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Shantou University, founded in 1981 with the approval of the National State Council, is a comprehensive university under the jurisdiction of the Guangdong Province and co-developed by the Ministry of Education, the Guangdong Provincial Government and the Li Ka Shing Foundation. STU is the first Demonstration University for Institutional Reform in Guangdong and the only public university in the world that constantly subsidized by a private foundation, namely the Li Ka Shing Foundation. Currently, the campus covers a total area of 1,889.28 mu and a total built area of 566,000 square meters.

Since its inception, Shantou University has been strongly supported by the Central, Provincial and Municipal authorities. In 1986, Comrade Deng Xiaoping received Mr. Li Ka-shing in Beijing and suggested that the University be more open to the outside world and dare to take unconventional measures, thereby gradually developing into a key university in China. Comrades Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and other leaders of the Central Government also graced the University with their visitations. In September, 2010, Comrade Hu Jintao met with Mr. Li Ka-shing in Shenzhen and showed his care and concern about STU's development. The Ministry of Education, the Guangdong Provincial Party Committee and Provincial Government also attach great importance to the ongoing educational reform and development at STU. In March 2011, the University's proposed program to transform itself into a self-governing institution of higher education was designated by the Guangdong provincial government as the "Guangdong Pilot Project of Comprehensive Educational Reform". In June 2012, the Ministry of Education, the Guangdong Provincial Government and the Li Ka Shing Foundation signed a tripartite agreement to co-develop STU and support its educational reform. In September 2013, Shantou University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology signed the memorandum of understanding for the establishment of the Guangdong Technion Israel Institute of Technology (GTIIT). It represents unprecedented cooperation between the People's Government of Guangdong Province and Shantou Municipal Government, Technion and STU, and provides a vital development opportunity for STU. On December 5, 2016, the MOE approved the formal establishment of GTIIT. On November 4, 2018, STU was approved as the first Demonstration University for Institutional Reform in Guangdong, aiming to seek a path of higher education institutional reform and innovation that is replicable and applicable.

The construction and development of Shantou University receives generous support from Mr. Li Ka-shing, the distinguished philanthropist and international entrepreneur. Li Ka Shing Foundation has earmarked grants of over HK$10 billion in addition to human and other resources to support the University, which is one of the core projects of the Foundation as well as a platform for promoting educational reform in Chinese universities. Mr. Li Ka-shing values and implements the idea of "good governance in support of academic freedom". Based on its comprehensive reforms, STU strives to create more freedom for scholars as well as to encourage creative thinking and innovative research for the long-term.

Keeping abreast of the educational development trend of the country, and continuing to play the role of "a pilot site for higher educational reform", Shantou University embarks on a series of comprehensive educational reforms that focus on the "Advanced Undergraduate Education based on Integrative Thinking". Through these reforms, the University is striving hard to become a top-tier research university that breaks development barriers between disciplines of Liberal Arts, Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, optimizing interdisciplinary collaboration and integration.