Thoughts on Suzhou, China

Twenty years a pilgrim,

Footing east, west.

Back in Seiken,

I’ve not moved an inch.

SEIKEN-CHIJU

 

A week in Suzhou, China, can really only begin to give you limited insight into such a complex culture and people. I’ve been working as an external examiner, along with 18 other staff from across the UK HE sector at XJTLU, Liverpool University’s English medium campus in Suzhou, now in its tenth year. Located in University Town alongside 42 other universities and next to an industrial park, its north campus consists of a rectangle of huge modern buildings. I’m surprised by the scale of things here (Suzhou is a small city of only 12 million inhabitants).

The campus is deserted, as students are off for the summer and there are very few staff about, so I don’t get to speak to many of them, but do manage to get enough together for a CPD session one afternoon. I’m working with their language centre and part of the reason I’m here is to try and encourage a more discipline-based approach to their work. Given there are well over 5,000 students and 150 teachers alone in the language centre, and a lot more besides, they’ve got their work cut out. There are already joint language and discipline-based programmes, which seems a good way to go, but the bulk of the language teaching is in the English for Academic purposes mold.

We talk about the students, what they say about the courses, what teaching staff think about what they say, and the views of academics in the disciplines. Thematically, it’s no different from what you’d hear in the UK. Students don’t see the relevance of the EAP courses, which is fairly predictable. Staff say students aren’t very engaged with learning English and do very little in English outside the class, presumably as the rest of their lives are in Chinese. Attendance is a problem, there’s no central attendance policy or requirement, and when assessments bunch, students prioritise. What staff noticed were two ends of a spectrum: that the high achieving students do the maths on their assessments and once they’ve got the grades they stop attending; at the other end, students who are struggling stop attending as they can’t mange their workloads, inevitably making their workloads greater in the long run.

Collaborations with academic staff are few and far between, with small pockets happening among willing staff. The reasons given are also what you’d expect: not enough time because of workloads, prioritizing research and it’s not their job. These were the views of the language teaching staff about academics, as I didn’t get to speak to any staff from the disciplines. It was also the case that for many of the language teachers, they were happy teaching EAP and not that willing to change their approaches.

I sympathise, but think that more collaboration would make life easier in the long run, as it would open up possibilities of more targeted language development work. In turn, this might help address the lack of engagement and attendance, as the proximity to their discipline is more explicit. All of this takes time and work, and whether you would be able to demonstrate clear benefits to the students’ disciplinary learning would require thoughtful evaluations. But I’d say it’s worth it. I’m certainly looking forward to coming again next year.