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A new private university in China aiming to be among the world’s best within 15 years is seen by experts as a potential key step in the nation’s higher education development, if it is allowed greater autonomy than state institutions.

Westlake University in Hangzhou, which has just been given approval by the Chinese Ministry of Education, will “prioritize research areas in natural science, medical science and advanced technology,” state news agency Xinhua reported.

The project, led by biophysicist Shi Yigong, a former Princeton University professor and Tsinghua University vice president, was first proposed in 2015. Although it admitted its first batch of 19 students in autumn 2017, it was classified as a research institute -- under the name Westlake Institute of Advanced Study -- until being approved by the ministry as a university in March.

The nonprofit institution, initially for doctoral students only, is expected to grow to 5,000 students once undergraduates are admitted. It is said to have held “global recruitment drives” to attract academics.

Shi, expected to be the university’s first president, was quoted by The South China Morning Post as having said in a December speech that, within 15 years, “every indicator of our university will be on a par with that of Caltech.” The institution “will be regarded as one of the best universities not just in Asia but around the world,” he added.

Ka Ho Mok, vice president of Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, said that Westlake’s success would depend not only on funding support and the backing of local and national government, but also on “how the university is governed and managed.”

Mok said if Westlake could follow “the governance model of private universities in the West, given more institutional autonomy in running its programs and [if] the governance structure is different from state universities, it may become more autonomous and flexible in university governance.”

While the Chinese government might be “piloting a new form of governance through this project,” it will be key to observe “how this university is governed in future,” he said.

Autonomy from government is often seen as key to the success of the world’s leading universities and higher education systems.

The Hangzhou government injected 400 million renminbi ($64 million) into the proposed university last year, according to the Morning Post. The university also has significant backing from Chinese entrepreneurs, with the founders of technology giant Tencent and the chairman of property developer and cinema chain Wanda Group among those to donate to the institution.

The institution takes its name from Hangzhou’s West Lake, a major tourist destination in the city of about nine million inhabitants, located about 100 miles from Shanghai.

Philip Altbach, founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College (and a blogger for Inside Higher Ed), highlighted the “amazingly optimistic” timescale for Westlake’s ambitions.

It is “somewhat hard to believe that the Chinese government, particularly in the current environment, would permit real autonomy,” he added.

“It is certainly the case that a science and technology institution would not have quite the same issues about academic freedom and free access to resources that comprehensive universities would have,” Altbach continued. “However, it should be noted that the best science and technology universities worldwide -- such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and many others -- also have pretty strong social science and humanities faculties.”

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