By Paul Temple
Metaphors involving the word “light” are often invoked to describe the university’s task. Arriving at the new campus of the University of Macau, such metaphors seem redundant: you emerge into the daylight from a one-and-a-half kilometre tunnel which links the campus, which is in Chinese territory, with Macau. This is necessary because, despite extensive land reclamation, there wasn’t enough space in Macau itself to build the one square kilometre campus deemed necessary to meet the higher education needs of the Macau SAR (Special Administrative Region), the ex-Portuguese counterpart of Hong Kong, an hour away across the Pearl River estuary. Because movement between Macau and the rest of China is tightly controlled (as with Hong Kong), the new campus had to be separated from the rest of the mainland by a security fence and what is in effect a moat. The only access is by the tunnel.
Usually, a new university campus is created by building some core facilities and enough teaching space for the first intake, and then building outwards to accommodate successive intakes. Not in Macau: the whole campus was built as a single project to provide not merely enough space for the students moving from the existing campus but to allow for expansion as well – from the current total of around 8,500 to some 13,000 students. Given the constraints on movement, the campus also has to provide residential accommodation for nearly all its students and its staff.
In most places, making such a large up-front investment would be a non-starter. But Macau is different – and the difference is gambling. The turnover in Macau’s casinos apparently makes the Las Vegas operation seem like a village hall bingo game: Mao is presumably turning in his Tiananmen Square tomb as mainland Chinese punters – 90,000 a day – flock across the border in special buses to spend their yuan in Macau’s vast casino halls. (Someone suggested I looked in at The Venetian casino and hotel: “There’s a canal on the second floor”. I was expecting a model village-type reproduction – I should have known better…). The Macau government takes a one-third cut from these vast revenues, and then looks around for ways to spend it. Building a new university campus must have seemed a good way of getting through a large pile of cash.
The new campus – I saw it just before the start of its first academic year – strikes me as being well-designed and is certainly an impressive sight when viewed across the water from Macau proper. The architect, He Jingtang (designer of the Chinese pavilion at the Shanghai 2010 Expo), has used common design elements, but has presented them in different ways to avoid crushing uniformity. There are internal and external informal spaces for students to meet, and a residential college system, apparently modelled on Oxbridge with masters, fellows and the rest of it, has been established to try to create a sense of belonging. The library provides an impressive cathedral-like space, which the PR people are busy turning into the University’s iconic feature.
The Rector, Wei Zhao, naturally enough has big ideas for his, effectively, new University: “world class” figured a lot when he outlined his strategy, as well as providing a “new path” for higher education in China, attracting the best staff and students internationally. There’s a parallel here with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia: both are “money no object” projects, distanced from their host societies – for religious/cultural reasons in Saudi, for political reasons in Macau – but with the common aims of creating “world class” universities from scratch while remaining, to an extent, sealed-off. Can a knowledge producer and disseminator work like this? Contrast Macau with the University of Hong Kong just across the water: in the THE world top-50, and in the Asian top half-dozen on any reckoning, HKU is squeezed onto a vertiginous hillside site, very much part of the frenetic life of Hong Kong’s Central district. Which would you bet on?
Paul Temple is Reader Emeritus in the Department of Lifelong and Comparative Education and Co-director of the MBA in higher education management at the Institute of Education, London.
Paul’s new book, The Hallmark University: Distinctiveness in higher education management, has just been published by the IOE Press.