Hidden Boundaries – A Joint-Venture Education Program in China


Thor May
Brisbane, Australia, 2012


This review is a post-mortem of an education joint-venture between an Australian college and a Chinese college in central China at the three year mark*. It has lessons for policy, management, teaching and learning. The focus is on foreign language teaching, but most of the elements also apply to other fields of study.

[* The Australian writer was leaving China due to an incoherent Public Security Bureau regulation that a work visa could not be extended beyond 65 years of age, regardless of real fitness].

Scene I: The Joint-Venture Business Model

The foreign partner’s business model was designed to move graduating students to Australia for further study. Such students would therefore have to meet certain academic and English language standards. The Chinese college’s business model had a public version and an implicit version, the actual one, which only gradually became clear to the foreign partner over time.

Admission to the normal college program was cheap in Chinese terms, but was cemented to a certain admission level by the national Gaokao (高考) examinations. The admission mark was not especially high, since this was not a prestigious institution, but it existed. There were however still large numbers of failing students whose families had suffered the humiliation of not being allowed to send their children to college. That failure of course meant a serious net loss of future opportunity and income to those families.

However, there was an even worse problem. In a culture where ‘face’ (面子mianzi) has immense force, buying one’s way out of humiliation has been an established principle for generations, and of course creates countless business opportunities. The college’s plan (so obvious in the Chinese universe, so opaque to the foreigner) was to legitimize the admission of failing students by bringing them into an “international” program at three times the standard national fee level.

Whether these “international” program students ever graduated at a level sufficient for international study was irrelevant to the Chinese college’s income stream, and (it turned out) beyond the expectations and finances of nearly all the students. This is not a new model. The South Korean tertiary education system plays out the same paradigm on a large and very profitable scale.

Act I: Enter the Dean

The dean was not a bad fellow. He had trained, apparently, as an electrical engineer, which had scarcely prepared him for guiding the international joint-venture Australian-Chinese nursing and business studies division of a run down college in a third tier city.

He seemed to be doing his best, arranged the regulation number of outings, and promised through an interpreter to “fix it” whenever one of the foreigners had something which needed fixing. Unfortunately, “it” was never fixed. Also unfortunately he had no foreign language or inter-cultural skills, so nothing could be negotiated directly.

None of this was the dean’s fault. In this sprawling institution, tucked into four campuses across the city, a prestigious position had become vacant, he had the right connections, had no doubt strategically arranged the right gifts and favours, so now he had this big office, respect amongst his peers and a telephone. That was how careers were arranged here. The problem was “it”. How did you actually manage a foreign joint venture enterprise with Australians who didn’t speak your language, had no respect for ‘face’ (面子mianzi), and basically wanted to change everything?

These notes are in many ways the dean’s story, if we can take the dean as an archetype, ever-present but usually behind the curtain. The notes are also the record of a particular meeting, advertised as a seminar, where the Australian participant had plans to review the joint-venture as an educational undertaking, after three years of working with it, and just prior to leaving. In the event, the meeting turned out not to be a review opportunity, but a collision of intentions and cultures. There was no fight, no disagreement, indeed no discussion. In fact, it was not a seminar. It seems worth putting this vignette on the record (though persons and places must naturally remain anonymous) since it is a microcosm of what is happening again and again across China. Not only China of course, but at any confluence where contrasting currents of culture, education, tradition and expectation try to mix.

The meeting brought together the whole division: the dean, various administrative staff, Chinese teachers and foreign teachers. It was an unusual meeting since foreigners were present and would therefore have to be bilingual. The proceedings were opened by the dean in Chinese. He immediately turned to the senior foreign educator, myself, and requested that I give a kind of plenary address on 'What is a teacher's role?' My invitation had not mentioned any such address, but the topic after all was reasonable. We were about to have a seminar, weren’t we?

Thinking back to prior experience of seminars with East Asian participants, I paused. I explained the danger of me as an authority figure giving opinions first. Namely, the Chinese custom is to agree politely and perhaps avoid disagreement or discussion altogether. That is not a great way to thrash out issues or arrive at new insights. Therefore, I requested to play devil's advocate, with others giving views first, then me challenging. Creative destruction is sometimes the best way to learn! 

Unfortunately my request was not translated to the dean who of course hadn't understood the English, and on reflection would not have understood the stratagem. I foolishly expected a discussion but the dean wanted a pantomime as Chinese bureaucratic culture required. He looked mildly annoyed. Why wasn’t the foreigner following the standard script? My 'plenary address' was therefore absolutely required.

Still thinking of a seminar (since I’m a slow witted man), I asked that at least my comments should be dealt with critically and analytically by those present when I had finished speaking. This request was apparently not translated either, or taken as a conventional gesture of Confucian-style modesty. Oblivious to the content of what I had to say, my presentation was followed immediately by some boilerplate homilies from the dean in Chinese. He then waved his hand to indicate that the meeting was over. The honours had been done and could duly be written up as a pro-forma report to his superiors, who would duly file it.

Act II: Requiem to what the Foreign Language Expert actually said…

What the Foreign Language Expert actually said was not necessarily witty or wise or even correct. What he hoped for was to start a discussion. That discussion was lost to its birthplace, the education international joint-venture in central China. Too bad.

However somebody, somewhere may find elements of these points worth thinking about :

1.  Productivity: The teacher's role is to maximize students' learning productivity. What does this mean? The points to follow offer some expansion on this notion.


2.  Objectives: The objectives of an international program should demonstrate both general and specific goals.  

Broadly, the following are reasonable criteria for program success:

a) Attitude: students should leave the program with positive attitudes to learning English in their future lives.

b) Social norms: students should come to be at ease in dealing with non-Chinese people as a normal human interaction, and not as some stylized ritual that leaves them untouched at a person to person level.

c) Effective learning: Learning productivity is of central interest to good students and teachers. Students should meet learning goals to their optimum potential. This is always specific to individuals, and in language learning might not mean achieving fluency during a particular program.

d) Advertised targets: Managements, politicians and the public generally evaluate programs according to numerical targets, percentages, grades etc. In terms of language achievement in language learning programs, the interpretation of these quantitative measures is mostly delusional (for reasons too complex to explore in this paper). Nevertheless such “evidence” is always insisted upon. From the student perspective, advertised targets may or may not be taken seriously.

For example, I have suggested that in the Australian-Chinese education joint venture which gave rise to this review, the Australian college partner had a clear (though misguided) expectation of bringing many students to Australia. In language terms this meant student success in obtaining at least Level 6 on an IELTS scale in order to be granted an Australian study visa. It became quite clear eventually that neither the Chinese college administration, nor most of the students, had a serious expectation of achieving this advertised goal. In the event, many of the students were impressively diligent, and the college did its best to minimize distractions and encourage study. However, for both students and the Chinese college, effort had to be tempered by some realism about the true local situation.


3. Classroom engagement: Teaching productivity involves the processes and techniques of maximizing student learning productivity. Professional teachers soon learn that good teaching productivity comes with certain prior conditions. An indispensable condition is that students must be kept emotionally involved in activities. In fact, this should be a teacher’s first management goal at the level of daily classroom activity.

Every classroom requires a degree of stability which comes from familiar routines and expectations. However this had to be balanced against the psychological reality that routine work is not memorable, and in fact amputates new learning.

Thus there is a need, within reason, to introduce variation, surprise, even shock into the classroom activities in a way that is memorable and amplifies memory.

At the joint venture meeting, I gave the example of a travelling actors' troupe in Australia which amazed an ESL class by bursting into the room and apparently robbing a young woman. This riveted student attention and led to some highly successful (and carefully planned) language teaching.


4. Text books: Text book + instructor = course, in common understanding. This is ridiculous. Text book content is often banal and therefore forgettable. Language text books also tend to contain many cultural errors (if we think of what people actually do and say).

The remedy is to use text books as disposable tools, not to be shy about changing or challenging their content, and sometimes even to be mischievous in playing with them.

Once students become accustomed to this less respectful approach to the printed word, the text book experience can become less predictable, more active, and far more memorable.

Text books are not necessarily right, or wrong. The purpose of challenge is not merely to disagree (which may be shallow and destructive). The purpose is to develop reasoned and researched counter arguments. This skill in itself is one of the most valuable that students and teachers can ever learn.

In language work, it is also often very productive if the teacher changes the mode of text book presentation (regardless of what the text book writer intended). For example, a boring written fill-in exercise can become far more interesting if done as a spoken challenge contest.

5. Teacher development: A traditional "text book teacher" is only the shadow of a teacher. Such person should better be called a 'trainer' or an 'instructor'. Perhaps it is not surprising that educational managers tend to think of teachers in these terms.

Dogs are trained. In fact, as teachers of humans we hope to achieve something more. Maximizing the learning productivity of students requires dealing with the individual psychology of students.

Learning is not a process of filling a water jug (an empty head). It is a process of challenging and changing what is already in that head, so that it can be re-modeled into something more effective. An instructor, by definition, cannot do this. Such change can only occur when the teacher is able to draw out and engage what students privately believe.

At first glance it seems that the teacher and a police interrogator or propagandist or salesman might share similar roles. This is quite wrong however. Neither the police interrogator nor the propagandist nor the salesman can safely assume that the person they are targeting is well-intentioned, trustworthy or clear thinking. They must expect the least cooperation from their target subjects, have little interest in the real welfare of their target subjects, and certainly do not intend to change themselves.

However, the relationship between teacher and student can only be optimum when there is mutual trust and mutual respect. Both the teacher and the student must expose themselves to debate and risk. Sometimes the teacher is wrong and is changed by the student!

Students will NOT expose themselves to risk their ideas or identity in an “instructor's classroom”. In fact they are expert at hiding their personal beliefs about a topic, protecting these beliefs, pretending to agree, and actually learning nothing. Until a student trusts that the teacher is dealing with them as a genuine debating partner, very little true learning may occur.

True learning is knowledge, understanding and belief that actually changes a student's behaviour over time -- long after schooling has formally finished. These comments apply not only to students in classrooms, but to teachers in seminars!


6. Skill development for non-native speaking language teachers: Only a minority of native English teachers working in a country like China are professional teachers, so there are of course many pedagogical shortcomings amongst them. They are also, by government fiat, only transitional figures attracting at best cursory respect and training from employing institutions. As in most countries outside of Europe, China offers no possibility for genuinely professional native speaking foreign language teachers to settle down and build a career (a serious and foolish loss for the country). Therefore the following comments are not mainly addressed to native English speakers. Regarding the Chinese English teachers in the international joint venture college, I suggested that they should become more than 'text book English teachers' by extending and diversifying their skills, according to their aptitudes. In particular :

a) Some teachers should develop professional skills in drama, movement and speech. Drama, well-used, is an immensely powerful teaching tool.

b) Some teachers with the aptitude should develop specialized knowledge of multimedia and Internet resources. There are now huge and ever-expanding resources for technology assisted language learning. This gift to learning is hardly used in many traditional institutions because the teacher skill and knowledge is not available to make use of it. It was barely understood at the joint venture college.

Such technically assisted avenues for learning can only become workable when an institution becomes serious about maintaining technical resources. At the time of this review, the four campuses of the college in central China employed just two technicians whose ONLY job was to keep the Internet functioning (and they didn't do that especially well). No technician had the job of maintaining software on the college's computers, and even hardware maintenance was unreliable.

c) Some Chinese English teachers need to be prepared to learn new subject skills by working co-operatively across subject areas, such as with nursing teachers and business teachers. That is, they need to develop English for Special Purposes programs.

I gave an example of ESP development from my previous experience in Papua New Guinea. PNG has 800 languages and 1000 often warring tribes. In that country at a technical university, some very professional ESP teachers worked like diplomats to obtain the confidence of British and Australian engineering lecturers. They developed close personal and working relationships. They persuaded the engineers to let student engineering assignments be given to the ESP teachers before the engineers saw them. The engineering students, who had little interest in English as a “subject”, then became enthusiastic about the ESP-engineering cooperation. The ESP teachers were able to teach engineering students how to organize and present their ideas well. The engineering lecturers were amazed, and suddenly decided that these students, who were working in English as a third language, were not so "stupid" as they had previously thought. That is, the ESP intervention became a win-win for everybody.

I suggested that in the international joint venture college, Chinese English teachers, together with nursing and business teachers, should similarly develop close working relationships and shared skills. Together they could develop skill programs truly suitable for the local students. Since the foreign English teachers in the institution had little contact with Chinese English teachers, this could also be a chance to develop some mutual trust by working together. The foreign English teachers could help to ensure that new teaching content developed by the Chinese teachers was in fact standard colloquial English.


7. Existing skills of non-native speaking language teachers:

Since I have been a teacher-educator in other places, a few comments on teaching skills seem be worthwhile. The remarks are intended for debate only and of course also reflect my limitations as a foreign visitor in the Chinese context.

As I see it, the main language teaching problems that Chinese teachers face are not wholly about being non-native speakers of English. There are three principal, closely related problems, two technical an one cultural.

a) Cultural constraints: The cultural problem relates to 面子 mianzi (keeping & losing face in English), taken together with perceptions of the traditional hierarchical teacher’s role in China. Using a non-native language ALWAYS involves risk-taking. When a speaker is no longer prepared to take the risk of making mistakes, his or her own language learning will be greatly restricted. The main, perhaps the only, place that Chinese language teachers tend to use English is in the classroom. If they are not prepared to take the risk of making mistakes (especially in spoken English) in the classroom then frankly, they will be increasingly poor English users.

Therefore, Chinese English teachers must develop a classroom environment where both the teacher and students are comfortable with risk taking, that is, with making mistakes in the language. This implies a much more reciprocal relationship between the teacher and students than is found in traditional Chinese classrooms. As a teacher, I take risks all the time by asking students to help with my terrible Chinese. That does NOT cause students to cease respecting me. On the contrary, they respect me as a fellow-learner who happens to have special knowledge of English but baby knowledge of Chinese.

b) Colloquial language: Chinese English teachers usually have professional teaching skills but on the whole do not have a colloquial mastery of English. That is not their fault. Few of them have lived in English speaking countries. Actually, some of their students now have a closer engagement with forms of colloquial English than their teachers do. That is, the students are increasingly children of the digital revolution who frequently follow their interests internationally through the Internet. Those interests may be in online games, music, forums or a multitude of other channels. For teachers to harness these foreign culture and language interests, they themselves must both mix into the same media and overcome the barriers to reciprocity outlined in a), Cultural Constraints.

 c) Second language memory: Another serious problem which Chinese English teachers have, a technical problem, is with “language memory”. By “language memory” I mean the ability to follow an extended discussion in English, especially when the argument is not obvious from the situation.

My observations have convinced me that most Chinese English teachers can follow only short, obvious comments on familiar topics. Any extended or unfamiliar discussion quickly becomes exhausting and understanding soon fails.

There are ways to extend language memory which I can assist with as a one-to-one coach in person. Foreigner or Chinese, we rarely have that luxury however. The best self-help suggestion I can make is to throw away the crutch of text books like New Concept whenever possible and USE the language for something more than ten-second sound bites. Learn to fly in English by jumping out of the nest.

Outside of the classroom, the most advanced second language users learn to be comfortable in foreign language mental worlds. Typically they achieve this by reading extensively on interesting topics, fiction or non-fiction. That means becoming immersed in real books, not sample paragraphs from text book extracts. Not everyone is an enthusiastic reader, even in their mother tongue. Some do demonstrate impressive results by becoming, for example, connoisseurs of foreign films. However nothing has ever surpassed extensive reading for achieving deep insight, an embracing vocabulary, and an instinctual feel for the native patterns of a new language.


This review began with comments about a failure of understanding between educational and cultural traditions, Chinese and Australian. Much potential continues to be lost because of that failure, yet much was gained also. The failures were mostly institutional. The successes were personal. Whatever their final life journeys, most of the students from the Australian-Chinese education joint venture did leave the program with positive feelings about the English language, a relaxed attitude to mixing with non-Chinese people, and hopefully a greater understanding of themselves. These gains will be passed onto their children. In the end, countries are about people, not institutions.

Professional bio: Thor May's PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of drifting through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).  


contact: http://thormay.net    thormay AT yahoo.com

All opinions expressed in this paper are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.

Hidden Boundaries – A Joint-Venture Education Program in China " © copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2012