground for political and other businesses, so we have to make a clear distinction and at the same time guarantee our academic freedom.
You mentioned the centrality of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area for the future development of the University of Macau.
Y.S. – The Greater Bay Area initiative offers tremendous opportunities for Macau because we are small in population and land. We express our gratitude to the One Country Two Systems Policy and integration into mainland China. The construction of this campus was completed in 2014 and we benefitted from this cooperation even before the GBA initiative was announced. In order to further take advantage of the cooperation and opportunities offered by the GBA, UM has to go beyond the campus. We established the Zhuhai UM Science and Technology Research Institute (ZUMRI) as a transfer platform to enable us to cooperate with companies, governments and universities in the GBA. This allows us to elevate our research output and to transfer it to the industry of GBA and elsewhere. We have already successfully received 20 joint projects in about two years and we already have spin-off companies in Zhuhai and beyond. It is the first step for the University of Macau to go to the GBA.
It is the first step, meaning that there will be additional steps. What’s next?
Y.S. – Yes. There will be more opportunities in Zhuhai and Shenzhen, which is the centre of the world in IT and microelectronics, an area where UM has a strong role.
Secondly, in addition to research and transfer of technology, we also focus on nurturing talents. We are doing joint programs with universities in Guangdong province and also for our students to have internships in companies in the Greater Bay Area.
What’s in the pipeline?
Y.S. – We have successfully launched some joint research laboratories, five last year, with universities, institutes and companies in GBA, so we are going to further explore opportunities with institutes and companies in Shenzhen and Guangzhou. We will also work more on joint programs, by offering dual degrees such as the “2+2”, with two years here and another two in a university in the Greater Bay Area. This is to encourage student mobility.
There’s cooperation but also competition in the Greater Bay Area, which is home to many top-level universities. What will be the division of labour accommodating the UM in this competitive environment?
Y.S. – There is surely competition for talents, students and faculty members. In addition to opportunities there are also challenges as well because of the needs for talents and new technology. And it is not only the existing universities, as a number of new universities will open in the GBA. There is always competition in terms of attracting the best students, faculty staff and research grants, but as UM, we have our unique and distinctive features. If we take advantage of that, inherited by us, if we do that well, competition will push us to dream bigger.
If we look at the UM campus, we can see that there is room for growth. Tell us about the university’s plans for the coming decade.
Y.S. – We position UM as serving, first and foremost, the local needs. The number of high school students is decreasing in Macau and 75 per cent of our undergraduate students are local. We will keep the number of undergraduate students steady but are looking at a significant increase in the number of postgraduate, master and PhD students, by offering new programs. Three years ago we had less than 10 thousand students, now we have 11,500 and our plan is to reach 15,000 students: half undergraduate, half postgraduate. The campus infrastructure was designed for about 15,000 students so we are on the way to reaching that figure. As a result of our growing reputation, the number of applicants has been increasing year by year.
We have ability to attract the best-qualified students to enrol in the master and PhD programs.
When we look at UM’s non-local student population, the lion’s share comes from mainland China. Would you like to see a more diverse situation? What is the strategy to attract more students from outside the Greater China region?
Y.S. – The international dimension is always important for leading universities, and it is also very important for the education of our local students, so internationalization is very important for the University of Macau. When I joined the University of Macau in 2018, I proposed to the University Council to appoint a vice-rector for global affairs and we now have UM’s first Vice-Rector for Global Affairs, Professor Rui Martins. This is a core strategy for us. We have the advantage to attract more international students and also have exchanges with overseas universities. It is a multicultural environment and English is the language used both for educational purposes and professionally.
Our faculty recruits internationally, and many recruits have graduated and worked overseas.
This creates an opportunity to go global. What do we need to do? First, we need to attract more international students apart from local and mainland students. It is easier to do so through the MAST programs. That’s why we have been increasing postgraduate programs. We aim to recruit students from Southeast Asia, Portuguese-speaking countries and even from Europe and America, as we are in the GBA, a centre for innovation and entrepreneurship.
You referred to Portuguese-speaking countries. In the past, there was this view that UM was not doing enough to play an important role in making Macau a platform for relations between China and the Lusophone world.
Y.S. – Macau has had relations with the Portuguese-speaking world for over 400 years as a result of the national policy that sees Macau as a trade cooperation platform with Portuguese-speaking countries. Since my arrival, I have embraced this concept put forth by the Central Government. It tops our global affairs strategy.
We have the largest Portuguese Language Department after Portugal and Brazil, with full programs from undergraduate programs to PhDs. First, for the past several years we have sponsored our Portuguese-learning students with a program that sends them to Portugal and Brazil for one semester to study the local language and culture. Second, we have a bilingual and trilingual law program which also sends students to Portugal in their first year, also to learn the local language and culture.
We also invite Portuguese-speaking university students to join our PhD programs.
With regards to training and culture, we have established the Confucius Institute and the Chinese-Portuguese Bilingual Teaching and Training Centre.
Third, we are strengthening our partnership with universities in Portuguese-speaking Countries. In 2018 and 2019, I personally travelled to Angola, Mozambique and Portugal to establish a partnership and give scholarships allowing students to come to Macau. We also offer joint research programs to faculty members.
The Central Government and the Chief Executive have been calling for economic diversification. What is the role of the University of Macau in this process?
We need to diversify our economy to achieve sustainability. The pandemic further highlighted this issue. There are areas in Macau which offer opportunities. We can offer our contribution in several areas. The first is nurturing talents. To move forward with high technology as a drive for this, we need the University to produce talents as well as financial services. That’s why we quickly created a master program in fintech (financial technology). We have a data science approach. One way we can contribute is by educating the talents in those sectors that can help diversify the economy.
Secondly, we can be a major player in terms of patents and technology transfer. This is another area where we can support the Government, and we are working very closely with Government departments. We have established a Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship to help our faculty members and students to launch start-ups. Currently, we have over 30 companies under our Centre’s responsibility. As a comprehensive research-led university, we can contribute to economic diversification by providing the talents and transferring technology to the real economy, for example through spin-off companies.
The last 12 months have been challenging for the whole world, including our own city and its institutions. The crisis has taken a toll on Macau’s finances. How has the University of Macau been coping with these financial constraints?
Y.S. – It has been a challenging year, but fortunately for the University of Macau we have to be thankful to the Central Government and Macau’s Government. The pandemic has been under control in Macau, so our students came back to the campus. Apart from some precautions, we are operating normally now. Of course, the pandemic has had a big impact on our local economy; as a public university we work with the Government, and we implemented a 10 per cent cut on our budget. This had an impact on the operations, but in our case we maintained the quality of our programs and maintained our research. We have had some difficulties; however, due to the increase in the number of students as well as in fees in recent years, the share of the government funds in our budget went from 70 per cent three years ago to 60 per cent today. Even during the pandemic we managed to increase the number of students by over 500, and this year we expect this number to increase by 800. Also, by integrating into the Greater Bay Area, last year the income received through our Zhuhai Institute by cooperating with industries, Guangdong and Ministry of Science and Technology almost tripled compared to the year before. We also have to diversify our sources of income to support our activities.
Do you see a good prospect of having more private companies contributing to the University’s finances through partnerships?
Y.S. – For research that kind of contribution is already sizeable. The income we generated last year during the pandemic from our Zhuhai Institute is a big portion of the total amount spent in research. It is very significant. And we are now working on two new big projects related to the maintenance of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. We are cooperating with companies and universities in the Greater Bay Area funded by the Central Government and Guangdong provincial Government. It’s not only the funding that is important, our research, locally and in the Greater Bay Area, also has a direct influence.