From a Scientist to an Educator Rector Yonghua Song’s Philosophy of Education

Chinese│Ella Cheong
Translation│Ruby Chen
Photo│Jack Ho

Prof Yonghua Song is a scientist by training and an electrical engineer by profession. Yet he feels called to a different and higher mission: to turn out identifiable talent for the country and a better world. This higher purpose now defines his life. To his scientific mind, his pre-UM personal story is divided into three stages: schooling, going abroad, and returning home. On 9 January 2018, the day he took over as UM’s new rector, the fourth stage of his life began. Henceforth he will call upon his past experience and every fiber of his being to lead this university to its destiny. To him, the rectorship is not simply a job; it is a mission which he was born to fulfill. His actions and words demonstrate that he is ready for the challenge.

A Boy from the Village

Born in January 1964 in a dirt-poor village in Bazhong city, Sichuan province, Rector Song, along with his family, saw learning as the only ticket out of their inter-generational poverty. His parents, by the sweat of their brow, did the impossible–they put him through college. His mother proudly remembers the day when he started school at the age of six, then unheard of in their village. Soon, he became a famous bookworm. He devoured books. He digested what he read. He had no time for anything else.

Rector Yonghua Song

Later in life, in media interviews, he would tell the world that the hardships of the hills taught him never to stop trying to better his life, that no difficulties are insurmountable, and that success comes one small step at a time. By age 16, his hard work had paid off; Song made it past the gates of Chengdu University of Science and Technology. By 1989, he earned his PhD from the China Electric Power Research Institute, becoming the first person in his village to hold a doctoral degree. Two years later, another PhD degree followed, this time from the nation’s top-ranked Tsinghua University. Song was flying high. Then something happened that was entirely serendipitous. In 1989, he presented an article at an international academic conference in Beijing. It ignited the interest of certain scholars in attendance. Two years later, they invited him to the United Kingdom to deliver a series of lectures. That accidental opportunity proved a turning point in life. Thus began the second stage of his life.

Getting Acclimatised to a New Environment

Song was to spend more than a decade in the UK. Those ten years saw the full flowering of his professional career; he came to the attention of academia and industry alike. His career, however, did not take the conventional route favoured by Chinese students who studied overseas and who usually sought gainful employment upon graduation. In Song’s case, he began as a visiting scholar of the Royal Society at the University of Bristol. From that tentative position, he managed to secure concurrent appointments in teaching and research at several universities. He soon graduated to administrative and managerial roles. But it was not all roses and sunshine, as he recalled in a later article describing those bittersweettimes. ‘When I arrived in the UK, culture shock hit me hard,’ he said in the article. ‘All alone in a new country, I found myself surrounded by total strangers. Nothing came easy. But I realised that attitude was everything. I stayed upbeat and positive. In my early days in the UK, the only avenue open to me were some academic exchange activities where I introduced my research work in China to local scholars. Only later was I able to do research and teaching at local universities.’

Looking back on that chapter of his life, Rector Song says, ‘No matter where you are or what job you do, you should try your best to integrate into the local society. You must not be removed from reality or be trapped in your own subjectivity. Instead, you must try to see the world from the local point of view and melt into the local community. Don’t wait for the world to come to you.’ He likes to say: ‘If you do not integrate, you cannot operate.’ He is a man who obviously practices what he preaches. At UM, no sooner had he warmed his seat than he began calling on government departments and representatives from all walks of life to solicit their suggestions for a better UM. Within a few short months, in June 2018, he was elected the first president and spokesperson for an alliance dedicated to training bilingual professionals in Chinese and Portuguese, an election that spells implicit trust in the new leader.

Left: A group photo of Yonghua Song (middle), executive vice president of Zhejiang University and founding dean of the university’s International Campus, with management personnel of the International Campus.
Middle: Yonghua Song as the vice president of Brunel University, with the university’s president
Right: Yonghua Song as the vice president of the University of Liverpool, with the university’s president

The First Chinese Pro-Vice-Chancellor of a British University

A perfectionist, Rector Song is like the late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who was famous for saying that ‘I have a very simple taste. I only want the best.’ Success, however, takes know-how and hard work. But he was prepared to be the best. When in 1997 he was appointed professor of electronic and computer engineering by Brunel University, he was only 33 years old, becoming the youngest Chinese professor of engineering in British history. Better things were to follow. In 2004, he was elected fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, another unprecedented honour for an expatriate scholar. That same year, he was appointed pro-vice-chancellor for graduate studies at Brunel University, the highest post ever occupied by a Chinese academic. It was the exclamation point of his career in the UK. In 2007, the University of Liverpool lured him away to serve as pro-vice-chancellor and cross-appointed him as the executive vice president of Xi’an Jiatong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China. In his own discipline, Rector Song’s research in electrical power systems, specifically in energy, information, and control engineering, has promoted the development of the electric power industry. The research team he led has yielded fruitful results which have been adopted and applied by such industrial powerhouses as the National Grid UK, and Siemens. He became such an authority on the subject that the governments of Russia, Italy, Czech Republic, and Australia have all consulted him when constructing electric grids in their countries.

Looking back, Rector Songs says, ‘Those years in the senior management at British universities gave me an overview and insights into the workings of higher education and how British universities nurture talent. I began to think how universities in and out of China can benefit from these insights to produce high-calibre graduates. Those years afforded me an opportunity to reflect on higher education and gain practical experience, experience which I hope to draw on in making a contribution to higher education in China.’

A Talented Professor Returns Home and Turns Talent Hunter

The year 2009 ushered in the third stage of Rector Song’s life when he was invited to return to China to serve as a professor of electrical engineering at Tsinghua University, and more importantly as the director of an office in charge of recruiting talented people from overseas. In 2012, he became the executive vice president of Zhejiang University and the founding dean of its International Campus, responsible for formulating growth strategies and spearheading the internationalisation of the university, as well as recruiting talented people. Since returning to China, Song has been the driving force in promoting international education and exchange. He has built a network of relationships with many universities in the UK, Europe, the United States, and of course mainland China itself.

Rector Yonghua Song chats with the students

Why did Song choose to return to China? This is a question that has been put to him many times during media interviews. The reasons are numerous, the most important being the love of teaching. ‘During my years in the UK, I never gave up teaching. I also have an intimate knowledge of how innovative people are nurtured and I hope to help my country create more high-calibre professionals,’ he says.

No Stranger to Macao

There is great clarity in how he sees the challenge before him. ‘Both mainland and Macao are experiencing rapid economic growth. This calls for talented people in various fields who love their homeland, who are innovative, globally competitive and well-versed in cross-cultural communication,’ he says. ‘We need people who possess these qualities and skills to move our society forward. I hope UM will become a magnet for talent. I will tap my many years of managerial experience in higher education to meet this challenge. No stone will be unturned in serving my country and Macao.’

University Council Chair Dr Lam Kam Seng (middle) officiates at the inauguration ceremony for Rector Song Yonghua Song (right)

Rector Song spells out the reasons for joining UM. He says, ‘First, UM is the only public comprehensive university in the Macao SAR backed by the Macao SAR government and the community at large. Second, its strategic geographical location in the Pearl River Delta region and the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area turns it into a cornucopia of opportunity for the university. Third, UM is an international university with an international governance model, staffed by an international faculty team dedicated to innovative education, with ample resources, to make rapid progress in teaching and research possible. Fourth, UM has a well-defined vision and mission I can totally embrace. Finally, my connections with Macao go back a long way. As far back as 2002, I was already serving as an advisor to the Science and Technology Committee of the Macao SAR government. Something else tugs at my heartstrings. The primary school I attended in my hometown in Sichuan province was destroyed by the big earthquake of 2008. The school was later re-built with the money donated by Macao residents. Macao was therefore more than just a name. I had fond feelings for her long before I even set foot here. I’ve always wanted to do something for Macao in return.’

Taking Higher Education to New Level

During his first year in office, Rector Song has proved his mettle as an education leader. He says, ‘I am proud of what UM has achieved in teaching and research. I am also very proud of its faculty-based system and the residential colleges to turn out well-rounded students, but we cannot afford to rest on our laurels.’ Going forward, Rector Song believes that a strategic vision society supports is critical to greater success. He believes that this university is destined to greater heights, and Song has the blueprint to take us there. In it, he focuses on four key aspects: (1) fine-tuning our education model to nurture talented students at different levels and in different fields; (2) creating a work environment with harmony at its heart to maximise employee productivity and creativity; (3) turbo-charging collaboration in research to output, innovativeness and social impact; and (4) putting community service high on our agenda and building a better platform to make it happen so as to promote the socioeconomic development of the Macao society.

After assuming office as UM’s new rector, Prof Yonghua Song visited various organisa¬tions in Macao in an effort to strengthen UM’s ties with the local community and listen to comments and suggestions from different sectors of society.

To Rector Song’s way of thinking, whether a university becomes truly first-class ultimately depends not only on whether it can attract the best scholars and students, but also on whether it can create a positive impact on the local and international communities. UM’s vision is kaleidoscopic: meeting the needs of the rapidly-developing Macao society, offering top-quality education, carrying out innovative research, serving the local community, and becoming a truly international institution.

Rector Yonghua Song (middle) and Vice Rector (Global Affairs) Rui Martins(2nd from right) visit the Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Technology and Innovation of Angola

To the question ‘What kind of graduates do we want to produce?’ his answer is simple: They must, first and foremost, be able to meet the needs of the local community. Their heart must inhabit the homeland, but their mind must be globally guided. They must be internationally competitive, intellectually critical and creative and yet socially responsible. In a nutshell, we want to produce future leaders and global citizens.’ Rector Song himself embodies these attributes, with a wealth of experience at high levels in higher education, at home and abroad. He is poised to take the university to a place it has never been. He is acutely aware of the high expectations of our governments, both local and central, and fully feels the weight of responsibility on his shoulders. But here is a leader who is equal to the task, in aptitude and attitude, in determination and sense of destiny.

The year 2019 will mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China and the 20th anniversary of Macao’s return to the motherland. To mark both milestones, Rector Song says UM will organise a series of events to take stock of the past, showcase its current achievements, and plan for a future where the university can make a greater contribution to Macao and China.

ISSUE 19 | 2018

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