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Experiencing Coventry: Two Staff Visit GDUFS

Written by: James Campion, Betty, Debby Xiong and Jasmine
Photo by:Betty, Matthew Shield and Jacqueline Aldridge
Edited by:James Campion, WANG Zijin |  Date:2016/09/1288 Hits

GDUFS’ cooperation with Coventry University has been in existence for over 20 years, and thus is one of our oldest partnerships. Apart from academic exchanges and collaboration on research, Coventry jointly operates a 2+2 programme with GDUFS – in which Chinese students study for two years in the International College, before travelling to Coventry for the final two years of their degree. As a result, when GDUFS English News became aware of a visit by two Coventry staff, we were fascinated to have a conversation with them about the reasons for their trip, and to gain insight into their expectations, experiences and perspectives on the partnership.


Who they are


Matthew Shield is a lawyer – a qualified solicitor – who works as a Senior Legal Advisor in the Legal Services Department at Coventry University. When asked what this entails, he explained to us one of the major differences between the approaches to legal work at GDUFS and Coventry. Here, the university’s legal department is staffed by a Director and a small team of two or three people, which the university’s Law professors then carry out the vast majority of the legal work for – on behalf of the university. In contrast, the professors at Coventry’s Law School focus on teaching and research, and this is where Matthew’s role in the Legal Services Department comes in: at Coventry, the day-to-day legal work is carried out specifically by the lawyers working in the Legal Services Department – which is distinct from the academic work of the professors in the Law School.


Jacqueline Aldridge is a Human Resources Client Services Manager at Coventry University. She is part of a team of approximately 50 people who manage everything from recruiting staff all the way through to when they leave the university. Their team is very busy as they provide services to the entire university – from the faculties to the professional service areas.


When asked about the reasons for their trip to GDUFS, Matthew described it as a “pioneering project” by Coventry to send 12 administrative staff to its global partner institutions for cultural exploration and collaboration opportunities. He explained that academic staff are used to such visits, but because Coventry does have a large number of international students and also a large number of academic partnerships, it is important for those involved in ‘professional services’ (encompassing legal services and human resources) to understand the inner workings of Coventry’s position in a global context. He acknowledged that their lack of exposure to this – especially in light of the university’s internationalisation – was potentially detrimental to their ability to support the university as it asserts itself on the academic world stage.


James, a GDUFS English News journalist (left) and Matthew (right)


Regarding their feelings of the partnership, both Matthew and Jacqueline praised the fact that the well-established cooperation between the two universities means that visits such as this are not only open to academic staff, but also to professional services staff such as themselves. “It makes a huge difference now we’re able to gather first-hand experience of the partnerships, rather than relying on third-hand information”, Matthew told us.


Their week


On what was their first visit to China, Matthew and Jacqueline spent a total of six days at GDUFS – arriving on the Sunday and flying back the next Saturday. They described their week as a “whirlwind”, but one that had been planned meticulously by GDUFS’ International Office. “One of the best aspects of the trip is how it has been both informative and enjoyable simultaneously”, Matthew told us. Throughout their week, in which they were given a vast amount of information, they were able to meet various members of staff from different institutes, faculties and departments across the university – both on the North and South Campuses. They told us that because of the nature of their visit, they were given access to a broad cross-section of the university – from academic departments and administrative services to students.


Their day-to-day schedule was hectic – with meetings spanning early morning until late afternoon. Thankfully, their evenings were their own, although they didn’t always spend them resting: instead, it was a valuable opportunity to reflect on the day’s proceedings, and begin to identify and understand the similarities and differences between the approaches of the two universities – both in terms of legal services and HR.


When asked whether they had encountered any difficulties finding their way around an unfamiliar campus and environment, they explained to us that a team of student volunteers had been assigned to them to assist in any way they could throughout the week. “We were very lucky to have them supporting us”, Jacqueline answered. One student in particular – Carol – worked particularly closely with them: she picked them up from the airport on the first day, and was available every day of the week to answer any questions they had, as well as showing them around the campus, taking them from meeting to meeting and acting as their translator.



Three student volunteers on the GDUFS South Campus


Regarding their experiences of Chinese food, both of them eagerly told us that they had enjoyed everything they had tasted. They revealed that it they felt it was important not to be too ‘British’ when approaching their meals, and to be as adventurous as possible! Matthew explained that, while he does enjoy eating in Chinese restaurants in Coventry, that culinary experience did not prepare him for the variety and diversity of food on offer in Guangzhou. Throughout their week, they ate at a traditional Cantonese restaurant, they had morning tea and dim sum at their hotel, and even enjoyed a bowl of noodles at the small restaurants near GDUFS’ north gate!




During the planning stages of the trip, the group of 12 administrative staff were allocated in pairs to one of Coventry’s partner institutions by the department at Coventry responsible for the university’s international affairs. This department has intimate knowledge of each institution and all 12 staff, and so matched each person to an institution based on this information. Thankfully, both Matthew and Jacqueline felt that GDUFS was a perfect match for their interests, and their desire to participate in different cultural opportunities. They discovered that their selected location would be Guangzhou in late December, and so had around two months to begin preparations for their visit.


Once the decision to come to China had been made, we were fascinated to learn about their expectations and knowledge of China, Guangzhou and GDUFS. However, both of them revealed that they had purposefully approached the trip with open minds – in order to gain as much out of the experience as possible. In order to illustrate this, Matthew shared with us an anecdote about one of his first travelling experiences (when he was three or four years old!), in which his parents taught him the valuable life lesson that things will always be different in other parts of the world, and to always respect and be open-minded towards these differences. We journalists smiled upon hearing this story, and all agreed that childhood experiences of this sort can create a mind-set that we take with us throughout our whole lives.


However, Jacqueline, who rarely travels to this part of the world, was aware of the uniqueness of the opportunity, and so felt it was important to learn some basic information about GDUFS, as well as some introductory cultural knowledge. Matthew reiterated this, and shared that he’d browsed through GDUFS’ website, as well as some guide books about Guangzhou. In addition, due to the long-standing nature of the Coventry-GDUFS partnership, both of them had the opportunity to speak with several colleagues who have first-hand experience of GDUFS – to gather advice about life on campus. Both of them felt that gaining background knowledge of this sort is crucially important for avoiding any inadvertent cultural faux pas!




Despite the hectic nature of their week, in which they met many different people, our guests both emphasised the friendliness of everyone they met, and were grateful for how welcome they had been made to feel. They told us that everyone was also very knowledgeable about the Coventry partnership and programme – and these aspects of their trip really allowed them to maximise the benefits of their experience. They also noted the much higher degree of formality during meetings with their Chinese colleagues, which contrasts their experiences of similar meetings in Coventry.


Cantonese Dim Sum


Through their experiences, our guests identified many similarities and differences of the procedures and inner-workings between both universities, and Matthew revealed some key areas that impressed him about GDUFS. Two of these were the well-defined nature and role of each faculty, and also the inter-disciplinary nature of the teaching and research. Regarding the latter, Matthew praised the encouragement and expectation of academics at our university to work across faculties, whereas at Coventry (and UK universities in general), academics focus almost exclusively on their own teaching and research. While this also does have some benefits, Matthew revealed that the university is now beginning to recognise – especially in line with its internationalisation – the importance of cross-disciplinary studies, and he felt that this area could see future collaboration between the two universities.


Although their visit had been fairly brief and very eventful, Matthew and Jacqueline nevertheless had some time to explore the campus. They shared with us their immediate observation, which was that the campus is so green! Sitting at the foot of Baiyun Mountain, a rural backdrop certainly present, but they were pleasantly surprised with the ecological and natural environment on the campus itself. “It’s very different because Coventry is a city-centre campus – so we’re part of a main city – whereas GDUFS is much more enclosed and secure”.


The same was true for the areas of the city they explored. “Although it is a huge city that must’ve grown very rapidly, I was amazed to see the consideration for, and the importance of, nature in the city”, Matthew acknowledged. We journalists all smiled in agreement, as this is undoubtedly an accurate observation to make. Guangzhou is known informally as the ‘green city of China’, and we were all pleased that our guests had discerned this – after just a few short days here.


The partnership


Being one of GDUFS’ oldest overseas collaborations, we were interested to ascertain the extent of our guests’ knowledge of our partnership. Jacqueline admitted that she didn’t know too much before their visit, but reiterated the need to keep an open mind. Matthew, whose work in legal services means he is aware of the International College’s 2+2 programme, did know a little more. However, he emphasised the distant or third-hand nature of this knowledge, and so was eager to experience the partnership on the ground both from the perspective of the staff, and also from the students.


GDUFS South Campus


Due to the extent of their prior knowledge, we were fascinated to gather their perspectives on the partnership after having experienced it first-hand, and to appreciate how their understanding had changed after the influx of information during their six days at GDUFS. “I’ve got a much broader knowledge of how it operates here”, Jacqueline told us, “and if someone mentions GDUFS, I’ll be much more knowledgeable and engaged, because I’ve been here: I’ve walked around both campuses and I’ve met some of the key staff members responsible for the partnership”.


Matthew agreed, feeling that being able to see “the mechanics of the cooperation” will inform his knowledge and work in several areas. He explained that his increased understanding of international collaboration has allowed him to take a much more pragmatic approach to his legal work, which he felt will be hugely beneficial to his dealings with the departments responsible for Coventry’s academic partnerships – in areas such as contract law. Whereas, in the past, his understanding was always UK-centric, he now has a greater awareness of an overseas university’s approach. Now, by augmenting his understanding of the legal frameworks of other countries, he is also more appreciable of the need to understand that all countries have differences in the way their legal frameworks operate, and also more confident of finding the best approach to deal with these differences. Ultimately, he felt that his experiences here which will enrich his approach to Coventry’s legal work – especially in relation to the university’s internationalisation.


Legacy: The Future


Jacqueline felt that their visit had broadened her knowledge of how an overseas partner institution operates. In particular, she told us that it gave them the opportunity to understand and appreciate the differences, and in turn the difficulties that are faced by students in different countries. She gave us the example that she now has a greater understanding of the challenges that Chinese students encounter when applying to UK universities. As a result, she explained that she had “learned lots of little things” that, in turn, will contribute to her broader ability to serve the university successfully in a global context.


Both of our guests felt that their visit had been a resounding success, and praised both institutions for a smoothly planned and executed visit. Although it is the first trip of its kind by Coventry, both felt that there were many positives about the opportunity, and also areas that could be built upon for future visits. They hoped that, after their experience, future trips to GDUFS will occur annually.


Our guests (middle) and the interviewers


We concluded the interview by reflecting on the importance of perceiving higher education in a global context. Everyone agreed that, in the 21st century, it is crucial to remember that education is not confined to the four walls of the classroom, and that it does indeed exist outside of the classroom, outside of the campus, and even outside of China. Our guests concurred, and felt that – even 10,000 kilometres apart – it is fantastic that links and cooperation of this kind can be forged successfully.


With GDUFS’ recent (50th) anniversary in the forefront of our minds, we were thrilled to hear about our guests’ positive experiences – especially with regards to their (and Coventry’s) views on internationalisation, and the importance of each institution within a global context. Without a doubt, there is a hugely positive future for both universities, and for our partnership.