Thursday, 15 March 2018


Educators around the world are worried about the decline in students' handwriting. A recent article in the UK press can be found here. The rapid growth of digital media to record text is seemingly unstoppable. Many examination boards are looking at going online rather than continuing with the traditional pen and paper test in an exam hall.

In my own areas of interest, English language and literature, language testing in particular has been on the IT radar for some time. The Pearson Test of English (PTE) is considered a real alternative to IELTS and TOEFL, and for a while, we considered using it at KYUEM. Its main advantage is the speed of getting results (around two business days or fewer) while the fact that a computer is marking most of the content, reduces the potential negative subjectivity of a human assessor. By the way, the reason we didn't pursue things with PTE was nothing to do with the test itself. It was simply a matter of the UK government not recognising it for visa purposes.

Twenty or even ten years ago, it was quite possible to exist and indeed to thrive, while being computer illiterate. I recall a teacher, with whom I worked in the Middle East a couple of decades ago, proudly holding aloft his ancient fountain pen and announcing to us all: "This is my word processor!" I doubt he'd be able to get away with such a sentiment today. Computer literacy is an essential requirement of modern life and the ubiquitous mobile phone, with its reliance on such tools as WhatsApp is the equivalent of a latter day ball-point pen.

Traditionalists worry about the decline in literary standards resulting from the use of Twitter et al. They forget that in the past we happily used truncated utterances in telegrams. Even today, the strange convention of reducing text to its barest form exists in newspaper headlines, such as this from today's Daily Telegraph:


I'm sure this would make very little sense to a reader of ten or even five years ago.

I remain optimistic that quality written language will survive; there will always be a need for precise, well-crafted prose. My concern is the physical means of transcribing thoughts and speech. Is handwriting an endangered species and will Mont Blanc, Cross and Parker one day soon be seen as the graphological equivalents of Tyrannosaurus Rex, Diplodocus and the Pterodactyl?

Like many teachers, my own handwriting is pretty terrible; I write better on a chalk or whiteboard than I do with a pen on paper. My uncle was a highly regarded confectioner who could produce perfect copper plate script with an icing sugar bag on top of a wedding cake, but whose actual handwriting was dire. I would hate to see handwriting wither away. They used to say years ago that with the exponential growth of sophisticated calculators, there was no longer any need to learn multiplication tables, yet we still encourage kids to do so. Hopefully, there will always be a similar need for handwritten text.

For now at least, KYUEM students need to be able to write their answers on paper in AS and A2 examinations. Just like in my day, I see them emerging from the exam room massaging their fingers after two or more hours of intensive handwriting. Maybe it's actually harder for them today because unlike my generation, they lack the daily practice of physically writing things down. It's yet another good reason for making them do trial examinations, which is a good way for me to finish today. Next week we are on our mid-semester break, after which mock exams will be taken from March 26 until the end of the first week in April. So, I wish you a pleasant week with your sons and daughters. Send them back to us ready to do plenty of handwriting! I wish them all every success.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018


Regular readers of this blog will know that I have previously favoured the Guardian's UK university rankings over other, perhaps better-known guides. You can start to explore their current findings here.

As with most of these things, there are pluses and minuses. The more obvious negative comment of the Guardian site is that it restricts itself to UK universities. However, since the vast majority of KYUEM students are aiming to go to Britain, this doesn't matter much to us.

Conversely, I think there are several big pluses. Firstly, you are able to check out league tables by subject. This is very useful. Too many of the other sites just list universities according to overall international ranking, which is potentially misleading. A given institution might have quite a low general ranking but possess an individual course that is extremely highly regarded, internationally. I have been personally conscious of this since taking a Master's degree in the 1980s. At that time, the big concept in my subject, language teaching, was ESP. I am sad to say that this term does not refer to any form of clairvoyance or the supernatural, but is an abbreviation for the teaching of "English for Specific Purposes." There was a growing awareness that we should not always be teaching "General English," but specific varieties of it such as "English for Science & Technology," "Legal English," and so on. The British university that had made a big splash in the ESP field was Aston in Birmingham, which is where my Master's was taken. One of the ESP gurus at the time, was a guy called Professor John Swales, who was  eventually tempted by the bigger salaries in the US and became a leading light in Michigan. I last ran into him at an ESP conference in Hong Kong about seventeen years ago.

My point is that Aston at the time was the place to go to, if you wanted to study ESP in the UK. I'm not up to date any more, but I suspect that this isn't the case today. Course popularity tends to be fickle and seldom lasts much longer than the tenure of its star performers. I run the risk being accused of cynicism here, but I can't help feeling that LSE's recent appointment of Angelina Jolie as a visiting lecturer owes more to her Hollywood glamour than her academic value to students and their courses.

Another valuable feature of the Guardian guide is the section measuring the speed of employment of graduates. If you gain a good degree and you're still out of work after more than six months, its value must surely be called into question.

Lastly, I would like to mention the Guardian's use of student satisfaction. This is a another key component of its ranking table. It is not simply a popularity contest, but an area where students can objectively evaluate their whole university experience. It may surprise you to discover that some high ranking places do quite badly here. It's almost as if their reputation is so strong that they don't need to worry about such things. I sincerely hope this isn't the case and that they take heed of what their students are saying and do something about it.

At present, British universities are having a bit of a torrid time of things. Only this week, many lecturers are on strike for better pay and conditions and at a time when Vice Chancellors' salaries are under the microscope for being exceptionally high. Most of our university visitors to KYUEM tell us how upset they are about Brexit: not, as you might think, because of the likely shortfall of students from Europe. Their concern is for highly-regarded European colleagues who bring so much to the British university scene and who may shortly have to leave.

For your sons and daughters, and I'm particularly thinking of juniors and 18-month students here, the coming months will be when decisions about where to apply need to be made. You cannot do too much research on this. I suggest that the Guardian guide is an excellent place to start.

Thursday, 22 February 2018


"The great challenge of adulthood is holding on to your idealism after you lose your innocence."

Bruce Springsteen

I wasn't sure if I should mention the Florida school shooting this week. So many stories have appeared in the press about it, and so many different people have been airing their views that it seemed superfluous to add my two cents' worth. Wherever you stand on the issue of gun control in America, however, I'm sure that everyone agrees on one thing: the taking of innocent lives in a place of education is both horrific and abhorrent.

In the last couple of days, I have been following something that I feel is a more appropriate topic for this blog: the attitude and behaviour of young people who wish to see changes in America's gun laws and are engaging directly with politicians and the media. You can get an idea of what they're trying to achieve here.

Idealism is, or should be, a key driving force for all young people. They should feel the world is capable of being made better, fairer, safer, more enjoyable. Cynicism and a willingness to accept that things are pretty much always the same is the preserve of older folk. In many ways, I would like to believe that both views are wrong: the world is not infinitely perfectible, but neither should we ever give up in our attempts to make it so.

One of the joys of being a teacher is the opportunity it gives me to interact with the citizens of tomorrow. I have never felt more privileged in my life than being able to debate with the students we have at KYUEM. Many of them represent the highest ideals of their country, but perhaps even more importantly, they remind us oldsters of what it is like to have passionate beliefs about the future of humanity.

Although I am approaching retirement, I can well recall the frustrations I experienced when I was their age. I hated the idea that my views were not being considered seriously. Older teenagers have an acute awareness of being talked down to. They have antennae that are perfectly attuned to pick up the faintest sound of condescension or patronage.  This is why all of us here do our best to treat our students with the respect their intelligence merits.

Idealism can change the world. The 65 year-old old cynic in me thinks that the movement these young Americans have started will not be powerful enough to defeat the NRA or change the mind of Donald Trump, but I will be overjoyed if they prove me wrong. When people have finally had enough, the things that stand in their way inevitably fall. The Berlin Wall comes crashing down, Nelson Mandela gets freed from prison. And maybe, just maybe, the young people of the United States will force a change in their country's gun laws so that the people who died in the Florida school tragedy will not have given their lives in vain.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018


For the very few people who may not know this man, he is Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, He was a major figure in the fight to end the iniquitous apartheid system in his country, and a leader of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission that followed its abolition. While he has been someone I have admired for many years, I had no idea that UK students regularly use his name as a convenient shorthand for degree classification.

Traditionally, UK universities offer successful graduates First and Second Class Honours, and in some cases (mostly ancient history now) a Third Class, or Pass degree. There are two categories of second class degrees - a two-one (2.1) and a two-two (2.2). It was only recently brought to my attention that students refer to the 2.2 as a "Desmond" - 2.2 = Tutu; get it?

When I was a student (admittedly many years ago now) the majority of students got a 2.2, a smaller number gained a 2.1 and a very select, very small group achieved the dizzy heights of a first. Today, that has all changed. The number of graduates who obtain a first is much larger, while the vast majority are awarded a 2.1. The "Desmond," it appears, is an endangered species. In many cases, a very small number (about 5%) of students graduated this way last year.

Critics say this has devalued UK first degrees and that too many people are gaining what used to be the rewards of a select few. I don't think it's as simple as that. I recall that when I was an undergraduate, you did the bare minimum of work throughout most of the year, and then worked morning, noon and night to cram for final exams at each year's end. Today's students, who are continually assessed, must keep their average going with every piece of work they submit. If the standard drops, the pressure is on them to bring it back up again or risk getting a lower class of degree at the end. Such stress is relentless and must surely have an impact on high standards of graduation.

It was interesting to read recently that several British universities are thinking of abandoning, or at least amending, their age old grading system. They are considering becoming  aligned with the US (and indeed, much of the rest of the world) by assessing students' work via a grade point average (GPA). For any of you who may be unfamiliar with it, GPA is a cumulative, decimalised assessment system that is clearer to understand from an employer's point of view and better recognised internationally. For an old timer like me, it lacks the historical tradition of UK university assessment.

Consider this. It is a league table of the top 10 universities which awarded firsts last year:
(Courtesy of the BBC)
  • Imperial College London 41.8%
  • University of Surrey 41.2%
  • University College London 35.6%
  • University of Dundee 34.8%
  • University of East Anglia 34%
  • University of Oxford 33.2%
  • King's College London 31.9%
  • University of Cambridge 31.7%
  • University of Bath 30.8%
  • University of Salford 30.4%

Recently, I made the comparison between the UK and EU with regard to the percentage of students who actually make it through an undergraduate programme and complete a degree. It was a shade over 50% as I recall. If we consider how tough it is to get into a place like Imperial or Cambridge in the first place, is it any wonder that so many graduates achieve top honours?

It will be interesting to see how things develop over time. Thinking back to the old days, I can't help feeling that the likely disappearance of the "Desmond" is rather sad, however. From a nostalgic perspective if nothing else, I hope that it survives. It will be a bit like the situation of Mark Twain, who having read in a newspaper a false report that he had died, wrote: "Reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated."

To conclude this week, may I take the opportunity to wish all my Chinese friends, colleagues and students a very Happy Chinese New Year.

Monday, 5 February 2018


In 2018, the British celebrate the centenary of (some) women getting the right to vote. However, the franchise was not extended to all women over 21 until ten years later. What we are acknowledging in 2018 is the right given to women over 30 who were householders. This actually amounted to only six million people, but it was, at least, a start.

In the British press last week there was an announcement that for the first time in its history, Cambridge University has made slightly more offers to female applicants than males. Oxford still lags behind, although the difference between the sexes is very small. Cambridge was also quick to point out that there is nothing significant about this: it's just the way the numbers came out this year. Nonetheless,I was reminded of it when we had a visitor from Cambridge here to talk to our juniors. I asked her about the all-women colleges (Newnham and Girton) which, she says, are still going strong. In the early days, these were considered very odd places, and it took time for degrees from women's colleges to be seen as on a par with those of the men. Most Oxbridge colleges today are, of course, co-ed.

Equality between the sexes seems to be a hot topic internationally at the moment. From the "me-too" movement in Hollywood and throughout the United States through to the BBC being accused of unfair pay discrimination, it seems that the last bastions of male privilege are ready to crumble. For those of us who started life as teachers in the UK state system, this seems like something that is long overdue. For as long as I can remember, both sexes in teaching have been paid equally. However, lest we appear smug about it, I am also reminded of the fact that something like 90% of teachers in UK primary schools are women, yet the majority of Heads in those same schools are men. The glass ceiling may have developed some cracks in it, but it appears to be holding firm, at least for now.

This week KYUEM holds elections for the next Student Council. In my five years here, there has never been a female President. There was one candidate for the post the year before I arrived, but she was defeated. I have subsequently asked strong female students on several occasions whether they would like to stand for the post. In each case, their response has been: "What's the point?" From this, it would seem that tomorrow's leaders may be repeating the bias of today's. If so, this is a sad state of affairs, as far as equality is concerned.

Margaret Thatcher once penetratingly observed that for a woman to do well in the workplace she had to be better than the men who were in competition with her. I hope the generation of female engineers, lawyers, financiers and doctors studying currently at KY are harbingers of a more egalitarian future for this country.

Wednesday, 24 January 2018


The UK press has recently been acquiring data on various aspects of national university performance. The results are interesting in that many of the conclusions are relevant to KY students' needs and aspirations. Below, I summarise the findings, grouped under five main headings.

Is the UK admissions system less progressive than elsewhere in Europe?
While some people complain about the rigour and academic demands made of A-level students, the issue of predicted grades and the bureaucracy of UCAS, it appears that as far as graduation figures are concerned, the UK is doing better than the EU. The current British average for university students who graduate is 51%. The average for Europe is 37%. Of course, individual countries in Europe probably do far better than this, so we're comparing apples with oranges. It's an interesting statistic, nonetheless.

Do boys outperform girls at university?
Generally, it seems girls do slightly better in their first year, after which, things level out pretty much across the board. The difference is slight but statistically significant. No conclusions are drawn from this, but I will tentatively proffer a personal opinion. It's clear to most of us that girls mature more quickly. This means that they are probably more able to settle in to the new environment and demands of university life. Boys are more likely to take longer while they investigate all the new possibilities open to them. It's interesting that after the first year, no appreciable difference is noted between the sexes and their abilities.

Does it matter what subjects students study at school?
We often get asked this question at KY. The broad answer is no, provided a student's  A-level choices are accepted, traditional subjects. That said, there are certain subject combinations that are almost mandatory if you want to study for a particular degree. Physics and Maths (and often Further Maths) are essential for Engineering, for example, while potential medics must have at least Chemistry and Maths. However, in other subject areas, the only criterion appears to be good grades in traditional subjects. We have had students at KY who have gone to study Law after taking only science A-levels. If you are in any doubt, please discuss subject combinations with our Head of Academic or Head of University Relations.

How can universities improve their ratings in the Teaching Excellence Framework?
Most KY students intent on studying in the UK apply to Russell Group universities. They also consult the various "league tables" which are produced each year. We need to remember that universities are a business, albeit not in the same way as purely commercial concerns. League table places are taken very seriously and universities actively market themselves at home and overseas. It is not altruism that brings universities such as LSE to KY (I only mention this one, because we are having an LSE visit today!). They want to recruit our students - they must make up the numbers, year on year. Brexit is having a worrying effect on future enrollment and so they actively seek quality foreign students. Yes, our young people need to obtain good grades, but they can also afford to be discriminating in choosing where they wish to pursue tertiary education.

 How can universities stem drop-out rates?
This is more their problem than ours! However, no secondary school likes to see its alumni dropping out of university when they would otherwise have a promising career ahead of them. At KY we do all we can to prepare students for the differences (and difficulties) of living and studying far away from home within an entirely different context. We are very proud of our track record here. The vast majority of students leaving KY go on to graduate from the best British and other universities.

Overall, this report made interesting reading and I am heartened that UK universities are not resting on their laurels. Of course, in today's competitive world, that's a luxury no one can afford, not least of whom are students at KY!

Wednesday, 10 January 2018


A Happy New Year from everyone at KYUEM. I hope you all had a pleasant break with your sons and daughters and that they have returned to us fresh to face the rigours of a new semester. Yesterday, we welcomed a new cohort of 18-month students to the college. I hope they settle in well and enjoy their time with us.

For both juniors and seniors, this semester will be dominated by the prospect of Cambridge AS and A2 examinations and the mock exams that precede them. We are all conscious of the fact that this is a stressful time for everyone and anything that helps to ease that pressure is to be welcomed. Because of the competitive nature of education these days, professionals the world over are constantly seeking ways to alleviate the negative effect of exam stress. I was interested to read this article in a recent edition of the Guardian in the UK. The text looks at ways in which young people can use apps to interact with one another prior to public examinations.  

Many negative comments are made about the misuse of social media these days, but it's comparatively rare for writers to highlight its benefits. If nothing else, interacting with fellow exam candidates from around the world allows young people to see that they are not alone in their concerns. Sharing and talking about them online (provided safeguards are in place to avoid abuse) can be very beneficial. I was interested to read that the creators of the main app mentioned in the article are teachers. I think that as far as older educators are concerned, there is a real need to accept the fact that social media is here to stay and should be embraced whenever its effect is positive or useful.

I also think that platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook and the like, perform a very necessary function of allowing people to vent and let off steam - something we all need to do from time to time. The skill is knowing what to say, when and how to do it, however. In my youth, if you got upset about something somebody had said or done, the usual response was to write them an angry letter. You would then put it in an envelope and leave it prominently displayed so you would remember to post it next day. Having slept on the matter, it was quite common in the morning to re-read your letter of the night before and be horrified at the intemperate language used. You might then rewrite it using a more conciliatory tone. This is far less easy to do when a quick click of a button uploads your bile to Twitter or wherever.

I sometimes have to deal with situations where there is more light than heat. Whenever they occur, I apply what I call the 24 rule: I do nothing for a full day, until I am in a calmer frame of mind to to deal with the problem. There is an old saying in English which says you should never "let the sun go down on your wrath." In this case, I disagree. Time spent in reflection can often reduce the force of opinion.

The same can be said of the use of immoderate or offensive language. In the past, swear words and their ilk were a kind of taboo safety valve. When things got really bad, you could always let off steam by having a good curse. Nowadays, when it seems any words and expressions can be used in any context, that safety valve, it seems to me, has been removed. As such, I feel justified in employing my own censorship standards. For example, many of you will know that most of my Facebook friends are former students of KY. The vast majority of posts I receive from them are delightful, informative and fun. For those which are not, I reserve the right to delete them. You will see no words on my wall which would give offence to anyone - or so I sincerely hope.

Occasionally, this is  shame. A year or so ago, a former KY student posted a link to a site called "I f____g love Science!" The title was needlessly, gratuitously offensive, yet the content was really interesting. I can only assume that using the "f" word was meant to shock, or appeal to those who would normally not have looked at such a site. It was, in my opinion, completely unnecessary, and a large number of people would have been turned off in consequence. Courting cheap popularity by using inappropriate language defeats any merit the article or website might otherwise contain.

The freedom of the Internet, at least to me, requires at least a degree of responsibility on the part of the individual. When governments seek to limit Internet access, or even to shut it down, I am profoundly uneasy. State-sponsored communication control leads to Newspeak and all the other horrors of 1984, which Orwell suggested were lurking just around the corner. I hope all our young people at KY, now and in the future, are fully cognizant of their online responsibilities.