China Daily: UIC is always up for a challenge

China Daily Hong Kong edition has recently presented a full-page feature story on UIC's development. Here is an excerpt from the piece:

Deeply involved with a Hong Kong-mainland joint higher education institution since its inception, mathematician Tang Tao finds non-math solutions for obstacles as he charts a new course. Li Bingcun reports from Shenzhen.

For mathematician Tang Tao, leading the nation's first joint Chinese mainland-Hong Kong higher education institution might be no less challenging than solving the most complicated equation.

When he became president of United International College in Zhuhai in 2019, Tang inherited a young and ambitious institution weighed down by debt. Its development was further constrained by a shortage of available land.

"As the leader of a university, the prominent job should be recruiting talent and strengthening the school's research ability, definitely not wracking the brain for loans to build the campus," said Tang.

Though more conversant with computational mathematics than economics, Tang took on this task by applying his training as a scientist. The perseverance and passion he acquired over an academic career spanning decades proved to be an asset as he went about steering the school ahead of the curve.

His deep involvement with the school ever since its inception nearly 20 years ago also prepared him for his new role.

Tang was in charge of Hong Kong Baptist University's collaboration with the mainland when, in 2003, China first rolled out policies supporting mainland-overseas higher learning collaboration.

He became university president Ng Ching-fai's right-hand man when they embarked on a journey on the mainland, scouring a wide array of cities for partners and a school site. They waded through strict epidemic-control measures that were still in place shortly after the SARS outbreak was put under control. After searching near and far - visiting Beijing in northern China, Chengdu in the southwest, and Zhuhai in the south, among other cities - they set their eyes on Zhuhai, and got a new school off the ground in 2005.

A coastal city in Guangdong province, Zhuhai borders Macao on the south and is near Hong Kong. It was one of the first batch of special economic zones designated in 1980, as the mainland sought to reform and open its economy.

The school lacked the experience to seek assistance from the local government at the early stage, either in funds, land or educational facilities. When established, the school got a HK$150 million ($19.4 million) startup fund from Baptist University.

The other parent institution, the Beijing Normal University, provided an area in Zhuhai for UIC to build its first teaching blocks for the college students to attend classes from 2005 to 2017. After that, it moved to a new site covering 300 mu (20 hectares), which the Zhuhai government provided for free. But the new site still fell short of the national standards of 500 mu needed to qualify as a university campus. And there was no space for an outdoor stadium.

Tang's qualities that are closely linked to his profession - persistence and attention to detail - helped see him through the challenge: Tang has been running a magazine he co-started a decade ago to promote math; he is quite thorough with the contents of his travel logs that would be published on the school's social-media platform, such as the photos and their captions.

Just two or three months after taking the post, Tang proposed to the Zhuhai Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of China and the Zhuhai government, that the local government grant more land to the school. A year later, it was allocated 550 more mu to develop another campus.

The second campus, which is expected to open in five years, will focus on science and engineering subjects and postgraduate lessons, highlighting Tang's ambition to revitalize the school with more efforts in scientific research.

Developing new strengths

After spending 15 years focusing on improving collaboration mechanisms and teaching quality, Tang said, it's time for the school to cultivate new strengths, such as science and engineering subjects like big data and artificial intelligence.

With the release of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area Development Outline in 2019, a national-level strategy aiming to turn Hong Kong, Macao and nine Guangdong cities into a world-class inno-tech center, the region's demand for tech talent will be huge.

To meet the demand, Tang added a new bachelor's program in applied mathematics, his own research field, and recruited some 20 scholars with strong research ability for different disciplines. The school also set up a base in 2020 to transform research results in Zhuhai.

Students have group discussions on the campus of Beijing Normal University-Hong Kong Baptist University United International College

Tang also strengthened scientific collaboration with other universities. To secure more research funding, the school set up several joint research centers with Beijing Normal University, a mainland university enjoying far more national support, to share scientific-study funds and talent.

The school is also in discussion with Baptist University on how to jointly conduct research involving large scientific installations. Due to limited laboratory space, such research is hard to conduct in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong university plans to transfer funds to the Zhuhai school and dispatch its staff there to jointly conduct research.

These proactive efforts were recognized by students. In a post about Tang's performance as the college's second president on Zhihu, a popular Chinese Q&A online platform, a student who graduated last year wrote that he has always been eager to see the school recruit more top scientists and is happy that Tang made it happen.

In the long term, the university will also serve the development needs of Zhuhai, which is transforming from a traditional manufacturing base to an emerging tech hub, Tang said.

During Zhuhai's first international talent communication conference in late November, Tang was named one of the top 10 talent in Zhuhai alongside Dong Mingzhu, chairwoman of Zhuhai-based Gree Electric, a home-appliance maker.

Delivering a speech at the event, Tang said the destinies of universities and the cities they are based in are closely connected. As a major scientific institution in Zhuhai, the school is obliged, and also willing to grow with Zhuhai, to play a greater role in Bay Area development, he said.

An expert in finding the solutions to math problems, Tang is as steadfast on a quest for a non-math solution to lead the school he helped build.

From China Daily

08 January 2021