South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, [Photo/Sipa]

OPINION – Guangdong’s Higher Education Reform: Implications for Hong Kong and Macau

On November 1, the Guangdong provincial government issued a notice on the educational development of the province in accordance with the 14thfive-year plan, emphasizing not only the importance of enhancing the “comprehensive capability, overall competitiveness and international impacts” of the provincial education, but also the promotion of the demonstration effects of the international education district in the Greater Bay Area (GBA). This notice has significant and positive implications for the development of the higher education of both Hong Kong and Macau, where tertiary institutions are encouraged and given the golden opportunities to expand their campuses into the GBA and to forge closer cooperation with the GBA educational institutions in program collaboration, research cooperation and innovative development.

The first focus of the notice is that, from now to 2025, about 12 to 15 universities in Guangdong province should be developed into the first-tiered universities in China. In this aspect, universities are positioned as the “important integrative point” for the nurturing of talents and technology. The development plan of Guangdong’s higher education states that its objectives are to strive for excellence in higher education, to build up first-class universities in the world, and to establish first-class academic programs so that Guangdong’s universities will be able to enter the top-ranking universities in the entire nation (, November 1, 2021). 

The Guangdong higher education development plan aims at striving for one or two more provincial universities to be ranked as “double first” (first-class university and first-class academic program) in the entire country. These universities are expected to be the leaders in producing high-level scientific outputs with originality and social impacts, leading the Guangdong province and the entire nation in scientific research and outputs. Specifically, the plan is to promote six universities into first-class ones: the South China Agricultural University, the Southern Medical University, the Guangdong University of Technology, the Guangzhou Medical University, the Shenzhen University, and the Southern University of Science and Technology.

The plan states that higher education development in the eastern, western and northern parts of the Guangdong province will have to be accelerated with the aim of establishing 2 to 3 higher education institutions with master programs to be offered and built up. In this way, these higher education institutions will serve and enhance the economic and social developmental capability of the localities concerned. Accordingly, over 20 percent of the contracts on technology transfer should be built from 2020 onwards. Moreover, one to two newly established higher education institutions should be able to offer doctoral programs and some of their academic programs should reach the level of first-class in China.

Obviously, the Guangdong higher education development plan is very ambitious, trying to raise the standard of provincial universities to the first-class ranking while closing the gap in the development of higher education institutions from eastern to western and northern regions so that a kind of parity will be reached geographically and that an equality of opportunity in higher education development will be achieved in the less developed regions within the province.

The second focus of the Guangdong development plan is to build up a batch of top universities with a gross student enrolment level (those students who reached the age of entering the universities to study, ranging from 18 to 22 years old) increasing from 53.41 percent to 60 percent in 2021. In other words, more students who reach the level of entering universities should be enrolled in higher education so that the entire province will have more higher quality talents in the long run. The cultivation of more quality talents is a means by which Guangdong expects to increase its regional competitiveness and international stature.

Specifically, new higher education institutions will be built up, like the Shenzhen Polytechnic University, the Shenzhen Ocean University, the Shenzhen Institute of Design and Innovation, and the Jiaotong University in Guangzhou, so that new programs in the areas of 5G, artificial intelligence, Internet and space technology, biomedical informatics, ocean economy, smart economy, big data and public health will be developed in breadth and depth.

Moreover, the plan is to support the higher education institutions in the Pearl River Delta and other cities to build up their universities, such as the Greater Bay Area University, the Zhongshan University of Technology so that science and teaching will be integrated on the one hand and production and education will be merged on the other, thereby elevating the construction ability of higher education in servicing and supporting the modernized economic sectors, and increasing Guangdong’s regional competitiveness and its international impacts.

Regionally speaking, Shantou is expected to accelerate its development in higher education. Shantou and Zhanjiang are expected to develop higher education groups with unique specializations, such as the Shantou University, the Guangdong Ocean University, the Guangdong Institute of Petrochemical Technology, so that ocean science, biology, food science, chemical engineering and technology, petrochemical and natural gas engineering, textile science and engineering, and biomedical science will be introduced and developed further. In this way, these higher education institutions will bring about coastal economic development and industrial sectors.

In the northern part of Guangdong, Shaoguan University will be developed to nurture talents in basic education, tourism and culture, medical health and ecological development.

The third focus is to encourage and promote more higher education institutions to develop partnership with Hong Kong and Macau’s famous higher education institutions. The target of the plan is to develop 3 to 5 education institutions that belong to the cooperative ventures between Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau, and 3 to 5 cooperative research institutes between the three places. The implication is that more higher education institutions from Hong Kong and Macau will establish their programs in the Guangdong province.

At the same time, Guangdong province is going to speed up its cooperation with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (Guangzhou), the Hong Kong Metropolitan University, the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the University of Hong Kong, the Macau University of Science and Technology, and the Macau City University.

Furthermore, the education development along the Belt and Road initiatives will be strengthened by establishing various educational alliances in technology and humanities to attract more overseas universities and institutes to cooperate with the higher education institutions in Guangdong.

The Guangdong province also supports the Shenzhen Polytechnic to set up a district on the special vocational education in the GBA. Guangdong’s higher education institutions will welcome and recruit Hong Kong’s graduates in associate degree programs to pursue further studies in the province. It will encourage quality graduate students from Hong Kong and Macau to participate in short-term visits to the GBA higher education institutions.

The fourth focus of the Guangdong higher education development plan is to establish vocational schools and institutes for the province, including the area of the construction industry that lacks high quality technical experts. The target is to increase the number of vocational institutions to 350 in 2025 with a student population of 120,000. Under these circumstances, quality vocational schools will be established, including 100 schools that will focus on applied skills and knowledge.

The implications for higher education institutions from Hong Kong and Macau are obvious. The Guangdong provincial government embraces and encourages tertiary institutions from Hong Kong and Macau to enter the GBA, to set up campuses there, to build up joint programs, and to initiate collaborative research together. The objective is to create a win-win situation in which Guangdong’s local universities will elevate their standards in teaching, program development and innovative research while Hong Kong and Macau universities will be able to fully utilize the vast student population in Guangdong to expand themselves and to raise the research level to the benefits of all stakeholders concerned.

In conclusion, the Guangdong province’s higher education development plan is an ambitious one aiming at increasing the provincial competitiveness, elevating its international status, upgrading the quality of its provincial talents, enhancing the knowledge base and scientific research outputs, building up some provincial universities as the first-class higher education institutions in China, and making full use of the research strengths of Hong Kong and Macau to achieve a win-win situation in the long run. Under these circumstances, all the universities and tertiary institutions from Hong Kong and Macau must explore all the available opportunities to set up their campuses in the Greater Bay Area, to build up collaborative programs there, and to forge closer cooperation in research and student as well as academic exchanges. Integration in higher education institutions between Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau is underway and it will be the most important indicator of socio-economic and educational integration in the Greater Bay Area.