Academics: would you teach in China?

Jul 22, 2014 by

Opportunities to work in China are growing, but expect to adapt your approach to teaching and research

China’s young people are hungry for degrees. The number moving to the UK to study has grown year-on-year since 2008, with the country counting as the biggest source of international students. Meanwhile UK institutions are opening branch campuses across China, driving a quarter of such international provision. Many home institutions have also begun offering courses in English and are recruiting UK academics to teach. But what challenges face academics who move to work in China?

When Simon Harrison joined the English department at Nottingham University’s Ningbo branch – the first UK campus to open in China – he found that adapting his teaching style was essential if he hoped to engage students.

“If you just come here and you expect to teach like you teach to students in England, then yes, you will think they don’t give their opinions, that they don’t like talking,” he explains. “Actually there is some really good teaching going on here, and those classrooms are as lively as classes back in the UK.”

Odette Paramor, who has been teaching marine biology at Ningbo since 2010, agrees: “The classic stereotype of Chinese students is that they do lots of rote learning and that they are less good at lateral thinking and making arguments, and we have to train them up so that they feel confident doing that – even in another language. That’s quite tricky.”

For Simon, observing other academics was invaluable – so too was learning about cultural dos and don’ts. Just as in the UK we often accept or decline out of politeness, the Chinese say yes or no in ways that an outsider might not understand. Such cultural factors make teaching Chinese students more challenging, says Harrison. He recommends a feature by Hong Kong-based academic Ringo Ma that explains the Chinese customs for saying yes and no.

Making examples relevant is also critical, he adds. “They need to switch their citations from texts by European authors to ones by Chinese authors, and their social media references from western ones, such as Twitter, Facebook or YouTube, to their Chinese equivalents Weibo, WeChat and Youku.”

The teaching provided by UK institutions is certainly proving popular. Liverpool University’s branch campus in Suzhou opened in 2006 with just 164 students – today it has 6,800 and it is aiming to double that figure in its 2015-16 intake. Likewise, Nottingham, which opened 10 years ago now caters for 6,300 students, with plans to increase that to 8,000 over the next few years.

Harrison believes that academics who have experience of teaching in China are likely to be valued by institutions back home. “All universities who want to attract Chinese students or maybe even establish institutes in China will be looking for people like us who have experience of working over here.

“We’ll have the cultural background and I think it would be a great plus to learn the language as well – if you can speak Chinese and then go back to a British university, then you could be in charge of liaising with the students or in creating exchanges. That’s my ambition. I don’t want to leave here until I’ve learnt Chinese properly.”

But while there are plenty of opportunities in China, Dr Raymond Cairo, who teaches business management at Surrey University’s branch campus in Dalian, warns that academics think carefully. “If your research is centred on China then great, this is the place to be, but if it isn’t you should think carefully before you make the move because the internet here isn’t that great and physical libraries out here aren’t that great. In other parts of the world the libraries are far more developed.”

Accessing research funding can also be difficult, adds Paramor: “In terms of setting up a career here one of the big issues for an international member of staff is trying to get research off the ground, that is extremely difficult. I’ve had bits and pieces of funding but most of it’s international funding.”

Applying to Chinese funding bodies is very different from applying to western grantmakers. When you write the supporting text it has to be balanced between Chinese and international research – you can’t just push the international side of things. And it has to be written in perfect Chinese.

It is also very important to look at who’s reviewing your application. In China it is good manners to cite the reviewer’s work in your application – which again is very different from the UK. And it is considered “bad manners” to promote yourself. “You’ve got to be humble and yet show that you are very capable of doing the research,” Paramor says.

Guanxi – which roughly translates to a network of personal contacts – is also very important for funding. “You’ve got to have contacts,” says Paramor. “So for a new person coming in that’s quite tricky. If you are affiliated to a big university or a very senior academic who’s got Guanxi then it’s fine, but if you are an international person coming here without having that support network, then it’s really very difficult. It’s difficult for a Chinese person who changes province as well – if they don’t have Guanxi in a province they will find it hard as well.”

China is developing rapidly and some are concerned that the demand for UK institutions could tail off in the next few years, but Surrey University’s pro vice-chancellor Vince Emery doesn’t see China closing it’s door to British academics any time soon. “I think everyone feels that at some stage China will have sufficient quality personnel to be able to be self-sufficient and not need so many overseas institutes but I suspect that they will still see foreign engagement as an important plank of what they do.”

He adds: “I think the model might change a bit and they might become much more of an equal partnership but they have a very international view on things and I don’t think they are going to close their borders and say ‘thank you very much we are now self-sufficient.'”

via Academics: would you teach in China? | Higher Education Network | Guardian Professional.

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