University of Macau’s Rector Wei Zhao: Enhancing research and teaching to become world-class

Monday, August 15, 2011
Issue 1384, Page 2 – 3
Word count: 2405
Published in: Macau Daily Times

By Poyi (Natalie) Leung

The University of Macau (UM) has high hopes because of China’s President Hu Jintao expectation that the University will gain a place amongst the world top-ranking universities in the future after moving into the MOP 6 billion Hengqin campus. According to Rector Wei Zhao, UM has been working “very hard” toward this goal ever since and they are confident they will achieve Hu’s expectation.

Zhao stressed however that it will be a long process, despite his belief that UM has what is required to become a first-class higher education institute.

Speaking to the Macau Daily Times in an interview, the Rector said Macau’s university is not only trying its best to enhance its research portfolio but also the quality of teaching in order to produce outstanding graduates with the ability to compete in the international job market.

He also disclosed that the UM is working on having its degree programs accredited by more organisations and institutes outside of the territory and he hopes this network can be extended to include western countries.

Meanwhile, Zhao admitted that the size of the current campus in Taipa has hindered continuing development of the university, assuring that the new 1 square kilometre campus, which is about 20 times larger than what exists now, will allow the institution a further growth in every aspect.

Reporter: Before UM can be relocated to Hengqin, do you foresee that the current campus will face certain challenges?

Wei Zhao: We’re now facing a number of challenges and the first one is a lack of space. We cannot grow further simply because we don’t have the space. If you come here in four weeks (as the summer vacation ends) at lunch time, you will see people lining up for elevators and the restaurant full of students. This is a pretty serious problem. So we’ve decided that this year and the next we are not going to increase student size.

And because we don’t have the space, even though we have the money we are not able to hire more teachers. The state key laboratory of Chinese medicine was built in the student dormitory and has occupied a number of student apartments.

R: What do the two state key laboratories mean to UM? What are they working on at the moment?

Mr Zhao: It’s a great recognition for our faculty members and researchers who have worked very hard for many years and made tremendous progress in electronics and Chinese medicine. The laboratories are also very significant in the way that they can allow our faculty members to contribute not only to the development of Macau but also, on a much larger platform, Greater China. Moreover, the two labs can diversify Macau’s industries especially in the area of Chinese medicine.

The two labs already got their proposals approved by the central government. The ‘State Key Laboratory of Analog and Mixed-Signal Very-Large-Scale Integration’ is working on analogue circuits whilst the ‘State Key Laboratory of Chinese Medicine Quality Research’ [jointly set up with the Macau University of Science and Technology] is working on the quality of Chinese medicine and is aiming to find better techniques to certify its high standard.

They already have their funding allocated and are now hiring more people and buying more equipment to enhance their productivity and the quality of research can be enhanced.

R: What’s the plan of UM to expand and strengthen its research portfolio?

Mr Zhao: The two state key labs are the crucial component of our research portfolio. But in addition to that, we actually have a pretty healthy research background. We are pretty good at construction [in the sense that] we have a laboratory to do all the construction testing, and we provide support to the Macau Government in environmental science. We also plan to study human health – how to control infectious diseases, for example.

This university is also very strong in humanities and psychology and our Law school has been working very hard for the Macau community. We have hired several professors in Chinese literature and they are all doing research.

UM has already set up an Academy of Economics and Management. Its main task is to do research related to economic and management issues in Macau and mainland China. It provides managerial training for local people as well as a think-tank service for the government, the community and enterprises.

R: What is UM’s main area of research?

Mr Zhao: UM has been and will continue to be a comprehensive university. ‘Comprehensive’ means we will cover many areas but it’s true that in different times we may have a different emphasis. Of course we are not going to have only the two state key labs and nothing else. We will develop research areas, which are needed in Macau.

R: Since UM aims to become a world-class university, what needs to be done in order to achieve that?

Mr Zhao: President Hu Jintao officiated the groundbreaking ceremony of UM’s Hengqin campus in late 2009 and he talked about his expectations for the university. It is a great encouragement for UM and we’ve planned the university according to this goal. Over the years the Macau Government has always provided us tremendous support in terms of resources and policies. But the resources and policies alone cannot make a first-class university.

So what needs to be done in order to achieve this? I think number one is we need to do our own homework. All our staff, professors and students have been working very hard to try to do better research and better teaching because only when you have that, you can have a first-class university. We still have quite a distance [to go] but we’re confident that we can produce better papers and better students.

At the same time we need continuous support from the community. UM is like a small tree that has just been planted – we believe – in the right place, with good soil, water and nutrients. What we need now is time and eventually we will become a big tree and achieve our goal.

R: Do you have any idea of how long this process will take?

Mr Zhao: It will be a very long process but I cannot tell the exact timeframe. We’re confident, though, not only because of the tremendous support from the government and the community, but examples are there where a university can be converted into a world-class one.

Nobody knew about the Texas A&M University in the United States in 1970. Around 1980 the university had a campus-wide discussion and with the support from the Texas state government, it launched a 20-year plan aiming at becoming one of the top 100 universities in the US by year 2000. It achieved the goal even before the deadline, as it ranked sixty- something on a national level. After that the university made the second 20-year plan, as it is striving to rank among the top 10 public universities in the US by year 2020.

The City University [CityU] of Hong Kong in the early years did not offer Bachelor degrees. It was a good community college that provided technical support and training for the local community. But again the Hong Kong Government decided to convert this institute into a university. Twenty years later, CityU has already been recognised as among the world top 200 universities.

We do see examples that universities managed to turn into better ones and certainly we’re confident that the University of Macau will be able to make it.

R: So does UM also have some sort of a 20-year plan or something like that?

Mr Zhao: In 2007, my predecessor Iu Vai Pan defined a 10-year plan which the UM has since continued to expand. I’m pretty sure when we finish this plan in 2017 we will propose a new comprehensive plan for a much longer term. But so far we are just half way done with the current plan.

R: How do you see the English skills of UM students?

Mr Zhao: Our students have been working hard in English. Compared with those in China and many other places, UM students’ English skills are better because we use English textbooks and most of the courses are taught in English. However, I would say that they still have to improve their English skills in order to be truly competitive in the global environment.

R: What kind of balance is UM targeting at by using Chinese, English and Portuguese as the teaching medium?

Mr Zhao: When you talk about ‘balance’, it is politically and academically sensitive. People say Macau’s official languages are Chinese and Portuguese and therefore you should teach in these two languages. But most students are demanding English. We cannot teach a course in all three languages because most of the textbooks are in English. So it’s a technical issue. It’s been a very long discussion and I could write pages about it.

UM’s teaching medium is in English except in certain segments. If you ask me why, then I will have to ask the previous rectors. I think UM has been defined in this way from the very beginning. Language is a very important issue in Macau, and Macau students really need a lot of training in all kinds of languages.

R: UM has been receiving quite a lot of exchange students over the years, so what is the response of UM students joining the exchange programs and going abroad?

Mr Zhao: There are two channels for our students to go abroad and study [for a short period of time]. One of them is to participate in the exchange programs as UM has signed an exchange student agreement with some 160 universities in over 20 countries and regions.

We have also set up an Honours College where all the students are required to go abroad and study in a first-class university for a semester. In the last semester, we had students going to the University of Michigan, University of Rochester, Boston College and the University of Coimbra, in Portugal. They just came back and their results were pretty good, with an average GPA of 3.60. It shows that Macau students are able to compete in very good universities.

Another 50 students from the Honours College are set to begin their semester abroad in January next year.

R: What do you think UM has, that attracts foreign students to come and study here?

Mr Zhao: When a student is thinking about going to another university, they are probably looking for two things. One is the environment, which to some degree has to be compatible with his own language and culture. UM is very internationalised and uses English as the teaching medium so, for most of the exchange students, it is a very comfortable environment. But at the same time they would not want to go to a university exactly like their own, so they’re also looking for something new such as different cultures, different skills that they can learn from and different people who they can interact with. Again, UM has a very rich body of students and comprehensive courses to offer, so these fit our foreign students very well.

At the moment they’re mostly from the Portuguese-speaking countries, but we expect to accept more exchange students worldwide once we have moved to Hengqin.

R: What’s the progress of having foreign institutes recognising the educational qualifications obtained in Macau? How important is it?

Mr Zhao: It’s very important for UM to offer degree programs that can be recognised by international bodies, because it can show that the quality of our programs are compatible with international standards and that our students are able to compete in the global job market. UM has been working very hard on that. For example the Faculty of Science and Technology is coming through the accreditation process with the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers and its next goal is to be accredited by the American Engineering Institution. Our business school is also working on the accreditation process. Perhaps some time next year the results will be known.

Actually, all our programs have already been recognised by the Portuguese, Taiwanese and Chinese authorities. We would like to keep expanding the network to [include] England, US and Australia so that our students can truly be global citizens who not only contribute to Macau, but can also work anywhere in the world.

We have an accreditation plan every five years. The Faculty of Law can only provide students fit for Macau. We are not going to train lawyers for Hong Kong, for example. For the education faculty, the target is also to produce high school teachers for Macau. That means the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences will be our next target to have its programs recognised by more organisations.

R: What is the latest progress report of construction of the Hengqin campus?

Mr Zhao: It’s moving very well. UM is the user and so we have collaborated and coordinated with the Macau Government and the building contractor and sub-contractors to make sure that they get the necessary information from us and build the campus for us. They have spent tremendous time and resources to guarantee the construction can be completed on time and its quality. UM really appreciates their efforts. We were told that the library, which is the major structure of the campus, has already been built up to the second or third floor now. We expect that most of the major construction can finish sometime next year.

R: Does UM want to keep the Macau campus for its own use after moving to Hengqin?

Mr Zhao: That will be my wish but I don’t think it can be fulfilled. The current plan is that we will give this campus back to the Macau Government, because this property belongs to them. We have talked to the government about us maybe using a certain portion, but I don’t think we can keep all of it. The majority of the functions of UM will be located in Hengqin. Let’s be fair, as we already have such a big and new campus. Many other cultural and educational activities can be held here for Macau people in the future and we do support that. I’m looking forward to the relocation, but it will be a very long process so we have to be very careful to make sure that everything runs smoothly.

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