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Chinese Universities Chip In To Narrow Semiconductor Talent Gap


Semiconductor chips are at the crux of the US-China technology competition, and export controls from the ongoing trade war have impeded China’s semiconductor ambitions. Among other measures, China has been establishing integrated circuit schools, microelectronic colleges, and related programs to train qualified candidates for the semiconductor industry, all of which are backed by national domestic policy efforts. However, the efficacy of these initiatives to meaningfully contribute to China's long-term self-sufficiency efforts is yet to be proven.

Semiconductor chips, or integrated circuits (“IC”), are pivotal technology building blocks used in computers, smartphones, medical equipment, vehicles, and more. Given the importance of the technology, China views domestic IC production capabilities as critical to its economy and national security, not only spotlighting chips as one of the seven critical strategic domains in its recent Five-Year Plan but also aiming to produce 70% of its chips domestically by 2025. However, IC supply chains are global and complex, requiring highly technical expertise along each manufacturing step, which China lacks in many regards. Exacerbated by a global chip shortage and US-China technology competition, China has significant IC troubles. 

Domestic talent remains a major issue for China’s IC industry. The China Semiconductor Industry Association estimates China’s talent gap at approximately 300,000 individuals, hindering significant advancements in the field. While China has explored various solutions to this problem, including poaching experts from Taiwan, these efforts have proved insufficient. Without the personnel, China cannot achieve its IC ambitions. To address this “bottleneck,” China is looking inwards at the next generation of talent: its students.

China has recently launched domestic initiatives to train the next generation of semiconductor professionals. In the past year, prestigious Chinese universities such as Tsinghua, Peking, and Fudan, among others, have announced plans for various types of IC programming programs. This IC educational roll-out is reinforced by overwhelming policy support from the central government. However, while China shows an unwavering commitment to cultivate its talent, whether such developments can actually fill its domestic pool is yet to be seen.

Policy Dive

What’s the Big Deal With Microelectronics?

Microelectronics is a field within electronics that focuses on the research and manufacturing of small-scale electronic technologies, such as integrated circuits. Since 2015, China has accelerated the development of national-model microelectronics colleges charged with cultivating desperately needed talent for the IC industry. 

In July of the same year, China’s Ministry of Education and six additional departments supported the launch of national-model microelectronics universities across the nation to train engineers in integrated circuit design, manufacturing, packaging and testing as well as integrated circuit equipment and materials at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. Within the total of 26 educational institutions listed, nine of China’s more prominent institutions such as Peking University and Tsinghua University constructed national-model microelectronics universities while 17 comparatively lesser-known institutions such Dalian University of Technology and Fuzhou University carried out developmental plans for similar efforts. Through training engineering talent in IC-related fields, these colleges can provide the necessary foundation for sustainable future growth in the industry. 

Microelectronics universities can be understood as a precursor or platform for future IC schools and dedicated programs. For example, Tsinghua University’s newly established IC school is based on Tsinghua’s Department of Microelectronics and Nanoelectronics as well as the Department of Electronic Engineering. The Dean of Fudan University’s School of Microelectronics played a crucial role in bringing the school’s IC science and engineering pilot program to fruition. Even Beihang University changed the official title of its microelectronics school in 2020 to the “School of Integrated Circuit Science and Engineering,” later establishing the study of the same name to a first-class discipline at the college. As these Chinese microelectronics universities garner success, future schools could follow in the footsteps of China’s more prestigious universities, launching IC schools and disciplines in support of targeted semiconductor efforts. 

Raising the Bar: “First-Class“ Disciplines

Under the Ministry of Education’s Discipline Catalog for Degree Awards and Talent Cultivation, China’s postgraduate education system is typically separated into three components: a subject category, first-class discipline, and second-class discipline. While the 14 total subject categories such as philosophy, economics, and law present broader groupings, China’s 112 first-class disciplines represent branches within these specified categories. A nationally recognized first-class discipline in education reflects the country’s growing commitment to a specified subject matter, providing Chinese universities and colleges with a framework to develop curricula, train professors, and recruit students with support from the central government given its prevalence to China’s larger economic and societal development.  

The revision of first-class disciplines to include IC-related studies, among other topics, demonstrates China’s strategy to count on educational institutions as a valid source of talent cultivation amidst urgency for top semiconductor professionals. On December 30, 2020, the State Council’s Academic Degree Committee and China’s Ministry of Education announced “Interdisciplinary Studies” as the 14th subject category for postgraduate programs, elevating both the “Integrated Circuit Science and Engineering” and “National Security Studies” to first-class disciplines. In terms of Integrated Circuit Science and Engineering, the policy encourages universities to build IC programs and cultivate domestic talent for the country’s self-sufficiency goals, addressing the shortage of talent within the industry. Further, the new field allows students to specialize in integrated circuits, an option that previously was not widely available. With this upgraded status, China will likely witness more IC majors following the construction and establishment of university programs, even if the school is not specifically established for integrated circuit education.

Chinese officials and scholars have advocated for adjusting first-class disciplines on several fronts to meet the IC industry’s needs. In 2018 during China’s inaugural Integrated Circuit Industry Development Strategy Forum in the New Era, Academic of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Professor at Peking University Wang Yangyuan and additional Chinese scholars proposed elevating microelectronics to a first-class discipline. While microelectronics is currently designated as a second-class discipline, lobbying efforts were successfully shifted towards integrated circuits. As such, in October 2019, China’s Ministry of Information Technology and Ministry of Education responded to a Thirteenth National Committee Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference proposal, announcing efforts to increase IC personnel, establish IC as a first-class discipline, and further support national-model microelectronics universities. Efforts such as these proved fundamental in reaching the ears of China’s top legislative bodies, resulting in the official establishment of IC studies as a top discipline in 2020. 

How Will China Integrate Industry With Education?

China’s recent policy initiatives further encourage industry players to reinforce domestic IC educational programs. In August 2020, China’s State Council released policy guidelines aimed at bolstering the development of the integrated circuit and software industry. A subsection within the circular outlined talent cultivation as a focal point, notably calling for increased IC and software majors in Chinese universities, accelerated advancements of IC disciplines, expanded laboratories and training bases, and adapted teaching curricula to meet China’s industry needs. In addition, qualified universities have since been encouraged to collaborate with semiconductor companies to formulate integrated programs, allowing companies to benefit from economic incentives if certain requirements are met. Drawing on the practical expertise of seasoned private companies, higher education institutions can ideally mold their programs to benefit both students and the larger IC industry. 

This call for collaboration between the IC industry and schools is echoed through domestic conferences. For example, on May 15, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s (MIIT) Talent Exchange Center and the China Higher Education Association’s Industry-Education Integration Research Branch co-sponsored the 2021 National IC Integration of Industry and Education Forum. The forum, organized at Chongqing’s Xiyong Microelectronics Industrial Park, gathered upwards of 200 Chinese private sector and academic representatives to explore avenues for collaboration and talent cultivation. Notably, in his remarks, deputy director of the MIIT’s Talent Exchange Center Li Ning emphasized the forum’s goal of bridging China’s IC industry and education fields, ultimately helping schools grasp the urgent needs of Integrated circuit companies, adjust talent training strategies, and transfer scientific research achievements towards the IC industry. China seems to recognize that building effective educational IC programs requires active input from industry leaders, ensuring curricula and teaching methods evolve in tandem with a highly dynamic technology sector. 

Which Notable IC Programs Are There?

Since 2020, China’s more prestigious universities and colleges have joined the national effort to develop talent for the integrated circuit industry. These initiatives come in all shapes and sizes, from launching undergraduate IC programs to developing programs for IC science and engineering as first-class disciplines.

Tsinghua University

Tsinghua University, one of China’s most prestigious schools, embarked on this journey of educational IC programs. On April 22, 2021, Tsinghua University established the “School of Integrated Circuits” to address the country’s talent deficit in IC fields, aiming to bring a world-class curriculum in semiconductor courses. The school aims to train technicians and researchers pivotal to the field in a long-term investment in its students. As is expected in renowned educational institutions, the school additionally plans to invite seasoned experts to provide lectures to its students in hopes of increasing real-life interdisciplinary applications. Wu Huaqiang, Chair of the Microelectronics and Nanoelectronics Department and Director of the Institute of Microelectronics at Tsinghua, will serve as the school’s inaugural dean.

Reportedly, Tsinghua University is a notable institution in training IC professionals. Since the school first established a semiconductor major in 1956, Tsinghua University has produced upwards of 4,000 undergraduates, 3,000 graduates, and 500 doctoral students in the IC field. In recent years between 2016 and 2020, approximately 70 percent of graduates entered the IC industry and scientific research fields. With the new School of Integrated Circuits, this number will likely increase, continuously attracting talent to serve the country’s strategic interests. Precisely, in remarks at the school’s opening ceremony, Tsinghua University President Qiu Yong called on national sentiment, emphasizing the school’s duty to serve the country in developing a self-reliant IC industry. 

Fudan University 

Fudan University, which already had a history of microelectronics and engineering programs, established a pilot program for Integrated Circuits and Engineering as a first-class discipline in early 2020. The curriculum hinges on integrated circuits as the primary object of research, tackling issues within the industry through both an application-based and strategic discipline. According to Fudan University’s School of Microelectronics Dean Zhang Wei, a pivotal player in the development of the recently constructed first-class discipline, the program will not only boost Shanghai’s local innovation centers but also develop the national integrated circuit industry. 

Peking University

While Peking University is comparatively lagging, the school is making similar advancements. In October 2020, the school held a closed-door event with Chinese academics and private sector representatives following the addition of Integrated Circuit Science and Engineering as a first-class discipline. In the meeting, Peking University Executive Vice President Gong Qihuang solicited advice from experts for the formal construction of a top integrated circuit science and engineering program for graduate and doctoral students while additional Peking representatives presented models and suggestions for the program. While the plans are still in infancy, a successful program could yield results in the larger IC ecosystem given Peking University’s standing in the Chinese education system.

Nanjing Integrated Circuit University 

The Nanjing Integrated Circuit University differs greatly from traditional higher education programs in China. The school, which was established on October 22, 2020, is not under the purview of China’s Ministry of Education or provincial and municipal level organizations; rather, the school is organized by the Nanjing Jiangbei New District management committee to address the needs of local industry development, notably located in the region’s national-level special economic zone established in 2015. As such, the program aims to supplement China’s existing university programs and provide an additional scouting source for IC companies, serving as a “talent training organization” wherein students graduate with certificates as opposed to degree diplomas and teachers are senior-level corporate engineers as opposed to traditionally trained educators.

What Lies Ahead for IC Schools?

Through the founding of chip schools and integrated circuit science and engineering programs, China shows an undoubted commitment to look inward and invest in the next generation of talent. While one school or program may appear inconsequential, China’s aggressive policies and central support will likely culminate in the expansion of IC-related programs, conceivably addressing the critical need for domestic talent and alleviating the “bottleneck” restricting a flourishing semiconductor industry. 

However, Chinese industry experts and academics worry these IC programs face several roadblocks. Reportedly, current teaching materials are outdated; textbooks detail micrometer manufacturing processes while the cutting-edge technology has already reached the nanometer level. Further, many professors do not have sufficient interaction with industry professionals or are restricted by private companies’ intellectual property rights to access the latest expert knowledge. Additionally, the majority of schools are unable to acquire and maintain high-cost experimental production lines to shift from theory to practice. These are a few of the many practical challenges China’s IC programs must overcome to train the next generation of seasoned semiconductor experts. 

Admittedly, betting on the future generation is a long-term investment. However, even though China may need to bide its time to witness substantial results, the country has yet to take its foot off the gas. As suggested by CPPCC Committee Member and former Institute of Microelectronics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Deputy Director Zhou Yumei during China’s Two Sessions in March 2021, the journey for professionals in the IC industry is an arduous one, and China hopes promising students can become a key pathway toward significant breakthroughs in the industry. China is committed for the long run, and the next generation, propelled by the momentum of national efforts to close the talent gap, could prove instrumental in pushing the country towards the finish line.

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