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Monday, 5 June 2017

THE END OF THE ACADEMIC YEAR



Before embarking on a blog post, I usually have a good look through the education press of the week. My typical reading includes the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and the Times Educational Supplement in the UK and the Chronicle of Higher Education in the US, as well as an extensive and varied selection of websites.

One minor but important task for educators is to keep up to date with the latest thinking about our area of interest. I'm sure this is equally true of all professions, but with teaching and learning, people sometimes get lulled into thinking that not much changes and so they make the mistake of not keeping abreast of current thought. Yet change, albeit slow and incremental, is happening all the time. As a specialist, pre-university college, it is important for KYUEM to be fully aware of what is going on in higher education around the world. In the UK, for example, the general election this week will be of interest for a variety of reasons. One of the manifesto pledges of the opposition Labour Party is to abolish student fees and to fund university places through other means, such as taxation. I am not at all sure how this would affect overseas students in Britain; free education at German universities, for example, is universal, but whether this would be true if a Labour government came to power in the UK is a moot point. As things stand at the moment, it seems unlikely that Labour will win an outright majority and consequently, nothing much will happen to alter the status quo. But despite this apparent continuation of normality, Brexit lies just around the corner, and it seems to me that politicians of all parties are not very convincing about its outcome, or how indeed they will ensure that it is a beneficial one, at least as far as higher education is concerned.

In the United States, the presidency of Donald Trump has had an immediate and negative impact on the number of students from Islamic countries applying for university places. I have read a number of concerned articles by US university authorities lamenting this fact and hoping for a reversal of the presidential stance, or at the very least, a little more clarity in his thinking. All this is at a time of international uncertainty resulting from terrorist threats, concern for the environment, the state of global trade and the seemingly inexorable decline of certain national currencies. I have heard it said that we should question what kind of world our young people are inheriting, and if we are doing all we can to prepare them for it.

One of the advantages of being in your 60s is that you have seen a lot of history, and if your memory allows, you can reflect upon it. When I was the same age as KY students, the world was threatened by the possibility of nuclear Armageddon. My parents both served in the second world war and my grandparents had to endure the privations of the first one. Any suggestion of a past golden age, or a time when there weren't serious issues to confront is, I'm afraid, delusional. The world is a dangerous and complex place and the problems we face need to be addressed by men and women who possess the brightest and best minds. The fact that we are preparing such people at KYUEM is in itself a hopeful and encouraging riposte to the doom and gloom merchants. Our students give us much to be optimistic about.

This will be my last post of the current semester and academic year. To all of our seniors, I hope and pray your A-level results will be sufficient to get you into the universities of your choice. To our juniors, I am equally hopeful that you have done well at AS level to prepare  for the demands of next year. To our 18-monthers, have a good break, but do some studying because you face internal exams upon your return. We will base our predicted grades for UK university application on your performance, so they are very important.

Lastly, let me wish all of you: parents, students and any other readers of this blog, a pleasant and uneventful summer break. I promise to get back to updating you on a weekly basis in the latter part of July.


Tuesday, 30 May 2017

INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS IN THE UK



In the wake of the terror attack in Manchester last week, there has been an inevitable run of stories in the national press about the reception foreign students may receive in Britain. All of us in the education profession hope and believe that their future in the UK is as bright as it has ever been.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the perpetrator of last week's horror was in no way representative of mainstream Islam. He was a sick individual whose delusions caused unspeakable horror and harm. As we proceed through the holy month of Ramadan, I cannot help remembering the hundreds, if not thousands of Moslems it has been my privilege to work with over the past four decades around the world. In all that time, I cannot recall a single individual who would react sympathetically to the actions of the Manchester suicide bomber. A sense of perspective at times like this is often hard to achieve but the effort is well worth it. Singling out one tortured soul as representing the peaceful faith of millions is not only pointless, but statistically crazy. Unfortunately, statistics often take a back seat when tragedy strikes.

Back in the 1970s and 80s, there was a spate of terrorist bombings in the UK, linked to major historical and political issues between Britain and Ireland. I lived in London at the time and regularly journeyed into the West End at weekends and during school holidays. Never once did I hear an explosion, was I required to take shelter or be advised to avoid certain streets. I remember that the British press made some sarcastic comments about Sylvester Stallone, who said he was unwilling to come to London because of the bomb threats. Rocky, or later on, Rambo, was not such a hero as he appeared on screen. The bombs and the threat of bombing helped sell newspapers and so the coverage given to them was disproportionate to the damage that they actually caused.

This is not in any way to diminish the pain and suffering of those who lost loved ones in such attacks. Similarly today, the ghastly scenes in Manchester should not be allowed to obscure the fact that there are sick people in our society whose actions are wholly reprehensible. Nonetheless, they are a tiny minority whose damage, however traumatic, affects a very small number of human beings. It may seem strange to look for good at such a time, but I was very heartened to read this article last week in the aftermath of the tragedy, in which a thoughtful commentator sought to reveal some of the positive and uplifting sides of our common humanity. I commend it to you.

As our students enter the last couple of weeks of AS and A2 examinations, I hope that none of our seniors, nor their parents, are having second thoughts about going to Manchester, or London; Cardiff or Edinburgh; Leeds, Liverpool, Birmingham or Sheffield. You will be made welcome wherever you go to study and the minuscule minority of those with twisted minds and ideologies will only feel a sense of achievement if we ever let them feel that they are winning.

Many of you will know that the majority of my Facebook friends are ex-KY students. It was heartening last week to see all of those in the Manchester area logging in to assure us that they were safe. I'm sure you will also have seen the announcement put out by the government here that not one single Malaysian was a casualty of the Manchester bombing. Like everyone else, I grieve for those who lost their lives and abhor the event with all my heart. Yet the only right and proper thing is to acknowledge that fact, and move on.

 

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

LIVING IN THE JUNGLE


Firstly, my apologies for not writing anything last week. I was away from the KY campus involved in interviewing prospective sponsored students for next semester. My post this week discusses the thorny problem of living in close proximity to wildlife, feral and domestic, and how we deal with it at KYUEM.

Like most western expatriates, when my wife and I first came to Lembah Beringin, we thought the monkeys were a charming novelty. We soon became aware of the fact that they can also be a dangerous nuisance. I recall asking the previous Bursar why there were so many stray cats about. He pointed out that they were a good early warning system for snakes. In my four years here, I have only heard of three snakes on campus, each of them pythons, all of which were located and removed from the drains. I presume they were there in pursuit of frogs, of which we have a sizeable population, particularly after prolonged and heavy rain. The snake shown below was captured by our staff in the drain close to the cafeteria last year.


I also became aware of domestic cats owned by staff members. Some of these animals were fed outside the apartments, so that their food was effectively a monkey magnet. I asked staff, therefore, to feed their cats indoors and to limit the number of such felines to two per accommodation unit. Cats with collars are clearly owned by someone; cats without may well be strays or feral animals. Together with the monkeys, they pose a threat to the well-being of everyone and their numbers must, consequently, be controlled.

Periodically, it becomes necessary to ask the Wildlife Department to come in and assist us. We have had monkeys learn how to open trash bins and scatter the contents to the four winds. Recently, I heard a commotion in the wet kitchen in our bungalow to find a young monkey on the wire mesh door, manipulating an unlocked padlock. His intention, I imagine, was to get inside and feast on the dry vegetables which were clearly in view. I duly scared him away and the lock has remained securely fastened ever since. I was reminded of the story of a colleague who some years ago visited Gibraltar and on returning to his hotel room, found it had been ransacked. When he called the police, he was astounded to discover that because he had left his balcony doors open, rock apes had seized the opportunity to invade his room and do untold damage.

Like most people, I am a lover of wildlife and have been a devotee of the likes of Sir David Attenborough for many years. However, we have a responsibility to everyone on this campus in terms of their health and safety. No one minds if we get the wildlife people to remove a snake. They should equally have no problem when we do the same with monkeys and stray cats - all of which, I am assured are relocated unharmed.

Our latest "monkey deterrent" has been to install large toy tigers at various locations at KY. They have proved surprisingly effective, but need to be moved from time to time or their obvious stillness persuades the monkeys that they pose no threat. We are also considering employing mannequins, such as those used in clothes stores. The sight of an adult male - I'm sorry if that sounds sexist, but I am assured the monkeys fear men more than women - may well be an added deterrent to their many and various depredations.

It should also be pointed out that staff and student accommodation should be secured at all times. Open windows can be very enticing to certain animals. On a personal note, we have had three unwelcome visits from (very large) monitor lizards over the years into our bungalow. This was purely due to the fact that the same screen door in the wet kitchen did not reach fully to the ground and there was a significant gap below it. The addition of a metal flange reaching to floor level has barred any further intruders.



Living in the jungle, we breathe clean air, can study in peace and are close to nature. Sometimes, however, living too close to it may cause problems. Sensible precautions will minimise nearly all the obvious risks we run.

 

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

ADDRESSING EXAMS


A while ago, I wrote a blog post about the student dress code at KY. I am returning to the subject today because of certain individuals who have recently turned up to AS and A2 exams inappropriately attired. I have spoken to them all individually, without stressing them out at this important time in their lives, but at the same time making a few key points.

Some people may think that imposing a dress code on students taking exams is going a bit far. What they may not realise is that universities impose such rules on exam practice and we are merely following suit. However, I believe the more important life lesson to be learned here is generic: we need our students to know the importance of appropriateness in different areas of human behaviour and endeavour. When I am marking English Literature essays, for example, I point out that the use of slang or over-familiar, colloquial language is likely to have an adverse effect on exam grades. Similarly, when our students start earning a living, there will be rules on what to wear, what time to start and finish work, the correct way to address colleagues and supervisors and so on.

Throwing on a few old clothes and slapping on a pair of flip flops a few minutes before attending an examination, suggests a lack of seriousness and a failure to acknowledge the importance of the event. Dressing appropriately, together with behaving appropriately, should be automatic in such circumstances. It's not as if we are requiring male students to come to exams wearing a full tuxedo or the ladies to be in ball gowns! The general expression used these days is "smart casual," and, to me that offers students plenty of opportunity to be both comfortable and respectful of the occasion.

I hope all KY students will take note of this advice and accept it in a positive way. It is intended solely for their benefit, both now and in the future.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

UNIVERSITY PROFILES INDEX



This week, the UK's Guardian newspaper published its latest university guide. Regular readers of my blog will know I have quoted this source before. I have favourably compared it with other guides such as the Times Higher Educational Supplement (THES). There is a new, and I think, very useful feature of the latest Guardian information pack. They call it the "University Profiles Index" and you can find it here.

I am making this the topic of today's blog post with KY juniors in mind. Our seniors are now well into CIE A-levels, and have long ago made their university choices. They will also have received offers of places and are currently working towards achieving them. For the juniors, it all starts to get serious next semester when they begin the university application process. Many of them have already done their research into the kind of course - and the precise nature of the university - which they will be applying for. However, there are plenty of students around, (and I suspect, more than a few parents, too), who have yet to make up their minds and could do with a handy guide to all the UK options available (sadly, the Guardian does not cover US and Australian institutions). If the intention is to study in the UK, I believe this Index can be of help to anyone who consults it.

The guide is particularly useful in that it specifies the range of fees charged, accommodation costs, potential bursaries, etc. At the end of each university snapshot, the actual website of the institution chosen is shown, so that readers can go there directly in search of greater detail. As far as sponsored students are concerned, you will have been given a list of approved universities, so, again, you can start by looking them up on the Index and subsequently taking things forward from there.

There are a few things of which you should be aware. For example, the Index does not differentiate between Russell Group Universities and the rest. If you are interested in a particular city or location from the Guardian site, you can subsequently find out which 24 universities are members of the Russell Group here. Secondly, the Index really is only a snapshot: you will need to do a lot more research than simply scrolling through the list on display. Nonetheless, it is a great starting point.

I am addressing this post chiefly to parents of private students this week. Setting aside Oxford and Cambridge, the majority of KY students pick London locations. Of course, Imperial, UCL, Kings, SOAS, City and the rest are great places, but London is also an extremely expensive city in which to live. Many highly respected universities away from the capital offer a first class education that will cost a lot less. Moreover, much as we applaud our young people's intelligence at KY, there is ample evidence that their university choices are, sometimes, worryingly capricious. I have often, for instance, heard a student say that he (the applicant usually is a male) has chosen Manchester because of its nearness to a certain football club. I hope most university selections are based on surer foundations than this!

 

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

GETTING WORK AFTER UNIVERSITY



There has been a lot of talk recently about graduate unemployment, such as this article in the Daily Telegraph. Regular readers will know that I frequently post details of different league tables of the world's best-ranked universities. Only one of these (The Guardian) uses employment as part of its assessment. One of the categories the newspaper uses, specifically rates universities according to the number of graduates who are in work after six months.

It seems very unfair after struggling with AS and A2 exams, followed by at least three years' hard slog at university, that graduates may be rewarded with nothing better than the dole queue. However, we need to consider the issue a bit more deeply, and go beyond the newspaper headlines (not for the first time, on this blog).

In the UK, universities broadly split into two categories: the Russell Group and the rest. Russell Group universities include Oxford, Cambridge, the main London colleges (LSE, Imperial, UCL, Kings, SOAS, etc.) and the established universities of major cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Warwick, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, Exeter, and so on. The majority of the rest fall into the categories of "new" universities - those that were previously polytechnics and have been upgraded to university status. But this is not entirely true. A major criterion for Russell Group selection is that the university must have (or share) a Medical School. There are several major, well-established universities that do not offer this facility, so are not members of the exclusive club. They are, nonetheless, more highly regarded than most of their newer counterparts.

Then there is the question of courses offered. While the newer universities may lack the kudos and reputation of some of their illustrious peers, they often break new ground with degree courses that are highly valued in the 21st Century. The University of Kent, for example, has a world-class B.Sc. in Actuarial Science, while the university itself is not part of the Russell Group.

One of the most impressive qualities of KY students is their willingness to do their own, detailed research on the universities to which they decide to apply. I would suggest to them that employability should be a major factor in their choices. I am sure it is safe to say that a good degree from a Russell Group university virtually guarantees a job at the end of it. The same could be said of Ivy League and other prestigious schools in the US or the Group of Eight in Australia. The National University of Singapore these days always rates highly in international league tables, as do institutions in China, Canada, New Zealand and mainland Europe.

Ultimately, however, I cannot help but feel that the subject matter of the degree course is the final test. A degree in Engineering from the University of Sheffield or Southampton is bound to carry more weight than a BA in Media Studies (or something similar). While not wishing to sound negative about some of the more modern degree courses, there is still a lot to be said for a traditional degree in an established subject from a major international university. I honestly believe that many of today's unemployed graduates have taken degrees in subjects that make it hard to find work when they finish. As far as KY is concerned, our students are aiming for professions such as Engineering, Law, Medicine, Accountancy, Economics, Business & Finance, Architecture and Actuarial Science. With a good degree from a well-regarded international institution, they should not have to struggle to obtain meaningful work.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

ADDRESSING DRESS


I used the forum of this week's Headmaster's Assembly to remind all our students of the KY Dress Code. The picture you see above is going to be displayed in every college classroom and laboratory, so that no one is in any doubt as to what is acceptable on our campus.

Dress is one of the ways in which young people like to express individuality and challenge, albeit mildly, the accepted norm. Many years ago, when I was doing A-levels, I recall being reprimanded for wearing a pink shirt instead of the regulation white or blue. However, my rebellion only extended to a shirt - I still conformed by wearing the regulation uniform of dark grey trousers, school tie and blazer, and what the school called "sober socks." I have never been entirely sure what that term means!

Imposing a dress code on students (and teachers) is never going to be a popular fact of life in a school. Nonetheless, I think we err on the side of generosity by not imposing a uniform on students here. In the 1980's and 90's I worked in a military college in the Middle East where all the students were warrant officer cadets (and thus wore regulation uniform). This rule was imposed equally on teachers and management, all of whom had to come to work in standard clothing supplied by the company.

I often say to parents of potential new students at KY that we are a halfway house between school and university. This means we have to have rules, but that we try and make them as reasonable and sensible as possible. Dress is one of those grey areas where we could have disagreement between students and teachers. There are those who favour an "anything goes" approach, while many would prefer a much stricter regime - possibly requiring a uniform. I like to think our picture shows a decent compromise.

The problem was highlighted recently in CIE Trial Examinations at KY. Many teachers who were invigilating, came to me to express their dislike of flip-flop sandals and other examples of inappropriate clothing. This prompted me to display the picture you see above around the college and to show it during my assembly. If nothing else, dressing suitably for an occasion is a life skill that we all need. Our students are often referred to as "tomorrow's leaders." While it has been pointed out to me that Barack Obama seldom wore a tie, he was always, nonetheless, immaculately turned out for formal occasions. Appropriateness is something that is not instinctive: it has to be learned or acquired by following suitable examples. The KY dress code is not onerous (I personally think a uniform would be step too far) and by following it, our students are learning habits that they will need to observe in the workplace. I would be glad if you talked about dress sense with your children, too. We can only get things like this to work well if we know we have your solid and continuing support.

Lastly, the first CIE examination (Marine Science) is scheduled for next week on April 25. AS and A2 exams will then run continuously through to June 9. As always at this time of year, let me take this opportunity, on behalf of everyone at the college, to wish your sons and daughters every success. They deserve it having worked so hard all year.