Foreign educators provide many services in China, but the poor incomes they are being offered are causing instability in the national education system, as Zhao Xinying reports.
Since China implemented the reform and opening-up policy in the late 1970s, the country's classrooms and lecture halls have become meccas for teachers from overseas, and it's estimated that at least 4,000 expat educators will be required nationwide in the next academic year.
However, despite the benefits brought by foreign teachers, the low salaries they are offered are causing disruption in the Chinese education system, according to industry insiders.
That's because cash-strapped tutors are constantly switching schools to improve their incomes, and that's making it increasingly difficult for universities and colleges to hold on to talented educators, the insiders said.
Wu Yaowu, director of the International Exchange Office at Xi'an International Studies University, said the school faces fierce competition to retain the services of good foreign teachers, especially at the end of each academic year, when contracts are renewed.
"After working in schools of China for a couple of years, they (foreign teachers) have a shrewd idea of salary levels in the sector, so they naturally gravitate toward the schools that offer better benefit packages," he said.
XISU, in the western province of Shaanxi, specializes in teaching foreign languages, and now employees about 70 foreign teachers, most of whom are on one-or two-year contracts, according to Wu.
"Many foreign teachers care deeply about the material benefits they will gain from the schools for which they work," he said. "Under those criteria, we are not very competitive in attracting foreign teachers, because we offer most of them a monthly salary of just 5,000 yuan ($805), which is generally 1,000 or 2,000 yuan lower than our peer schools."
Low salaries have become a barrier to the recruitment and retention of expat teaching staff at schools nationwide, but the problem is particularly acute in central and western China.
Shirley Chen, a recruitment specialist at Fartop Education & Consulting Service Co, an agency that recruits foreign teachers for schools in Changde, Hunan province, said the low levels of pay meant the agency was only able to recruit one foreign teacher for a local school last year.
"Schools in Changde offer a monthly salary of 4,500 yuan, which is quite good for local residents, but it doesn't satisfy foreign teachers," she said. "That's why they usually move east to large, prosperous cities, where they can earn twice as much, or even a lot more."
A national problem
However, the conditions at schools in China's eastern boom cities are not necessarily much better than inland.
Bao Huaying, who recruits foreign teachers and talent at the International Office of Beijing Foreign Studies University, described the low salaries paid to foreign teachers as "a big problem" facing the school.
"Over the years, the changes in the salaries paid to foreign teachers, a group that's administered under a different system in China, haven't kept pace with the rises in the average salaries of Chinese people and in the general cost of living," she said.
Some present and former teachers have claimed that schools have subtly coerced foreign staff members to dissuade them from asking for a raise.
Donald Guadagni, who taught English at a college in Ningbo, in East China's Zhejiang province, said the college usually wouldn't renew the contracts of foreign teachers who requested a pay raise.
"That is supposed to be against Chinese labour law, but we all know that enforcement is weak," said the 56-year-old United States native, who described himself as having "a passion for teaching" and has lived in China for six years.
"This is why people switch colleges. Because you can generally get more money if you go to a new college. You can bargain for more money," he said.
Last year, Guadagni left the college in Ningbo, where he had worked for four years, and took a post at a university in Taizhou, which is also in Zhejiang. "There's a minor rise in salary, and other parts of the contract were better, such as a higher travel allowance," he said.
In 1984, the average salary for a foreign worker was 500 yuan to 1,500 yuan, six to 18 times more than that of regular Chinese employees, whose average annual salary that year was 979 yuan, according to official documents.
However, salaries rose several times in the years that followed, and by the turn of the century, a foreigner with a bachelor's degree and two years' work experience could earn 1,200 to 2,000 yuan a month, according to a salary standard released by the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs.
Although small, the salary was still higher than the average annual salary of Chinese workers - 9,371 yuan - but the disparity was no longer as wide as before. Nevertheless, high-level talent and experts from abroad, such as prominent foreign scholars, professors and associate professors, could earn as much as 4,800 yuan per month.
Guadagni, who has researched the related government policies and guidelines, said the standard salary for foreign teachers was established in 2004, and it hasn't changed in the past 11 years.
"This is probably part of the teachers' complaint because everyone's salaries are going up, except for the foreign teachers. Their salaries are artificially low," he said.
In 2014, SAFEA cancelled the national salary standard and authorised its branches in different provinces and regions to set their own standards based on local social and economic conditions.
"The salaries paid to foreigners will be decided by local market factors. But in principle, they should not be lower than the average salaries of the local people," SAFEA said in a notice.
According to Bao, from the Beijing Foreign Studies University, the change of policy has resulted in a situation where hiring and firing are now a two-way street for both parties: The schools select the teachers and the teachers select the schools, and both parties are on the lookout for the most rewarding deal.
"It's natural for foreign teachers to switch to other schools, tutorial classes or training organisations that can provide better benefit packages than publicly funded schools," she said.
In an attempt to retain foreign teachers, Bao has made a number of appeals to persuade BFSU to raise their salaries. So far, her calls have not been heeded.
"The university now mainly focuses on inviting and employing high-level foreign experts and talent, and some project funds have been ringfenced for that purpose, but there's very little preferential treatment given to the average foreign teacher nowadays," she said.
Bao's observation was echoed by Wang Huiyao, director of the Center for China and Globalization, a think tank in Beijing. "It's a common strategy in many countries now to offer top-class benefit packages to leading talent from across the world, including prominent lecturers, professors and experts.
"But we should also care more about the regular foreign teachers who work on the front line, because they are the ones who face large groups of Chinese students and who determine the quality of teaching in general," Wang said.
Some schools have already taken action. Wu, from XISU, said that last year the university authorities agreed to 20 per cent raise in the monthly salaries of foreign teachers.
"It's still not enough, though," he said. "There's still a great deal to be done to ensure these teachers stay with us."
Zheng Jinran contributed to this story.
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