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Postgraduate Education Should Serve the Society and Improve its Quality

China Science Daily: Interview with Xiong Sidong, President of Soochow University

In 2009, Xiong Sidong joined Soochow University and took the job of administering postgraduate education. Later, Soochow Graduate School was founded under his guidance.Today, the Soochow’s coverage of Level doctoral programs ranks 3rd in China, the top among all the provincial and local universities. Its "School of Supervisors",an initiative in China, has largely improved the professional proficiency of Soochow’s supervisors and the quality of their supervision. In order to enhance student centeredness, a joint association has been founded to help students improve their communication with supervisors and university departments on an equalbasis.

Whenwe meet with Xiong Sidong again, he is a little bit different. In January,2016, he was appointed as President of Soochow University, the first Soochow President from a democratic party. Currently he is focusing on pediatricians,“healthcare + internet”, and “first-rate university and first-rate disciplines”construction; yet he is still doing a lot about postgraduate education, whichhe is most familiar with.

As the "operator" of the postgraduate education reform at Soochow, what is he thinking about?

Restructuring is the first step of the comprehensive reform.

In Xiong’s opinion, major emphasis of postgraduate education reform should be placed on "serving the society and improving the quality". “We have always been talking about improving the qualityof postgraduate education; yet we do not have a clarified definition for 'quality'. We must make it clear that quality of education should be based on social needs; otherwise, even human resources have been cultivated for particular areas, there may be no need for such resources. In that case, how can we evaluate the quality of education?” said President Xiong. With the rapid development of Chinese economy, there is an increasing need for talents who canlead the industries. “Breaking the tradition of academic-oriented educational mode and increasing the number of professional master's programs should be solidly furthered during the 13th 'Five-Year Plan'".

Also, for Xiong Sidong, the quality of postgraduate education should be promoted via curriculum, research, and practice. Curriculum should be differentiated for academic programs and professional programs. Curriculum for the former should focus on innovation while for the latter, industrial principles are the most important.

The year of 2015 was the year for improving the teaching quality of postgraduate classes at Soochow, which was quite rare in Chinese universities. Xiong had his own reasons for such reform:most postgraduate students attend class for less than two years; they have muchless time in class than undergraduates. Therefore, improving classroom teachingis of much significance. According to Xiong, Soochow has adopted two strategiesfor the postgraduate curriculum reform: first, more basic, introductory and widely-accessible courses are offered and courses with limited academic valueare abolished.

Meanwhile, courses about pedagogy are offered to supervisors to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of their teaching. At the same time, the supervision team at Soochow is also under adjustment. In the past, the introduction of academic teaching staff was most highlighted; now most effort is spent on developing teaching teams that integrate the oretical research and the capacity of solving social and economic problems.

For the question of how to attract enterprise teachers, Xiong’s answer is that it should not be a one-way process;instead, enterprises and institutions should be mutually attractive and complementary. For enterprises, cooperating with academic institutions intalent cultivation can improve their personnel structures while for institutions, which can offer better policies of titles and payments, it can further diversify and expand its teaching staff by introducing enterprise instructors.

Postgraduate education should focus on the admission and the graduation

According to Xiong Sidong, acomprehensive reform should include reforms in the admission, cultivation, and degree conferring for students as well as the recruitment and assessment of supervisors. The reforms of admission and graduation are most important for guaranteeing the quality of postgraduate education.The first step of the reform is about the admission, which should respect the teachers choice and thef eatures of different disciplines, said Xiong Sidong.

It is undeniable that in the contemporary postgraduate educational system, supervisors are the most responsiblized party yet they have little power or choice in admitting students because of the various forces that intervene the admission. For Xiong Sidong, “supervisor”is a collective noun instead of a singular noun. The admission of students should not be determined by a particular teacher; rather, supervisor should bea team that makes collective decisions. Exploration should be made in areas such as how to replace writing tests with capacity tests, how to replace single disciplinary tests with comprehensive tests, and how to replace the simple and general supervisor-student matching with more customized systems.

Similarly, graduation is as importantas admission. Chinese universities have very “strict” requirements on admitting postgraduate students, yet graduation is much easier—almost all the postgraduate students can receive their degree upon the time of graduation. “‘Strict graduation’ refers to the quality control—the conferring of degree should depend on whether the candidate has met the requirements.” For Xiong Sidong,supervisors should be responsible for assisting the candidates to meet there quirements of the degrees.

As is acknowledged, a good selection system can largely enhance the improvement of teaching and research. Therefore,Soochow has established a system that allows doctoral candidates to receive graduation certificate and degree separately. That is, students can achievetheir certificate through a seminar during the due time of their candidature and come back to do another seminar for the degree later. This allows the candidates to have enough time for job hunting. Xiong told us that although the separation of graduation seminar and degree seminar lowered the due-date conferring rate of degree from 99% to 50% and 80%~90% of the candidates would achieve their degree later, it has largely enhanced their study and the phenomenon of “difficult admission, easy graduation” has been substantially changed.

The university should assist with the supervisors as “Person of Chief Responsibility”

During the interview with XiongSidong, “supervisor” is a term frequently mentioned by him. So, what is thedifference between the supervision team of Soochow and other universities?

In 2015, Xiong as the then Vice President of Soochow and Dean of the School of Supervisors made a report titled “Position Responsibilities of Supervisors”, in which he emphasized that supervision should not only refer to a title and a profession, but also a kind of responsibility. In that report, he initiated that the key responsibilities of supervisors should include cultivating students to be people with morality,ethics, and usefulness; and supervisors should provide their postgraduate students with clear academic directions, necessary help and research supervision.

School of Supervisors, the first school of its kind in China, was established by Soochow in November, 2011; itis now “Degree and Postgraduate Education Training Center of Jiangsu Province”and has trained more than one thousand supervisors. “During the process of supervision, supervisors are most responsiblized and they take full or unlimited responsibility for their students. The School of Supervisors trains the teachers to be more capable of advising students and conveying their knowledge and research methods to them. Meanwhile, the university should help the supervisors to play their roles well.”

Xiong adds that teaching at postgraduate level can be various, but the School of Supervisors does not focus on helping teachers with their lecturing; instead, it aims at finding and solving the problems in teaching so that supervisors may learn the most effective teaching activities and understand the basic elements of successful classroom teaching.

In order to promote the “old constant normality” to “new constant normality”, Soochow has also separated the reruitment system and the qualification system for the supervisors. Not all the recruited doctoral supervisors are allowed to supervise students every year and they have to pass the annual assessment to keep their qualification of supervision. Besides, a special committee has been established at Soochow for supervising and directing the classroom teaching and overall cultivation of postgraduate students. The committee is nicknamed as “a biting committee” as it implements very strict rules for postgraduate education.

Moreover, postgraduate education is a comprehensive work. For Xiong Sidong, students should be mature in both learning and being. Therefore, a joint association of students, supervisors and university departments has founded at Soochow. Representatives of postgraduate students would collect proposals and solve problems together with supervisors and administrators. To Xiong’s proud is that he always participated in the discussions and answered the questions. “Students turn mature gradually and their questions are more profound, which drives the traditional, cautious and unequal teacher-student relationship to be more equal and free.”

The cultural ecology of small classes should be improved.

As is known to all, postgraduate classes, which are usually much smaller than undergraduate ones, are naturally considered to be advantageous. In Xiong Sidong’s opinion, the sizes of postgraduate classes should be classified and designed according to different courses. Large classes for lectures by reputed scholars and masters are acceptable in that more students can attend the lectures. On the other hand, seminars with more profound discussion can cater to the individualized and detailed needs of the students. Xiong agrees with the saying that “there are no bad students, but only bad teachers”. “Students’ lack of attentiveness and interaction is rooted in the improperness of the courses. Teachers should explore further about the students’ interests and needs. Teachings that fail to cater to the specific needs of students will never bring about good classes”.

Xiong also states that the environment of small classes should be improved. Chinese students tend to follow the teachers instead of interrupting them while the essence of small classes lies in interaction, experience, and discussion. Otherwise, small classes are just small-scaled cram teaching. “Higher educational institutions should pay more attention to the cultural ecology of classes in cultivating innovative talents.” In addition, for Xiong Sidong, the exploration of pedagogical methods should be reformed. “Methods such as group preparation,simulate teaching, and class observation should come back to the university.”