An investment boom in institutions of higher education is taking place in Guangdong province, one of China's biggest manufacturing hubs and its up-and-coming hi-tech region with grand ambitions to rival Silicon Valley in the United States.
Guangdong will open 11 new universities this year, with more to come in the next few years. In Shenzhen city, the local government announced that it would invest 150 billion yuan (670 billion baht) to build 20 new universities and colleges by 2025, with an aim of boosting the number of full-time students on campus in the city to 250,000 from about 103,800 now.
Government-backed subsidies and funding have been splashed out to support the higher education blueprint. Three universities in the Greater Bay Area (GBA) — a megapolis comprising nine cities in mainland China, including Shenzhen, as well as the Hong Kong and Macau special administrative regions — received a combined annual budget of around 29 billion yuan in 2020.
In China's quest to be self-sufficient in technology, access to top-tier talent is an urgent requirement. While China has attracted some overseas talent to the mainland, its higher education plans indicate that it hopes to take a home-grown approach to cultivating talent.
Several Hong Kong universities are also flocking to set up operations in the GBA.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong opened a Shenzhen campus in 2014, which was soon regarded as Shenzhen's top university, with independence in teaching, teacher recruitment and its curriculum.
The construction of a 30.7 billion yuan Hong Kong Polytechnic University campus in Foshan city was included in Guangdong's 2020 development plan.
At least two other Hong Kong universities are expanding in Guangdong — City University in Dongguan and the Open University in Zhaoqing.
The central and provincial governments are being very aggressive in supporting the expansion of higher education in the GBA, said Simon Zhao, associate dean of BNU-HKBU United International College's Division of Humanities and Social Sciences.
"Based on China's science and technology strategy and the current scale of investment, the gap between higher education institutions in the GBA and the top universities in Hong Kong and the West will close rapidly," he said. "Of course, this also depends on China's continued opening up and success in easing the tech decoupling with the US."
Beijing's plan is to transform this southern region of 71.2 million people into a hi-tech powerhouse to rival California's Silicon Valley by 2035.
On top of this, Shenzhen, home to many of China's Fortune 500 companies, especially tech-sector ones such as Huawei Technologies, ZTE, DJI and Mindray, already has a rich ecosystem of start-ups, business incubators and accelerators in tech, biotech, health-tech and innovation.
"More than 10 years ago, when I chose to join Shenzhen University, I did not think that Shenzhen's economy, technology sector nor local higher education could leap ahead so fast," said a professor who received his PhD and worked in the US for many years until the late 2000s, declining to be identified. "Shenzhen's funding for higher education is very substantial, especially for research and development in the basic disciplines of science and engineering.
"The [US-China] trade war is a good thing for us because it lets China see the hidden dangers and risks to its tech security. Without sanctions against Huawei and semiconductors, Chinese tech industries would have no idea how the West sees them.
"The trade war is actually a huge boost to the Chinese government's strategy to invest huge amounts in original research, understanding that neither technology-related mergers and acquisitions, nor copycat [production], can ensure China's rise."
At the same time, Guangdong's higher education still lags far behind Beijing's ambitions to be more competitive in the areas of science and technology.
In the 2020 QS World University Rankings, Hong Kong had five universities in the top 100, while the mainland had six — mostly in Shanghai and Beijing. No Guangdong-based university cracked the top 300.
And Guangdong's gross enrolment ratio — the proportion of young people receiving higher education — was 46% in 2019, below the national average of 51.6%, according to government data.
However, Guangdong's 2019 figure represented significant growth from just 28% in 2010.