Can China Become a Global Leader in HE Innovation? Education Articles

Can China become a global leader in higher education innovation? UNESCO seems to think so, and believes Shenzhen is a suitable incubator.


In October 2015, the International Centre for Higher Education Innovation, or ICHEI, was approved as a UNESCO Category 2 institute in Shenzhen, located in southern China, bordering Hong Kong. A signing ceremony to inaugurate the centre is planned for spring 2016.

The aim of ICHEI is to reform higher education by harnessing talent and cultivating top-level programmes, according to Professor Li Ming, director designate of the centre. The mandate is as broad as its geographical outreach – the Asia-Pacific region and the continent of Africa. 

Li was speaking at a consulting meeting on information and communication technology, or ICT, in higher education, held at South University of Science and Technology of China, or SUSTC, last month. Over the course of the two-day event approximately 40 delegates, primarily from the Asia-Pacific region, participated in a consulting meeting organised by ICHEI. The meeting consisted of presentations to amass ideas for senior managers of ICHEI, tasked with devising an institutional charter for the centre. 

The binding topic of discussion was access to higher education and the importance of ICTs to facilitate greater enrolment in the world’s youngest and fastest-growing regions.

Although not a legal entity of UNESCO, a Category 2 institute is expected to support the organisation’s strategic programme objectives. Of the 94 established Category 2 institutes, nine are focused on education. As the tenth, ICHEI will be expected to engage in capacity building, knowledge sharing and research in ICTs in higher education in support of UNESCO’s member states. 


Presentations covered a range of topics including massive open online courses or MOOCs, branch campuses, teacher training, English language provision, learning analytics and open and distance learning. Delegates presented research findings, ICT implementations and broader reflections on the status of ICTs in higher education. 

During the closing remarks, Professor Wang Libing, senior programme specialist in higher education at the UNESCO Bangkok office, cautioned that there needs to be more evidence that ICTs helps the enrichment of the learning experience for individuals. 

For ICTs in higher education, he added, there is tension between technology, pedagogy and content – usually one dominates in a given ICT initiative, rendering the other two less effective. 

China’s Silicon Valley

It would seem there are few better places to find ICT solutions in China than the institution and the city where ICHEI is located. 

inno2SUSTC is a public university established by the Chinese Ministry of Education in April 2012, and is funded by the Shenzhen municipality. The university has the dual mission of “building Shenzhen into a modern, international and innovative city” and “leading the higher education reform in China”. 

Its current programmes are focused on STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – with expansion into other fields planned over the next five years. All faculty members hold PhD degrees, of which 60% emanate as graduates or employees from the top 100 universities in the world, according to an institutional pamphlet. 

“It’s a natural fit,” noted Professor Lu Chun, associate vice-president of SUSTC, when responding to why ICHEI would be situated at the young university. He said: “SUSTC is emerging as an innovative institution in China, and it is located in China’s most innovative city.” 

Shenzhen has quickly carved out a unique identity in the People’s Republic of China. It is hard to imagine that 35 years ago the metropolis of 15 million was a fishing village of 20,000. No longer thought of as a backwater to the financial centre of Hong Kong, Shenzhen is a technological powerhouse, that western media such as Forbes, Reuters and Bloomberg label as China’s Silicon Valley. 

Among the 30,000 technology companies located in Shenzhen, Tencent, China’s social networking conglomerate, and Huawei, the world’s third-largest mobile phone company, lead the way. The senior managers at SUSTC and ICHEI see their institutions as natural extensions of the city’s entrepreneurial spirit. 

“What Shenzhen is missing,” stressed Professor Lu, “is an international flavour in its innovative endeavours. ICHEI-Shenzhen, as a UNESCO Category 2 Institute, will bring that global perspective to the benefit of domestic and international stakeholders.” 

China already an innovator

In a broader context, UNESCO’s approval of ICHEI should be noted as recognition of China’s advancements in higher education.

It was only in the late 1990s that the Chinese government decided to create a mass system of higher education, in which enrolment was only 6 million at the time. Today, China boasts the world’s larger higher education system measured at 34 million, according to the Outline of China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020).

Citing these figures, one delegate at the ICHEI consulting meeting noted that “China is and needs to be recognised as an innovator in higher education. Having grown the world’s largest system in only 15 years requires infrastructure, vision, and sound policy-making at all levels of education.”

Much work, however, remains. Over the course of the two-day meeting, discussion also touched on the uneven distribution of quality in higher education in China, and abroad. 

The range of perspectives provided the senior managers of ICHEI with ample ideas to draft the constitutional charter of the new centre and begin its work to advance ICTs and higher education to the benefit of UNESCO’s member states. Undoubtedly, South University of Science and Technology of China, and the city of Shenzhen, will be important collaborators. - universityworldnews

Kirk Perris is an assistant professor in the faculty of education, Beijing Normal University, China.

Related - What Drives China's Innovation?

Related - Shenzhen plans global incubators to attract tech talent

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