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October 12, 2023
How can Universities Play a Leading Role in Supporting the Development of a Strong Education Sector?An Interview with President Luo Qingming by China Education Daily

Chinese Education Daily: How do you interpret the strategic task of “building a strong nation through the development of education, science and technology, and talents”? What roles can universities play in this regard?

Luo Qingming: Talents hold the key to the development of science and technology, and highly skilled individuals are the most valuable resource for a country. Education plays a crucial role in nurturing talents. The fundamental objective of education is to cultivate well-rounded individuals with innovative thinking. Education, science and technology, and talent are the three essential drivers of knowledge production and innovation, providing the foundational and strategic support for the comprehensive development of a modern socialist country. Integrating these three elements is vital for building an innovation-driven nation, and it holds practical and strategic implications. General Secretary Xi Jinping highlighted the mutual reinforcement among the development of education, science and technology, and talent during the 5th collective study session of Political Bureau of the 20th CPC Central Committee. It is necessary to organically integrate these aspects and promote them in a coordinated way to achieve a multiplier effect and facilitate high-quality development.

Higher education institutions play a significant role in fostering education, advancing science and technology, and nurturing talent. Due to their unique advantages and important mission, these institutions must adhere to the principle of cultivating talents for the Party and the nation. General Secretary Xi Jinping emphasized that the education powerhouse we aim to build is a socialist education powerhouse characterized by serving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and supporting China's modernization with its distinctive characteristics. Ultimately, the goal is to provide satisfactory education for the people. China's universities have long proven that they must be deeply rooted in the Chinese context and serve the development of the country. This provides essential guidance for the management and governance of higher education institutions.

Chinese Education Daily: In the recently held 5th collective study session of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee, General Secretary Xi Jinping delivered a significant speech underscoring the crucial need to expedite the development of a robust education sector that will serve as a strong pillar for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. General Secretary Xi further emphasized the prominent role played by higher education institutions in the establishment of a formidable educational powerhouse. In the context of the new development paradigm, what specific tasks and responsibilities are entrusted to higher education institutions? Moreover, what obstacles need to be addressed in order to ensure smooth progress in this regard?

Luo Qingming: Throughout history, universities have gradually taken on the roles of educating students, conducting research, and serving society. While the expression of educational policies in China has constantly evolved, the fundamental principle of “education serving national development” remains unchanged. Chinese universities have always aligned themselves with national development and rejuvenation in various social environments and historical stages. They have an inseparable symbiotic relationship with the country and society, embracing the noble mission of serving the nation and society.

General Secretary Xi Jinping has pointed out that “world-class universities have invariably grown by serving their own country's development.” In the process of modernization, China needs to accelerate the establishment of major scientific centers, important talent hubs, and innovation clusters. Higher education institutions must seize the opportunity, take the initiative, and prioritize serving national strategies, consciously transforming into strategic forces for scientific and technological advancements.

Therefore, it is both necessary and timely for us to deeply comprehend the importance of building service-oriented universities. We need to strategically adjust from conceptual changes to innovative mechanisms, implement comprehensive planning, and construct a new model for service-oriented higher education institutions.

As we enter the stage of popularizing higher education, constructing a high-quality education system becomes a central issue. The most prominent characteristic of a high-quality higher education system is diversity. However, the largest challenge in the governance of Chinese universities is the lack of diversity--a bottleneck that urgently needs to be overcome in current university development. By identifying their unique positioning and advocating the strengths of each university, we can adapt to the future of education and discover the genuine pathway to high-quality development.

Discipline development is crucial for building service-oriented universities

China Education Daily: Currently, many local universities have positioned themselves to develop into service-oriented universities. A service-oriented university is often understood by the academic community as being “teaching service-oriented” or “social service-oriented”. Given the backdrop of comprehensive higher education reform, what is your understanding of service-oriented universities?

Luo Qingming: In my view, categorizing a university's service as “teaching service” or “social service” is inherently misleading. The academic and professional communities generally recognize teaching, research, and social service as the main functions of a university, with social service explicitly acknowledged as a fundamental function. However, this can artificially segregate social service from teaching and research. Considering the sequence in which the three major functions of higher education institutions emerge, the social service function arises after the teaching and research functions, hence termed an extension function. From this perspective, social service is a derivative function of higher education institutions. In fact, teaching and research are important ways through which universities serve society, forming the foundation and source of high-quality social service by universities. Therefore, we need to comprehensively understand and build the relationship among university functions, guided by the core principle of serving national strategies and the needs of economic and social development.

In my understanding, a service-oriented university should, guided by an education ideology that satisfies the populace, proactively advance open education based on innovative mechanisms and institutional safeguards. It should uphold the belief in nurturing high-quality talent to serve society and fully leverage the scientific and educational resources of universities to directly engage in social service. Specifically, this entails actively establishing a new ecosystem that integrates industry, academia, and research, exploring novel ideas, concepts, and mechanisms for collaborative and high-quality development through coordinated efforts between local regions and universities. The objective is to create a “shared community model” for industry application of scientific and technological achievements, characterized by deep integration, mutual promotion and win-win results.

China Education Daily: What is most important for the creation of service-oriented universities?

Luo Qingming: Discipline construction plays a vital role in university education. Having top-tier disciplines attracts exceptional scholars, fosters excellence in academic achievements, cultivates outstanding talent, and ultimately leads to the creation of prestigious universities. Therefore, I believe that discipline cultivation is the most important element.

A notable example is the 1999 university rankings in the United States, where the California Institute of Technology ranked first due to its world-class disciplines in experimental physics and aerospace technology. This success can be attributed to two professors: Richard Feynman, a Nobel laureate in physics, who elevated the university’s reputation in experimental physics to a global level, and Theodore von Kármán, the mentor of Qian Xuesen, who pioneered aerospace technology in the United States. In this new era of economic development, which emphasizes the restructuring of social talent driven by regional economic growth and industrial advancement, prioritizing discipline construction becomes crucial in promoting comprehensive transformation of universities.

Local universities should be selective in discipline cultivation

China Education Daily: The implementation of the overall plan for the “Double First-Class” initiative has ushered in a new chapter in the development of Chinese higher education. The plan outlines a “three-step” strategy for building “Double First-Class” institutions and provides specific guidelines for developing top-tier disciplines. In your opinion, how should top-tier disciplines be cultivated?

Luo Qingming: Discipline cultivation cannot be detached from strategic planning. Every world-class university has evolved by navigating and adapting to changes. Therefore, we must develop strategic plans for discipline development with a mindset of dynamic competition. Considering national development needs, societal demands, international trends in higher education, and scientific and technological advancements, we should comprehensively understand our existing educational conditions and distinctive features. Following the principles of “comparative advantage”, we should make comprehensive considerations and scientifically formulate strategic plans for discipline development.

Taking Hainan University as an example, its crop science discipline has twice been listed in the “Double First-Class” initiative. This recognition is attributed to its outstanding performance in talent cultivation, faculty development, research commercialization, social service contributions, and unique advancements within the disciplinary field. Furthermore, the discipline aligns with the urgent demands of the industry and effectively supports national strategies during the 14th Five-Year Plan period.

Discipline cultivation should neither seek broad coverage and hasty progress nor underestimate the potential and shy away from challenges. Emphasizing innovation is crucial. Regardless of whether it is an advantageous traditional discipline or an emerging and interdisciplinary field, it should strive for breakthroughs and achieve success through unique methods. Advancing discipline innovation requires a shift in mindset, broadening perspectives, breaking free from traditional or existing constraints that hinder further development, overcoming disciplinary barriers, and establishing new focal points through interdisciplinary collaboration, openness, integration, and structural reorganization. This approach will expand new avenues for disciplinary development and present creative solutions.

In the strategic planning and implementation of discipline development, the key element is to align with the major needs of the country and society. Focusing on critical battles and making informed choices are essential. Interdisciplinary collaboration serves as the wellspring of innovative thinking, while distinctiveness and innovation form the essence of the strategy. Academic excellence constitutes the core indicator for strategic evaluation.

Therefore, Hainan University, in accordance with the development positioning and technological demands of Hainan, strengthens discipline cultivation and scientific research across seven areas: “development and institutional innovation of free trade ports” “ecological civilization” “culture and tourism” “high-yield tropical agriculture and seed breeding” “marine technology” “one health” and “information technology”. Guided by significant needs, the university identifies key scientific problems and engineering challenges, incubates projects, and establishes research teams. It places emphasis on building a high-level faculty team and achieving high-quality accomplishments to fulfill the objectives of discipline development. Through the integration of science and education, as well as reforms in talent cultivation systems and mechanisms, Hainan University nurtures high-quality talents, drives the development of top-level disciplines, and facilitates the advancement towards world-class disciplines and a domestically renowned university.

China Education Daily: In the pursuit of building a strong education nation, we are committed to implementing strategies that emphasize education, talent development and innovations. This involves exploring new areas and avenues for shaping new driving forces and advantages. How can this approach be reflected in discipline planning?

Luo Qingming: To explore new areas, we must be firmly rooted in the soil of China and seek directions for innovation. We should understand that innovation is not confined to the laboratory alone. Many innovative projects are fueled by national development strategies and the aspirations of the people for a better life. Therefore, it is crucial to apply cutting-edge technology to addressing national needs through discipline planning.

“Openness” serves as a powerful tool to transcend reality and surpass oneself. It enables us to identify challenges, seize opportunities, and overcome obstacles in our pursuit of excellence. “Openness” should guide talent cultivation, scientific research, and social services, fostering strong connections between high-quality applied research and fundamental research to enhance social service capacity. Thus, a well-designed discipline layout should also emphasize “openness in education”.

For Hainan University, it is necessary to strike a balance between conducting frontier research and making tangible contributions by addressing the technological needs of the country.

Aligned with the national strategy for crop breeding, Hainan University has established the Sanya Crop Breeding Research Institute and the Collaborative Innovation Center for Crop Breeding and High-Yield Tropical Agriculture. Leveraging the collaborative advantage of industry, academia, and research, the university has actively integrated into the construction of the Hainan Yajiazhou Bay Seed Laboratory. As a result, the first group of 53 research personnel has been recruited, effectively enhancing China's seed technology innovation capabilities and accelerating the development of the seed industry.

In response to the economic and social development needs of Hainan, as well as the challenges faced in the construction of the Hainan Free Trade Port, particularly in the agricultural sector, Hainan University is actively promoting educational innovation and embracing the diversification of higher education by establishing the School of Agriculture and Rural Development. With a great education mission, the School offers comprehensive academic and non-academic programs aimed at nurturing exceptional agricultural and rural leaders, fostering rural prosperity, and cultivating versatile talents who possess a deep understanding of agriculture, love for rural areas, and care for farmers.

Additionally, by integrating local resources and expanding the scope of education, Hainan University is establishing research institutes in areas where they are most needed. Guided by the principles of “sustainable development” and “open innovation”, the university is focused on developing efficient platforms and diverse channels to foster a collaborative and value-driven ecosystem that promotes scientific and technological innovation. For instance, in Haikou's “Pharmaceutical Valley”, Hainan University has established a New Drug Screening and Evaluation Platform and a School of Pharmacy. In the Fengjiawan Modern Fishery Industry Park in Wenchang, the Hainan University Fengjiawan Aquaculture Green Development Research Institute has been established to enhance innovation in the marine seed industry and marine fishery sector.

In summary, local universities should conduct comprehensive analyses of talent development trends and identify gaps. They should align their programs with current scientific and technological advancements and focus on meeting national strategic needs and local economic development requirements. It is essential to dynamically adjust and optimize higher education disciplinary settings while purposefully cultivating talents that are urgently needed for national strategies and are in short supply. By doing so, higher education institutions can enhance their support and contribution to high-quality development. Through effective alignment, universities can develop disciplines that meet the country's needs and effectively serve national strategies and regional economic and social development.

To serve high-quality development, it is essential to establish a comprehensive and coordinated new paradigm for nurturing talent.

China Education Daily: The report of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China emphasized the importance of putting people at the center of education, accelerating the construction of a high-quality education system, promoting quality-oriented education, and advancing educational equity. In your opinion, how can we establish a high-quality education system that fully aligns with the new tasks of cultivating talents in the current era?

Luo Qingming: The cornerstone of building a high-quality education system lies in the cultivation of moral character and the development of well-rounded individuals. This requires us to have a clear understanding of the characteristics and aspirations of socialist builders, successors, and the new requirements for talent cultivation in the current era. We must also ensure that these new requirements are reflected in our training objectives and educational models. Therefore, it is necessary to reform the talent cultivation model and create a new paradigm that emphasizes coordination to adapt to the changing demands of the modern era.

The key to higher education reform lies in the social orientation of talent cultivation. Higher education should equip students with the ability to quickly adapt to the needs of social development and serve society directly. Driven by this imperative, there needs to be a transformative shift in talent cultivation from students confined within the study environment to active practitioners engaged in real-world activities. This transformation will inevitably lead to a revolutionary shift in the “paradigm” of talent cultivation, accompanied by the gradual emergence of corresponding educational concepts, theories, and models.

University education should focus on fostering students' independent and critical thinking abilities, as well as their capacity to adapt flexibly to new situations, challenging their preconceived notions about the world. In light of these considerations, we need to explore ways to break free from the traditional constraints of talent cultivation methods and create a new space for students' growth and development, with a strong emphasis on nurturing innovative talent.

China Education Daily: Strengthening the independent cultivation of outstanding and innovative talents is crucial to ensuring high-quality development. In your opinion, what kind of talent cultivation model should be established?

Luo Qingming: The focus of cultivating innovative talents should be on personalized education. It is important to recognize the unique characteristics of each student and help them develop into competent individuals. In recent years, Hainan University has integrated regional development goals with its own positioning and has pioneered a talent cultivation system that combines a fully credit-based system, college system, and collaborative innovation centers. This system integrates classroom education, community-based management, and research innovation to deeply integrate personalized student training with the implementation of national strategies.

The implementation of a fully credit-based system reform provides students with greater autonomy in choosing their majors and courses. They can select their majors, courses, and instructors based on their interests and strengths, thus meeting their diverse and personalized learning needs. For example, if a student initially selects aquaculture as their major, he or she can choose courses related to their personal interests and targeted career direction, including business administration, journalism and international trade. Through interdisciplinary studies, we can cultivate high-quality talents with versatile skills.

The implementation of a college system reform brings together students from different disciplines, educational levels, and cultural backgrounds into specialized colleges organized under a community management model. This creates a space for mutual learning, knowledge exchange, and cross-disciplinary integration, effectively addressing the new demands of student management within the fully credit-based system.

The establishment of collaborative innovation centers across disciplines provides students with opportunities to engage in research and innovation projects and receive comprehensive training from basic research to industrial application. This promotes the integration of industry and education, as well as the fusion of science and education, contributing to the cultivation of high-quality talents through advanced scientific research.

In recent years, Hainan University has explored the path of high-quality development, established an organized research system, and implemented a personalized and coordinated talent cultivation system. Remarkable progress has been achieved as a result.

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