Teaching at a Chinese university or a Chinese college is quite a popular job for those who choose to teach English in China.
This blog aims to explore some of the significant differences between teaching at a Chinese university and at a Chinese college.
By the end, hopefully you’ll know what to expect at both kinds of schools.
The difference in name
Higher education is a little different in China.
Some institutions carry the word ‘university’ in their English name but are in fact not universities.
For example, Sichuan University of Arts & Science is not a university.
So, how can you tell whether an institution is a university or not? The answer is to look at its Chinese name.
Only institutions that bear the word “dàxué” (大学) in their names are universities.
A school with “zhíyè jìshù xuéyuàn” (职业技术学院) in its name is a technical college, while a school with “wénlǐ xuéyuàn” (文理学院) in its name is an institute.
This is important because there are significant differences between universities and colleges in China.
It’s also important because the words ‘university’ and ‘college’ are often used interchangeably in the West.
I have taught at three colleges and one university in China. (You can read my article on what it’s really like teaching in China here.)
The first difference I’ve noticed is that there’s a lot more academic freedom in Chinese colleges compared to Chinese universities.
At Chinese colleges, a teacher is usually just given their timetable and a textbook (if there is one for the course) and left to get on with it.
You can teach any way you like.
On the other hand, a Chinese university can be very bureaucratic.
They will often tell you what to teach, how they want exams conducted and even dictate the scores that they want you to give.
They may even require you to write exam reports or record oral exams on an audio device.
An inexperienced teacher might therefore be more suited to teaching at a university.
But if you’re an experienced teacher, like me, it can be annoying to always be told what to do!
Class sizes tend to be smaller at a college than they are at a university.
The smallest class that I’ve taught at a college had just four students whereas at a university, there could be as many as 60 students in a class.
Although you can teach a large class just as easily as you can teach a small one, bear in mind that if you’re teaching oral English, you’ll only have two periods to conduct your exams.
Chinese university class sizes are notoriously large.
It can be a nightmare trying to conduct oral exams at a university!
You can find out what it’s like teaching oral English at a Chinese university here.
At a college, you’re more likely to have regular lessons with students that you see every week.
For me, this is really important as you really get to know your students.
At a university, the aim could simply be to ‘process’ as many students as quickly as possible. You may be subjected to an arrangement where you teach a class once, examine the students the following week and then move on to a new batch of students.
A Chinese university could therefore be described as a degree mill compared to a college.
Consequently, if you’re a professional teacher, you’ll have greater job satisfaction at a college compared to a university.
That’s been my experience, anyway.
Job security and stability
Due to the small class sizes, a job at a college can be less secure compared to one at a university.
None of the colleges that I’ve taught at renewed my contract but my present university has renewed it four times.
Evening and weekend classes
A public university in China is a huge institution.
It may have overseas students as well as part-time students who come to class in the weekends because they work during the week.
You may teach odd hours at a Chinese university.
None of the colleges that I’ve taught at has ever given me a weekend or an evening class. But when I teach at university, I sometimes get weekend or evening classes.
It does depend on the university though – no two schools in China are the same.
This brings me on to the subject of public holidays.
Many public holidays in China come in the form of extended weekends and are even officially recognized as three-day holidays by the government.
No college has ever required me to work on a public holiday but universities can hold Saturday classes for part-time students during a public holiday weekend.
A college is likely to be more generous to its foreign teachers compared to a university.
At all the colleges that I’ve taught at, I was taken on excursions, we had welcome dinners, farewell dinners and even Christmas dinners.
At the university that I taught at, there were fewer excursions, and only one dinner a year at Christmas.
This might be due to budgetary constraints at Chinese universities.
In addition, all the colleges that I’ve taught at gave me free electricity, water and internet. The university would bill me for the water and electricity that I used.
The teaching team seems to be bigger at universities compared to colleges.
My present university currently has 11 foreign teachers but I have worked at a college where I was the sole foreign teacher.
In my experience, there are pros and cons to having many colleagues. The advantages include having more people to hang out with and to bounce teaching ideas off of.
Having fun with my colleagues.
The disadvantage is that sometimes your colleagues may try to tell you how to do your job.
If you’re the sole foreign teacher at a small college, there isn’t anyone around to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do.
I’ve never taught at any college that didn’t give me a full-sized apartment, i.e. one which had a bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen.
At one college, however, I had to share my apartment with another teacher.
My university housing was different again – I was only given a bedroom with an ensuite kitchen and bathroom.
When it comes to foreign teachers’ apartments in China though, it’s hard to generalize. No two apartments are the same.
One of the colleges that I’ve taught at had an interesting custom.
Every morning, a number of students would stand outside the entrance and wish the teachers “Good morning” as they arrived.
I’ve never seen this happening at a big university.
And, I certainly can’t imagine this happening at a university in the UK or US!
Allowing students to question their grades
Before I started teaching at a Chinese university, I had never heard of such a thing as students being allowed to question their exam scores.
If any college student failed an exam, they might be permitted to take the exam again but that was about it.
At a university however, students, particularly postgraduate students, might be allowed to question their final exam scores.
This makes life really difficult for a teacher. You’d have to keep extremely detailed score sheets and perhaps audio records of oral exams, etc.
After each exam, you could potentially have hundreds of students asking why they didn’t get a higher score.
The social life
More and more international students are now choosing to complete their higher education in China.
So, if you teach at a university, you’re likely to have a more diverse range of social activities to attend.
My present university organizes international food festivals and culture festivals, as well as having an international culture association for students and teachers.
A culture festival at my university.
On the other hand (at least in my experience), a smaller college may be located in one of China’s ‘little gems’ and thus may organize more sightseeing trips for their foreign teachers.
When I taught in Sichuan province, I was taken to visit a number of beautiful places, like Yanglie Waterslide Village, ancient Lanzhong and even the location where the movie ‘Curse of the Golden Flower’ was shot.
The bottom line
Choosing the right place to work is not a decision that should be taken lightly.
After all, once you sign a contract, you’ll be working for the school for at least a year.
As you can see, there are pros and cons to teaching at Chinese colleges and universities. Only you can decide which one is right for you.