China looks to universities to lead development in its Midwest

China is seeking to boost development in its lagging Midwest by funding a significant expansion of the region’s higher education system.

The Ministry of Education encourages universities in central and western China to help establish new institutions focusing on modern industries, future technologies, smart agriculture and public health. Well-established universities in cities such as Xi’an, Lanzhou, Chongqing and Chengdu could be used as “strategic hubs”, a news conference said.

The vast Midwest has more than half of China’s universities, faculty and students, but has traditionally lagged behind in economic and social development. Some 10.7 billion yuan (£1.2 billion) has been allocated to boost the region’s development under the latest five-year national plan, with new education proposals aimed at breaking down administrative divisions based on the provinces and to promote regional education clusters.

“I think the new infrastructure has two purposes in mind: military and economic concerns,” said Edmond Law, adjunct professor at Hong Kong University of Education. “The new schools are strategically planned to reorganize and strengthen research (universities), development (newly created institutions) and dissemination (regional needs) infrastructures.”

Dr Law added that the new institutions would likely be polytechnic-type institutions, aimed at preparing younger generations to develop innovative projects that will prove useful to their home regions.

Revitalizing the Midwest has been a priority of China’s higher education policy since 2012, with a new “roadmap” focused on the issue released last September.

“[There is] a global trend of improving education that balances both quality and equity,” said Jun Li, a professor in the faculty of education at Western University in Canada. “China is a bit late in developing such a vision of a systemic shift, but it’s never too late to catch up.”

Professor Li researched education policy in western China and suggested that the gap in “high-tech and smart sectors, entrepreneurial and innovative industries” between urban and rural areas was one of the driving forces behind the new plan.

“Universities in less developed regions are traditionally disadvantaged in many respects, for example, governance structure and culture, funding, leading researchers and teachers, and other resources. They all require a more open and conducive environment that needs to be created and nurtured through the process of internationalization for systemic and institutional improvement,” Professor Li said.

“In the long term, the governance structure and culture must be changed to retain existing high-quality talent and recruit innovative talent with global vision and world-class capabilities.”

[email protected]