A higher responsibility – City University of Macau Rector seized historic chance for expansion

23 September 2016

When Professor Shu Guang Zhang was offered the chance to head a university that had moved from a cramped city site to a new campus 20 times its size, it was an opportunity he could not refuse.

“I was very happy to come,” said the man who took over as rector of City University of Macau (CityU) in September last year. “This is a very good place which gives us the space and conditions to develop an overall and high quality education. Everyone, from parents, students, faculty and partners, feels they have more spirit and energy in the new site, the pulse of culture in Macao.”

In August 2015, CityU moved from 2,000 square metres in a downtown building to the former site of the University of Macau on a hill at the northern end of Taipa. It has been given eight buildings and is leasing one more; it has a total of 44,000 square metres.

It is a historic moment in the history of a college that has had a dramatic story since its foundation in 1981 as the privately owned University of East Asia (UEA) which was the first university in Macau set up by Chinese since the city became a Portuguese settlement more than four centuries ago.

In 1992, the government divided UEA into three institutions – the University of Macau, the Macao Polytechnic Institute and the privately owned East Asia Open Institute (Macao). In 1993, this institute was merged with the Portuguese Open University to form the Asia International Open University (Macao).

In September 2010, Chan Meng Kam, a Macao-based philanthropist and member of the SAR’s Executive Council, acquired the university and became chairman of its council. In February 2011, it was officially renamed the City University of Macau, a private but non-profit institute of higher education. It was based in 2,000 square metres in an office building in Avenida do Dr. Rodrigo Rodrigues.

Move to new campus

In the 2015/2016 academic year, CityU moved to the former campus of the University of Macau. The new site gives it more land and space than it has ever had in its 35-year history.

“We have the space to build laboratories, for multi-media, applied psychology and language learning,” said Zhang. “We will make some changes to the central park, to create a space for interactions among students.”

The former library of the University of Macau was given to the neighbouring Institute for Tourism Studies. So CityU built a new one. “It will meet the needs of the new students, in terms of places, interaction and Internet access,” said Zhang. They have not needed to do much redecoration, since they can use the facilities and even furniture of the former university.

The campus has no student canteen nor dormitories, so it must build these. CityU is continuing to use its downtown premises for evening and weekend classes.

It has 5,400 full- and part-time students, of whom a bit more than half are from Macao, as set down by the SAR government. “We decide on the rest. We have 1,800 from the mainland and 250 from the rest of the world,” said Zhang. The target for the number of students is 6,000.

Competition to attract mainland students is fierce, from universities in Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas. “We face this too. So we must offer courses and programmes that have their own special characteristics, giving them skills and creativity that they will be able to use in the fu-ture and help them develop. We have cross-faculty and interdisciplinary courses.”

Each year it joins other universities in the SAR in recruitment drives in secondary schools in the Pearl River Delta and the Yangtze River Delta. To attract research students, it has co-operation agreements with famous universities in the mainland, such as Northeast University, Nanjing Normal University, Jiangsu University and Anhui Normal University.

“We expect that, in the future, the number of students graduating from secondary schools in Macao will fall, because of the declining birthrate.  If we have new courses, we hope for an increase in students. If we do not get them, we face great danger,” he said.

CityU employs over 100 full-time faculty who come from all over the world. “We do global recruiting. I want the university to be a place of diversity and many cultures.”

The University has established a research institute for Portuguese-language studies that will offer courses to students from the Portuguese-speaking countries at both master and doctoral levels. For this purpose, Zhang went in May to Portugal to visit the University of Minho and the Universidade Nova de Lisboa to seek collaboration. “We want to train people in Portuguese and the laws, institutions and cultures of the Portuguese-speaking countries.”

He also launched a One Belt, One Road Research Centre. “I feel that, as a university, we have a responsibility to research this area and train people in this field.”

Long journey

For Zhang himself, it has been a long journey to Taipa since his birth in the central Chinese city of Nanjing in 1956. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, the country’s universities were closed. He was only able to sit the university entrance exam in 1977.

It was one of the most competitive in China’s history, with five million people sitting the exam – all those unable to apply during those 10 years. Among them, only several thousand were able to enter university, including Zhang.

He graduated from the foreign language department of Nanjing Normal University in 1982 and joined the law department of Xiamen University, where he pursued a Masters in International Economic Law. The next year China started to send students to the west for the first time since 1949. A total of 150,000 applied to go – and only a handful were chosen, including Zhang.

In 1984, he obtained a Masters in International Law and International Organisation from Ohio University, then a Doctorate in the History of International Relations, followed by post-doctoral research at Yale University.

In 1993, he was appointed a faculty member at the University of Maryland; seven years later, he received tenure there. His expertise includes Sino-US relations, and the Cold War international history.

“I worked as a teacher at Maryland for 17 years. It was very stable and comfortable. To live in Washington was most interesting and good for my research,” he said.

Then, in 2005, the Ministry of Education in Beijing invited him to return to China. It was seeking academics of his level to take senior positions at home and undertake reform of the educational system. He agreed to become Vice- -President of the Shanghai International Studies University.

“Life in the U.S. was too easy and not challenging enough. I was not even 40. Would I stay there the rest of my life?”

It was a big change. “I had returned regularly during my time in the U.S. but found it hard to acclimatise. The educational systems are different.” During his five years in Shanghai, he continued to teach research students at Maryland.

One of his missions at the Shanghai international Studies University was to reform the system of promotion. “In U.S. and European systems, a teacher obtains tenure only after a period of reviews and promotion. In the mainland, a teacher obtains it after entering university. There is not enough pressure or incentive.”

“In the mainland, the teachers want to do research. Teachers who are very popular with students do not have so much time for this. We wanted to balance both.”

Move to Macao

In 2011, Zhang left Shanghai to move to Macao, where he became first vice rector and later standing vice rector of the Macao University of Science and Technology University (MUST).

“I always liked Macao very much, with its deep culture and diversity. The pace of life may be slower. It is a harmonious society. It was a period of fast development of education in Macao and I felt that I could contribute.”

At that time, his wife, a classmate from Nanjing Normal University, was teaching at City University in Hong Kong; it also offered him a senior post.

“The wages were 30 per cent higher than those at MUST. But I turned it down. I did not like the environment in Hong Kong.” In 2015, his wife transferred to a teaching post at the University of Macau.

He stayed four and a half years at MUST, where he was responsible for curriculum development. During his time there, he was invited to interview for the post of president of a U.S. university. “There were aspects of the job I did not want to do, like fund-raising. So I stayed in Macao.”

The young people of Macao are blessed. Almost everyone who wants to go to university is able to, either at home or in the mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan or overseas.

“There are two concepts of university education. The one that prevailed in Britain and continental Europe was that it was an elite, that only a minority could study. But, in the U.S. and in the Chinese world, the concept is that such education should be available to everyone. In the mainland, more than seven million apply for university and almost the same number get in.” (Macao Magazine, by Mark O’Neill, photo courtesy of City University of Macau)