University Town: Raising the research bar

In the middle of the Pearl River flowing through Guangzhou’s Panyu district lies the Xiaoguwei Island, a 43.2 sqkm parcel of land along with its south bank that is home to 12 universities. Known as “University Town”, the collection of campuses was designed and built in the early 2000s to spur research and innovation throughout the entire province. Today it is one of the “ten cores” of the Science and Technology Innovation Corridor (STIC), the blueprint for “China’s Silicon Valley” within the overall masterplan of the Greater Bay Area.

The tertiary-institution district owes its creation to the far-sighted planning ability of provincial leaders. By the end of the 1990s, they had realized that 20 years of breakneck growth under the Reform and Opening era were running out of steam. A mismatch had developed between the needs of Guangdong’s booming manufacturing industry and the skills of its labor force. The higher-education sector had lagged the pace of change: by 1998, only 81 out of every 1,000 candidates for College Entrance Examination were able to secure places in higher education, according to More university places needed to be created.

The mission to solve this quandary was unveiled in 2001, with a masterplan to build a dedicated area for a cluster of universities. Construction began a year later, with an audacious goal set by the Party Secretary at the time, Zhang Dejiang, to “build the nation’s first university town”.


It took just three years to get the doors open. In the autumn of 2004, some 40,000 students became the first batch to attend university in the new campuses of the initial 10 universities. There were 141 buildings altogether, with a total investment of 33 billion yuan. A decade later (in 2014), two more were added. They are:

UniversityNumber of studentsNumber of teaching staff
Sun Yat-sen University53,7894,028
South China University of Technology42,7203,188
Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine11,3701,373
South China Normal University25,6432,386
Guangdong University of Technology42,0005,200
Guangdong University of Foreign Studies19,7041,325
Guangdong Pharmaceutical University2,20001,410
Xinghai Conservatory of Music  4,818738
Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts5,351530
Guangzhou University29,7882,856
Jinan University40,0292499
Guangzhou Medical University11,0001,463

Of them, the Sun Yat-sen University is regarded as one of the top universities in China, ranks 38th in Asia and among 251-300th globally by Time Higher Education magazine. It is followed by the South China University of Technology ranking among 501-600th, while two other –Guangdong University of Technology and Jinan University – both rank among 801-1000th in 2020. The rest, however, were not included in the widely-observed ranking.

Sun Yat-sen University’s campus in the University Town. Photo: Official Website

None of these universities were new; the project simply collected them from across the city and the province, and clustered them together in a new location. But they were now significantly larger and able to accommodate more students. This was to varying degrees: The South China University of Technology almost doubled its size, with the new campus’s land plot as large as its old one; the Xinghai Conservatory of Music expanded to around seven times the size of its original campus.

The point was not only to make them bigger, but also to make them better. Close proximity was seen as enabling easier collaboration and sharing of resources. “The Guangzhou University Town has allowed the universities to complement others’ advantages, realized resource sharing as well as interdisciplinarity,” said He Jingtang, head of the architecture program at South China University of Technology as well as one of the architects of the project. He dubbed it as “one of the most successful cases of a university cluster in China”.

The numbers are impressive. Since it began operations, some 600,000 students have graduated from University Town and been absorbed into the provincial labor market, as reported by Nanfang Daily.

Those numbers have been accelerating since the district was expanded five years ago, adding 47,000 student places at the two additional universities – Jinan University and Guangzhou Medical University – as well as a new campus for the existing South China University of Technology.

South China University of Technology. Photo: official website

A key feature of the expanded district is the open style adopted in the new campuses. There are no areas out of bounds to the public – an arrangement rarely adopted in traditional Chinese universities. The aim has been to facilitate the cooperation between universities and industries, by following the examples of Yale University and Columbia University in the US, Guangzhou Daily reported.

The town is also home to a number of advanced research institutes. One of the most high-profile is the Guangzhou branch of the National Supercomputer Centre, a project jointly sponsored by the provincial government, National University of Defense Technology and Sun Yat-sen University (SYSU) with a total investment of 2.5 billion yuan.

The platform, located in the main campus of SYSU, was designed to provide high-performance computing services for science and technology development and to attract high-end industries and talent. It is expected to power the construction of “smart cities” through the industrial upgrading of traditional manufacturers throughout the province.

According to Lu Yutong, the director of the National Supercomputer Centre in Guangzhou, Tianhe-2, the supercomputer system developed by a team of 1,300 scientists and engineers, has more than 3,500 users, making it one of the most-used in the world.

With some 200,000 teachers and students studying and working in the University Town, including more than 2,000 from Hong Kong and Macau, using the town’s resources to boost entrepreneurship has been a key priority for the government. According to He Rucheng, Party Secretary of Panyu, more than 400 startups have been spawned by the University Town, and the district government has awarded 430 million yuan in subsidies to these over the past two years.

The latest project set up by the city government, designed to provide support in scientific research and funds for graduates from University Town who aspire to start their own businesses, was announced by He in December. The so-called “GBA youth innovation and entrepreneurship town” is expected to integrate resources from other industrial parks and business hubs in Guangzhou, including the Guangzhou South Railway Station Area, which is being developed as the province’s first trillion-yuan development zone.


Additional reading links:

Sun Yat-sen University

South China University of Technology

Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine

South China Normal University

Guangdong University of Technology

Guangdong University of Foreign Studies

Guangdong Pharmaceutical University

Xinghai Conservatory of Music

Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts

Guangzhou University

Jinan University

Guangzhou Medical University

Tell us what you think