Special Report – Before and after March 1981

Forty years ago, the University of East Asia (later renamed University of Macau) inaugurated Macau’s modern tertiary education filling a long lasting gap, four centuries after the city was home to the first Western university in East Asia.  

MB March 2021 Special Report | 40 years of (modern) tertiary education

Until 1981, there were those who completed secondary education already outside of Macau (Portugal, United States, Canada) to facilitate the continuation of tertiary studies, but most local young people finished high school and if they wanted to, or could, further their studies, they had to go abroad. Hong Kong was not necessarily the best option, due to the great internal demand and limited offer (six higher education institutions).

Therefore, it is easy to see that the need to create a university in Macau was felt especially by residents, much more because historically it had already existed in the past (see text on these pages).

A different thing is to achieve that goal, mainly for financial reasons (“Neither my government nor any university in Portugal had the financial capacity for investment,” recalls the first post-1974 governor of Macau, Garcia Leandro, in his memoir). And if it was achieved in the late 1970s, it was due more to the background of Hong Kong than to the needs of Macau, “as the private provision of education disagreed with the prevailing educational philosophy of the Hong Kong colonial government,” explains Professor Hayes Tang from the Education University of Hong Kong. “The limited provision of higher education in Hong Kong left behind a substantial demand from secondary school leavers unfulfilled,” according Bernard Mellor, author of The University of East Asia: Origin and outlook (1988). 

Once Macau held no legal restrictions against the founding of private degree-level institutions, a group of three investors from Hong Kong, under the name of Ricci Island West, and with great experience in the education sector in the neighbouring British colony, contacted the Macau Government, in order to create a British-style university (like those that existed in Hong Kong), which would be not only, but primarily open to students from the neighbouring territory. The medium of instruction was English and a three-year curriculum for the bachelor’s degree programs was adopted. Those founders “approached the Macau government and it supported the proposal with a land grant [100,000 square meters in Taipa],” adds Mr Tang. 

“The founding of the first modern university in Macau as a private entity reflected the education philosophy of Portuguese administration,” concludes Professor Tang, to whom “such philosophy would shape the future marketization of higher education in the MSAR.” The entire investment (which would be about MOP40 million) was secured by the private company.

The first contract was signed in 1979 and the first building of the university, called University of East Asia (UEA), opened on 28 March 1981. “UEA was a small private university, designed very much in the image of HK-based Anglo-Saxon higher education institutions. Very different from what we had in Portugal (and, in general, in Europe),” recalls to Macau Business Vitalino Canas, who was a professor at the UEA and was one of the leaders for the creation of the first law programme in Macau. “One of the biggest difficulties, which took a long time for the University bodies and those responsible for the Law course, was to understand each other.” Mr Canas remembers the facilities well, “which were very reasonable, in general better than those existing at the time in Portugal and facilitated an academic environment for exchange between the various scientific skills,” adding: “this was, perhaps, the greatest advantage of the University model that was the UEA.”

After some years of operation, “significant changes took place in the context, which created strong impetus for changes,” underlines Hayes Tang. First, the Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration was signed in 1987, assuring the city’s administration would be returned to the People’s Republic of China in 1999. Second, the Hong Kong Government decided to expand its higher education sector “to satisfy the need for localization of the administration for the change of sovereignty in 1997. These two issues implied that the need from Hong Kong students for higher education places would decrease whereas the need from Macau students would increase,” Mr Tang adds.

Another factor to take into account: according to the memoir of former Governor Garcia Leandro, there was “a deviation from the objectives, with Hong Kong students being privileged, which forced successive interventions by the Macau Administration,“ which contributed to the move by the local authorities to acquire UEA.

So, in 1988 the Government of Macau decided to purchase the University of East Asia from the founders, aiming to ensure a supply of educated human resources, converting it into a public institution. “From the academic year 1988–1998, large sums of public money will be entailed for the first time, and with them the likelihood of a far greater and far more direct interest shown by a Government committed to start the heavy task of localizing the administration by 1991 and complete it by the end of the millennium,” notes Bernard Mellor. 

The purchase cost MOP100 million to the Government of Macau, which also settled MOP20 million in debt. This amount would not be enough to build a small part of a new campus, it was mentioned at the time.

“Keeping its characteristics as an international university, also open to students from abroad, the UEA started to be concerned, in the first place, with the interests of Macau in this crucial period of his life,” recalls Jorge Rangel, who at that time was the pivot of the transformation. “Many doubts existed in relation to the real interests of this Hong Kong company, but it fulfilled the contract signed”, would later recognize Jorge Rangel, who was twice Secretary for Education during the Portuguese administration (1981-1986 and 1991-1999).

The name UEA was changed to University of Macau (UM) in 1991, “signifying its new ownership,” explains Mr Tang. 

UEA was technically split into three institutions – the UM, the Macau Polytechnic Institute and, a year later in 1992, the Asia International Open University, later renamed to City University of Macau. 

The new 1.09 square kilometre campus on Hengqin inaugurated in the 2014/2015 academic year, paving the way for a new era for the UM and Macau’s higher education.

“The founding of the first modern university in Macau as a private entity reflected the education philosophy of Portuguese administration” – Hayes Tang


The beginnings of higher education in Macau, already with university teaching characteristics, date back to December 1594, with the creation of the Madre de Deus College, which conferred academic degrees on ecclesiastics and lay people and contained in its study program a significant number teaching activities that transformed it into the largest Catholic institute in the Far East, according to the former vice-chancellor of UM, Nascimento Ferreira. The façade of the ruins of Sao Paulo, ex libris of Macau, is what remains of this religious and educational complex.

An equally important moment is the inauguration in 1728 of the Seminary of S. José, also under the leadership of the Jesuits. The curriculum included, among others, Latin grammar, Portuguese grammar, arithmetic, rhetoric, theology. In 1762, members of the Jesus Company were expelled, but they would return in 1862 “and together with other religious congregations established in Macau they also participated in religious higher education,” adds Ferreira.

Thereafter, higher education in Macau declined until 1981.

Along the way is an experience called the International University of Macau, which was formally created in 1980, but which – despite having appointed rector and protocols with universities from around the world – never left the paper.

It was, however, a sign of what was to come.