• Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University: Exploring a New Education Model

Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University: Exploring a New Education Model

(China Today No.9 September 2011, By LING JUNHUI) XI'AN Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU), established only five years ago in Suzhou, has already gained plaudits for excellent student performance, and it's a fact 90 percent of its graduates head for the world's first-rate universities for postgraduate study. It has topped the list of China's universities in an American math contest for college students for straight three years, and its graduates are praised by world-renowned enterprises like KPMG and the Royal Bank of Scotland. However, strolling along Ren'ai Road of Suzhou Industrial Park, visitors can easily miss this university campus that calls no attention to itself with showy walls and gates. This new type of international university has striking features of a different sort. XJTLU was jointly established by Xi'an Jiaotong University and the University of Liverpool in 2006, as an independent legal entity, and was officially approved by China's Ministry of Education. As China's only university of science and technology based on the China-foreign joint operation model, XJTLU is blazing a new trail for China's higher education reform.

"Given that Western and Eastern approaches to education both have their respective merits and shortcomings, we intend to integrate the excellence of both cultures based on the world's future demand for talent, and explore a unique focus," said Xi Youmin, executive president of the university.

Students conclude their graduation ceremony at the University of Liverpool in the traditional manner.

Active Learning Approach
In this university, 70 percent of teachers are foreigners who teach only in English. However, the school doesn't organize its students to participate in the CET-4 and CET-6 (English tests for Chinese college students), run by China's education authorities. Zheng Yanfei is a graduate of XJTLU who has been accepted into postgraduate programs at several world-famous universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, and she feels, "My study initiative and ability to solve problems have improved greatly in the last four years through writing lots of English essays and participating in team projects."

In the eyes of students and teachers of XJTLU, the classroom is a place for students to learn, so "learning" on the students' part is more important than "teaching" on the teachers' part. For the same subject, the class hours of XJTLU are usually one-third less than hours used by domestic universities. Teachers here pay more attention to the explanation of knowledge systems and applications; basic concepts and knowledge they require students to learn by themselves in advance. So it is common after each class for the teacher to assign exercises or projects that require students to apply their knowledge to complete the homework, either in teams or individually.

Fang Lei, one of the first batch of XJTLU graduates, continued his postgraduate and doctoral studies, receiving a scholarship of nearly RMB one million. When he first attended the math class in the university, he was totally lost, quite perplexed. But soon he found that his teachers were seemingly good masters of the same kind of essential techniques employed in the Chinese ink and wash painting. For example, the content just needs a brief introduction, redundant explanations were weeded out, and the part demanding special attention gets a detailed, in-depth explanation. (Traditional Chinese ink and wash painting emphasizes different treatments of details for different parts based on their importance). Likewise, homework and essays were closely related to the key contents. Fang Lei said he understood the basic theories and points already, through reference books and materials.

Zhang Dan, a senior student majoring in financial mathematics, had a similar experience. "In XJTLU, whether for basic courses or specialized courses, teachers organize their own teaching materials rather than just following a textbook, and they usually recommend lots of background reading," Zhang said. "For each subject, we need to read a great deal of relevant information, and write various essays in English, which makes us very active learners," she added.

Of course, students of XJTLU are not floundering in a sea of knowledge by themselves. Each student has multiple tutors to provide them instruction and guidance on their academic and career development. The college has provisions for them to choose at least three: a personal tutor, extracurricular tutor and student tutor. In the fresh year, students' personal tutors are their English teachers, and in the second year, their personal tutors are their teachers for specialized courses. Every teacher in this college, whatever their professional title, accepts three to five students, with the focus being on students' studies, research and personal growth. XJTLU's creative introduction of the extracurricular tutor system builds bridges with the outside world; extracurricular tutors are mostly senior executives of the world top 500 enterprises, or successful entrepreneurs. They offer students career guidance and instructions on starting a business. Peer-to-peer assistance comes in the form of senior students offering advice to those in lower grades.

At the opening ceremony each year, President Xi always requires the freshmen to keep two things in mind, "First, from this day on, you are responsible for your own behavior as a young adult; second, the most important aspect of your studies in XJTLU is not to obtain the two diplomas (one from Xi'an Jiaotong University, the other from the University of Liverpool), or extend some specialized knowledge, but to learn to be a mature person capable of independent study and making your own decisions. This is part of the higher education process."

Academic and Administrative Authorities: Each Performs Its Own Functions
Putting teachers and students in a position to become the true masters of the school is a principle that XJTLU has been sticking to faithfully. "The academic authorities and administrative authorities are clearly separate, and perform their respective functions efficiently," said Zhang Junlong, an associate professor of the Bioscience Department, who returned to China about one year ago after more than 10 years of teaching and research abroad.

"Administrative power and academic power are two indispensable means to effectively operate a higher learning institution. To guarantee effective operation of both, the key lies in the establishment of clear and complete systems and procedures," remarked President Xi. At XJTLU, all academic affairs like disciplinary development, academic assessment, evaluation of teachers' academic ability and promotion, students' academic performance and punishment of students for violating academic discipline, fall onto the duty roster of specialized academic organizations or commissions. The administrative department is not entitled to interfere with these affairs.

At XJTLU, highly placed administrative officers do not necessarily have a big say in academic affairs due to its principle of students and teachers being masters of the college. Therefore, if some students or teachers regard a decision of the academic organization or committee unfair and lodge an appeal to the administrative department, the administration still can't rule on academic matters. The administrative department can only supervise the academic department by examining the facts based on which the academic decision was made and the legitimacy of the procedure. If the facts are true, and the procedure legitimate, the administrative authorities must support the decision and preserve the independence of the academic authorities.

At the end of 2010, XJTLU set up a fund of RMB 6 million for postgraduate research and scholarship in the sciences. The committee of the scientific development fund, consisting of teachers, is entitled to make the decision on its distribution and scholarship allotments. For applications, the rule is quite clear: the administrative department is only responsible for collecting the applicants' materials according to the application procedure. Nowhere in the process is "PR work" (as done by teachers and students in some domestic colleges) needed, nor do teachers need to devote time to competing for research projects and funds. Being committed to their teaching and research work is sufficient.

This clear division of powers makes the operation of the college efficient. Its high-level executive team has only four members; apart from President Xi, the three vice presidents are responsible for administration, for academic and research affairs, and for service work and information management.

The clear division between academic authorities and administrative authorities has nurtured the exceptionally strong academic atmosphere at XJTLU, with students as the main beneficiaries. As of July 1, nearly 90 percent of the 530 graduates this year (the second batch of graduates in the college) received admission notices for postgraduate study from such world-renowned universities as Oxford, Cambridge, the Imperial College of Science and Technology, and the London School of Economics and Political Science. Among them, 22 have entered successive postgraduate and doctoral programs. A considerable number received half or full scholarships.

Dual Core Education
In the main square of the university sit eight sculptures of philosophers, including Confucius and Plato. Students have dubbed the group of sculptures the "Eight Immortals" (who are actually deities in Chinese mythology), and they are a signal that the school advocates and integrates both Western and Chinese cultural icons.

Integration of Chinese and foreign elements can be seen everywhere on the campus of XJTLU. Foreign teachers hurrying to class and silver-haired Chinese professors are the common images on the campus. The Mathematics and Physics Teaching Center has some senior professors, like the former dean of the Mathematics Department of Tongji University, former dean of the Mathematics Department of Tianjin University, and former vice dean of the Mathematics Department of Tsinghua University, many of them enjoying a special allowance granted by the State Council.

Before formally enrolling students, Xi'an Jiaotong University and the University of Liverpool organized a team of experts to reorganize and optimize the one-meter-thick syllabus collection on more than 100 subjects. The idea was to retain the cutting-edge advantages of some disciplines in the University of Liverpool, consider the traditions and strengths of Xi'an Jiaotong University, and give full consideration of the characteristics and demands of Chinese students. Another feature for XJTLU is its teaching period of 28 weeks per year, less than that in most other Chinese colleges of 36 weeks annually.

Professor Guo Jingming, director of the Mathematics and Physics Teaching Center, remarked that the Western management mode is "giving students more freedom" which fully sparks student creativity, while the Chinese "spoon-feeding" method lays a solid foundation for students' future study. XJTLU integrates the advantages of both, reducing the classroom teaching hours and increasing after-class tutoring and personal counseling.

Wu Fei, a XJTLU student who has been accepted by eight top universities in Britain, started an IT company and a foreign trade company, with RMB 200,000 in capital when he was only a junior. Six months later, their sales volume broke RMB one million. "In my conversations with the extracurricular tutor, I learned certain lessons and gained experience, got acquainted with some people too, and established some social connections that laid a good foundation for my career," Wu said.

"Four years of education have benefitted Fang Lei in more ways than his academic achievements. He has made great headway in his ability to deal with people," Fang Lei's father said. From preparing for IELTS to applying for overseas graduate schools, all his work, including writing study plans, making presentations and preparing for interviews, was completed by himself alone. All his parents needed to do was wait for one good piece of news after another. Fang's father says of the China-foreign co-established university, "This comprehensive development of our son makes us very excited, and we are grateful for XJTLU's unique features."

"We're neither a branch campus of Xi'an Jiaotong University, nor a branch of the University of Liverpool," President Xi said. In his opinion, XJTLU is not simply imitating the British model, but assimilating the core of both Western and Chinese systems, and exploring new paths for the reform of China's halls of higher learning.

(Ling Junhui is a reporter with Xinhua News Agency.)