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Thursday, 24 May 2018

GETTING THE STATS WRONG



My scouring of the education press this week has produced this article on foreign students in the UK. British university undergrads were recently asked to complete a questionnaire about living, working and befriending students from overseas. As the article makes clear, the questions, the format and the underlying assumptions of this document have been exposed as being significantly flawed.

The intention was good: it was to ensure that students from abroad were made to feel welcome and to identify ways in which that could be improved. Instead, it has been shown that the data could easily be manipulated and used negatively. Many senior university staff members have expressed their unease, while some comments made by students themselves are overtly critical, and apparently with very good reason.

As a student and teacher of English, I am frequently surprised at the naive ways in which the language is officially employed. Questionnaires and pro formas are a minefield unless the creator is perceptive, and aware of the potential pitfalls of ambiguity, misunderstanding and generalisation, to name but three.

A good example would be from my days in the Arab world. A UK consultancy group had been hired to encourage Saudi students to read more in English. Instead of doing their homework, the researchers took an existing questionnaire which had been given to European students to assess their reading habits and simply had it translated into Arabic. I was told by local colleagues that the translation itself was excellent. The content, however, was another thing entirely. Divorcing questions from culture and context is always a very risky undertaking and so it proved here. One of the questions asked: What kind of books do you prefer to read, fiction or non fiction? The next was: What book are you reading at the moment?

Two facts need mentioning here. Arabia generally is an oral/aural culture. Reading is not part of it and there is no literary tradition. Indeed, most households will only possess one book - the Holy Qu'uran. The concept of reading for pleasure is alien to most people, so these two questions were not only inappropriate for the majority of candidates, they were unanswerable.

Returning to the article above, it is clear that misreading the findings of the questionnaire plays into the hands of the anti-immigration lobby. Some years ago there was a scandal in Britain of people obtaining student visas and then on arrival, promptly entering the black economy and never attending college. Typically, this affected vocational colleges rather than universities, but a government clampdown ensued in which all areas of tertiary education came under the microscope. Thank goodness KYUEM students are heading to prestigious universities where this kind of thing rarely happens, so the acquisition of a British student visa is relatively straightforward.

Nonetheless, the stats employed in assessing the validity of the experience foreign students have of the UK need some careful realignment if they are to have any meaningful effect on living and studying overseas. One can only hope that wiser counsel will prevail in ensuring that this eventually happens.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

BIG ISSUES

I have two subjects to address this week, both of them very different, but in their own ways, equally important and troubling. The first involves tertiary education; you can read about it here.

The next one concerns secondary education, and while it deals chiefly with the UK, I believe there are significant implications for any school in the world offering British education, such as KYUEM. This particular story can be accessed here.

The first article is about increased snobbery in British universities. KYUEM parents know that the majority of our graduating students go to UK universities which belong to the Russell Group. The group is not an official, government organisation but a professional association representing what many people assume to be the best universities in the country. There are some surprising omissions from the Russell Group's roll of honour, however. Two highly-regarded and internationally-respected universities that are not members of it are Reading and Royal Holloway. I mention these two specifically, because we have sent students to both places during my time at KYUEM and they have done very well there.

Apparently, the Vice Chancellor of Royal Holloway is miffed that British secondary schools are deliberately focusing their efforts on Russell Group universities to the detriment of the rest. Frankly, certain institutions acquired university status in the past couple of decades, but are not doing well by their students. Neither are they cutting much of a dash on the international stage. Naturally, I'm not going to name them, but it is quite natural for a University's standing to wax and wane over time. It's why I often caution students, parents and sponsors not to rely overmuch on university league tables per se, but instead to look at how the undergraduate course they favour is valued internationally. Anyway, for all junior students (and their parents and sponsors) who will have to make decisions on university choices next semester, this article is worth your attention.

As someone who was first paid to set foot in a classroom back in September, 1973, I always take a keen interest in anything affecting newcomers to the teaching profession. The second article I'm dealing with today makes the disturbing claim that a third of all new teachers in Britain are ready to quit after just one year in the job. The main reason appears to be the sheer grind of preparing lessons, marking homework and keeping up with the endless paperwork required by the state. One guy, quoted at length, reckons he's hard at it till 1.00 am every day just keeping on top of things. He must then get up at 6.00 am in order to reach work on time. It's stories like this that should be quoted at length to the next person who pontifically informs you that teachers get too many holidays and work too few hours.

Having been outside the state system in Britain for many years, I try to look objectively on how things have been developing there. When I compare the average UK situation with what goes on at KYUEM, the differences are profound. Our teachers have smaller classes, less of a teaching load and far less obligatory paperwork (the validity of which in Britain, I am more and more inclined to question). This means they are less stressed than their British counterparts and can interact much more meaningfully with their students. You don't need great insight to appreciate that both parties gain immeasurably from this state of affairs. I sincerely hope that government investment in education in Britain increases soon. More graduates need encouragement to join the profession, but there doesn't seem any signs of big changes happening in the near future.

Let me end on an optimistic note: what a joy it has been this week to see Malaysia vote for a new government, a new direction and to witness an orderly, peaceful transfer of power. I hope education is a high priority for the new administration and that they will divert much needed capital and resources to ensure that it will grow and prosper.

Friday, 4 May 2018

UK EDUCATION NEWS


As blog readers know, I am a frequent reader of the UK's Guardian education pages. This week's offerings can be read here. I want to pick out three articles which I think resonate, to a greater or lesser extent, with us at KYUEM.

First, is a report stating that the average fee for private schooling in the UK is set to rise above £17,000.00 pa, for the first time. This means that a day student's parents would have to pay something approaching £15,000.00, and a boarder over £30,000.00, respectively. These are eye-watering sums, and it comes as no surprise to learn that the number of wealthy overseas students at prestigious British fee-paying schools is rising exponentially every year. It also means that private secondary education in the UK costs almost as much as an undergraduate programme at a major university. The market value of private education is on a real upswing since knowledge and skills have become commodities that are increasingly valued by society. The question this begs, I think, is where does the state figure in educating the populace? Malaysia is by no means the only country in the world where private schooling is increasingly seen as a preferred option. In Britain, it would appear to be an option denied to all but those wealthy enough to pay handsomely for it.

The second article that caught my eye this week concerns at least one British school's decision to close on Friday afternoons in order to avoid "teacher burnout." I can well imagine some of the uninformed outrage in the tabloid press this report would create. There is a persistent, pernicious and widespread misconception that teachers have it easy. They have endless holidays, work fewer hours in the week and so on. I have been forced to endure such comments all my professional life, despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary. The plain fact is that most teachers are up late at night, every night, marking, preparing lessons, setting tests and updating records of work. In a boarding school, there are clubs and societies that require teacher input as well as college events where students love to see their teachers in the audience. Teaching is not, nor has it ever been, a nine to five job. At KYUEM we finish early on a Friday, but many teachers (and all the support staff) are busy working till the end of the day.

Thirdly - and this is, sadly, not new by any means - the Guardian reports that cheating at top UK universities rose by 40% last year. I have previously lamented the growth in essay or assignment-writing services for undergraduates, whereby a bespoke piece of work can be produced within 24 hours - for a suitable fee, of course. There seems to be little the authorities can do about preventing it, or at least, little they can do while the current assessment system remains in place. It pains me to say so, but the one sure-fire way to ensure that students are producing their own work is to make them take a properly supervised examination. No one cheats at AS or A2, and gets away with it - not, at least, if the examination is correctly administered. No teacher likes examinations: we all hate them. However, if they are the only foolproof way we can be sure that no cheating takes place and that a level playing field is provided for everyone, then we may have to grasp the nettle and resort to formal exams as our preferred assessment methodology.


Thursday, 26 April 2018

THE GUARDIAN UNIVERSITY AWARDS

Readers of this blog will know that I frequently peruse the online editions of the UK Guardian and Daily Telegraph newspapers. Not that it matters, but I choose to read both because they represent slightly different political perspectives. The former is basically left of centre in its views, the latter slightly to the right. I believe that a free and open press is a mark of a confident society and that all shades of opinion should, within reason, be allowed full expression. Equally important is the conviction that there is never only one version of "truth," and that newspapers, like people, will colour their views according to specific opinions and beliefs.
The Guardian has a dedicated Education page (traditionally on Tuesdays, but in these days of 24-hour news, you can get related stories any day of the week). The table I reproduce below is their 2018 University Awards' winners, and the various categories covered. These need a few words of explanation.
For example, you may be somewhat surprised to see the number of new universities honoured here, and the fact that the traditional, established ones are not nearly so well represented. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, because of the Guardian's broadly radical stance, it behooves them to be on the side of newer institutions who are trying to make their mark on the world. Secondly, and perhaps more revealingly, the awards are based on feedback from current students. Newer universities need to attract students in an increasingly competitive market place. It therefore follows that they will pursue a more aggressive marketing strategy, geared as much towards customer satisfaction as to the actual end product; i.e. a good degree.
It is great to know that students have a wonderful experience living and studying at X University, but that shouldn't be the main reason for them being there. It is interesting to note that the Guardian's other university table (the so-called "league table" which display's university success, year on year) has a category which shows the likelihood of employment six months after graduating. I have been comparing the two tables and there isn't much correlation in this regard. You can draw your own conclusions from that.
I have another comment to make on the comparative lack of "big guns" in the list below: they don't need to make much effort to be on it. If you are a student at Oxbridge, Imperial or LSE (to name just a few) then your university's reputation counts as much, probably more than, any kind of satisfaction index. Maybe it shouldn't, but that's the way the world of tertiary education works, or at least, how it is seen to work.
Anyway, reservations to one side, here is the Guardian's list of awards and the categories they cover:

Advancing staff equality 

Winner – University of Strathclyde
Runners-up – Glasgow Caledonian University, University of Sheffield

Buildings that inspire

Winner – University of Hull
Runners-up – Newcastle University, Norwich University of the Arts

Business collaboration

Winner – Heriot-Watt University
Runners-up: University of Kent, University of Lincoln

Course and curriculum design

Winner – University of Huddersfield
Runners-up – University of Salford, University of the West of Scotland

Digital innovation

Winner – Open University
Runners-up – Imperial College London, University of Greenwich

Employability and entrepreneurship

Winner – Falmouth University
Runners-up – Sheffield Business School, the Royal Agricultural University

Internationalisation

Winner – University of Central Lancashire
Runners-up – Birmingham City University, the University of Nottingham

Marketing and comms campaign

Winner – London School of Economics and Political Science
Runners-up – De Montfort University Leicester, Loughborough University

Research impact

Winner – University of Exeter
Runners-up – Heriot-Watt University, University of Glasgow

Retention, support and student outcomes

Winner – University of Strathclyde
Runners-up – Solent University, York St John University

Social and community impact

Winner – Swansea University
Runners-up – De Montfort University Leicester, University of Manchester and University of Sheffield

Student experience

Winner – University of Surrey
Runners-up – University of Stirling, York St John University

Sustainability project

Winner – University of Plymouth
Runners-up – University of Manchester

Teaching excellence

Winner – Open University
Runners-up – Coventry University, University of Surrey

Widening access and outreach

Winner – Birkbeck, University of London
Runners-up – Nottingham Trent University, University of Sunderland

Inspiring leader award

Mary Stuart, vice-chancellor, University of Lincoln

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

PRIVATE UNIVERSITY EDUCATION



There is talk in the press this week that prestigious UK universities such as Oxford and Cambridge are thinking of cutting loose from government control and going private. If this were to happen, it would cause a seismic shift in UK tertiary education. The Guardian article I am referring to, questions whether the major London universities (Imperial, UCL, Kings and LSE) would follow suit, if Oxbridge decided to take this radical step.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am not above criticising UK government educational policy on occasion. It does seem at present that there is widespread discontent among tertiary education establishments about what they consider to be excessive interference from legislators. Whether this has reached critical mass, and a divorce is on the cards, is hard to predict. However, the fact that such a question is even being considered, suggests that things are coming to a head.

As the article makes clear, the main argument in favour of going private is that universities can charge market rates with regard to their fees. The argument against it is that the change will only favour those wealthy enough to afford the new arrangement. There is something to be said for both views. There is no question that quality university education costs a lot and that costs rise exponentially, year on year. Conversely, we should always aim to provide places for genuinely able students from humble backgrounds, who will gain significant benefit from a university education. The effects of social mobility alone make this a highly laudable aim.

Personally, I entered tertiary education in 1970. In those far off days, only a small proportion of school leavers applied to university and local government provided them with a grant to cover the costs. In my case, this meant my tuition and my accommodation in a hall of residence were paid for by my local authority. My parents had to supply me with living expenses for books and in order to have a social life. My father gave me an allowance of about $50.00 a month, which was very generous at the time. I had no idea how lucky I was in comparison with the expenses young people face today.

It is conservatively estimated that most British graduates leave with debts of $50K and upwards. This is a load they will carry for years, even decades. It could, therefore, be said that the current system is already almost as burdensome as paying for a private university education anyway. If we look at the American model, universities are well funded (privately) and that this allows them to offer scholarships and bursaries to able young people who would otherwise not be able to afford a place. The question is: would the number of financially poorer students continue to decline if major universities went private in Britain? I suspect it might.

Yet, to be honest, I don't really know where I ultimately stand on this one. We need quality tertiary education and that costs a lot of money which must come from somewhere. If there was legislation that required a decent percentage of students to be taken on scholarship, then maybe the private option has merit. The egalitarian in me objects strongly to the indecently large stipends given to university vice chancellors in comparison with the modest pay of hard-working lecturers. I cannot see that privatisation would correct that particular imbalance or help sort out the current crisis on pensions. 

I am sure this is one of those debates that we're going to be having for some time to come. While privatisation is surely not a change that is going to happen overnight (if it happens at all) we are nonetheless wise to keep knowledge of it on our radar as educators and parents.

Meanwhile, the newly-renamed Cambridge Assessment International Examinations (CAIE) at AS and A2 level get underway in a matter of days: the first exams coming at the end of April. This is, therefore, one of the last opportunities I get to wish all your sons and daughters the very best of luck in the testing times that lie ahead. Of course, I do so, unreservedly.

Friday, 13 April 2018

HOME SCHOOLING


The growth of home schooling in many countries has been rapid over the past few years. Recently, I met with potential KYUEM students who have been wholly home educated throughout what would otherwise have been their school careers. In the UK, among parents who educate their children at home, there has been vocal resistance to government guidelines on inspection visits   Such visits are seen as intrusive and unwarranted. The perception is that mainstream educators look down on home schooling and any attempt to audit or inspect it would come with a side order of prejudice and bias.

From the outset, let me declare openly that I am not a fan of home schooling. I have two main objections: 

1. Socialisation: young people need to learn how to socialise with their peers. This is a skill that is acquired rather than taught, and is best learned by the experience of social interaction. It is one of those soft skills that help equip you for life. Limiting access to other children can be counter-productive. Put simply, it's a vital part of growing up.

 2. Specialist knowledge: I personally trained as a language and literature teacher. There is no way I would be confident to teach science subjects to anything other than basic levels. Schools such as KYUEM offer their students specialist tuition by engaging professionals in the teaching of specific subjects, and governments can be quite tough in ensuring that this is adhered to. In Malaysia, for example, when we wish to hire an expatriate teacher, we must submit his/her qualifications to the Ministry for approval. Sometimes, this is not immediately forthcoming and we have to argue that someone with, say, a degree in Engineering can be considered an excellent Physics teacher (particularly if s/he has a PGCE in Physics teaching and has taught the subject to A-level for a number of years).

I'm sure that advocates of home schooling would argue that as a professional teacher and educational manager, I have a vested interest in formal schooling and maintaining the status quo. I accept that this is a potentially valid argument, but I can counter it in two ways: a) if a home school environment allows students access to lots of other children with whom they can interact and b) if specialist subject teachers are brought in on a regular basis to provide specific training in subjects that the parents lack, then my objections are withdrawn. However, I have to point out that if these two conditions are met, then why not allow the students to attend a good school in the first place?

There was a famous and zany British comedian called Tommy Cooper whom I remember with great affection. One of his throwaway lines was:

"I love kids. I went to school with them."

Personally, I think that says it all.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

THE FUTURE OF QUALITY EDUCATION



I was honoured to be invited to speak at this year's ASLI conference discussing international education. This was my second year of attendance and the conference more than lived up to expectations. The quality of presentation and debate was excellent, and speakers were not afraid to tackle controversial topics.

Organised by the Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute (ASLI) the theme this year was "Creating the Right Environment to Enable Quality Education." The keynote speaker on the opening day was YB Dato' Seri Idris Bin Jusoh, Minister of Higher Education, who delivered a very upbeat assessment of secondary and tertiary education in Malaysia. I was only able to attend the opening day, accompanied by En. Azman Zainal Abidin, the Academic Head of KYUEM.

I had been invited as a panel speaker in the first afternoon session. My main point, having heard many noble sentiments expressed about partnerships between private and public education, was this: why is it that the A-levels taken by KYUEM students are not acceptable for admission into Malaysian state universities, yet overseas students who have taken A-levels (or IB, the International Baccalaureate) freely enter the same institutions? It strikes me that there is a lack of joined-up thinking here. As educators, we are surely all on the same side in that we constantly seek the best for our students. If Malaysia wants to increase the quality of applicants attending state tertiary education, then the best of them should have that opportunity, regardless of the nature of the pre-university course they have taken, provided it is of a suitably high academic standard. I doubt that anyone would doubt that A-levels fit the bill admirably.



There was discussion about the quality of teaching in Malaysia and how to improve it and as a teacher-trainer of many years, I was keen to add my two cents' worth. At KYUEM, we tale pride in the fact that 60% of our teachers are locals and they have an outstanding track record of AS and A2 examination success. I've made this point in blog posts before, but it can stand a repetition: the demand for a British, US, Australian or similar system of education around the world has long since outstripped the supply of native speaker teachers able to deliver it. The fact that English has now become the de facto world language means that the requirement for educators who can teach through the medium of English has never been higher.  Yet there is a kind of racial or academic snobbery attached to the belief that only a native speaker can teach an A-level, an SAT, an IGCSE or an IB syllabus. Such a belief is both unjustified and completely erroneous. Some of the best teachers I have trained and many of the teachers I have hired or observed in the classroom have been non-native speakers. It's more than time this particular fiction was laid to rest for good.

I enjoyed a lively and good-natured argument with Dr. Vincent Chian, the Principal of Fairview International School, on the respective merits of IB versus A2. He is a stout defender of the former, I support the latter. As has often been stated on this blog, the only issue that ultimately matters in this context is the entry requirements of quality universities. They repeatedly tell us that no distinction is made between A2 and IB students. As long as that state of affairs continues, KYUEM will remain committed to CAIE A-levels and take pride in our status as a Cambridge Fellowship Centre.