For many years, I have noted the extent to which education has been closed off from the forms of social experimentation that characterize other aspects of Shenzhen society. Shenzhen was first to reform the danwei system, housing allocation, and even hukou laws. However, education has rigidly conformed to national standards — curriculum, methods, and goals, all have reflected national values and goals. When there has been experimentation, it has taken the form of international education — importing extant curriculums, such as the A-levels or American programs, rather than re-inventing Chinese schools. Even University Town (深圳大学城), which provides graduate education and research facilities has developed within a more standard academic model.
Yesterday, the opening ceremony of Southern Institute of Technology (南方科技大学) indicated a willingness on the part of both the national and municipal governments to invest in the search for new pedagogies. Differences with traditional colleges include: (1) size: SIT will offer small scale undergraduate education. The first class has only 45 students; next year, SIT will take in a class of 150, building until a cap of 400 students per class year. (2) recruitment: SIT recruits students through individual application rather than through the gaokao. (3) evaluation and graduation requirements: SIT has hired top academics to design classes and determine what course content should be. Moreover, at the level of specialization, students will be given the opportunity to design their own major. This is significantly different from the national standard, where undergraduate programs still reflect national standards. Moreover, there is little opportunity for students to study outside their major, let alone design their own. (4) residential dorms with house parents / teachers. SIT hopes to encourage a more familial atmosphere in its dorms and to provide life counseling for students as they adapt to academic life. Indeed, to my American eyes, SIT seems more like a liberal arts college than it does a university — Harvey Mudd, rather than a tradition technological institute like Qinghua or Cal Tech.
Four years to see what happens, at which point, presumably more cities and colleges will be given the opportunity to reform Chinese higher education.