Scott Sommers’ Taiwan Blog

The Future of Foreign English Teachers in Asia

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on February 24, 2009

I originally started this post to talk about the future of English teaching in Asia. Along the way, it became a post about the idea of ‘mainstream scholarship’ and how trends in the spread of scholarship as a market are effecting foreign teachers in Asia and Taiwan. Democratic integration into global society is a relatively recent phenomenon for most Asians. The institutional history for most of Asia is deeply tied to colonialism and military rule. Much of the history of the recent democracies in South Korea and Taiwan can be interpreted as part of their struggle to attain economic and political independence from decisions made in the larger, more affluent nations of Europe and North America, and establish themselves as a source of industrial, political, and academic status.

The English teaching in Taiwan and Asia has been deeply entwined with these changes. The role that we associate with foreign English teachers at the universities of this region is very much associated with an older less autonomous status of its nations. As such, I expect that the foreign English teacher at Asian universities is on the demise. In the next few years, the system we are familiar with will cease to exist. As Asian countries become more and more incorporated into globalized networks, universities here will increasingly become similar to universities in Western nation. This is not to say there will be any shortage of jobs for foreign English teachers. Huge numbers of jobs will continue to be available. The difference will be these jobs will be deskilled and heavily marginalized as they converge on the role played by ESL/EFL teachers in the core English-speaking nations.

English Teaching in the Core

The concept of core, semi-periphery and periphery is credited to sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein in his formulation of the World Systems Approach. It is now widely incorporated into other disciplines, including English teaching where the concept of ‘core’ is played by hegemonic claim to the title of ‘native speaker’.

In core English speaking states, classroom teaching of English as a second language (ESL) is largely relegated to public school teachers. English as a foreign language (EFL) is taught primarily in language centers which can be either public or private. In private language centers, instructors are frequently marginally qualified and poorly paid. University-based language centers that offer this sort of instruction generally demand master’s-level degrees and pay slightly better. Neither of these would be considered ‘good jobs’ by comparison with standard professional employment. For the most part, classroom teachers in either setting offer little in the way of career future. University language center instructors are not faculty members and would have to keep lengthy hours at school with limited vacation time. They would also not be tied in with the knowledge creation/research mechanism that is what differentiates the Western universities from other teaching institutions.

While those of us in the language teaching industry are familiar with the working conditions I refer to, here are some examples of what I mean. This job, for example, would be very competitive (see here for other similar jobs). The pay is reasonable, but it would probably require regular working hours and is only a 12-month contract. Nor is there a lot of such employment available for master’s degree holders. I have meet many master’s degree holders who do not have a teacher’s certificate who could not find reasonable employment in the USA or Canada.

English Teaching in Japan

Japan offers an interesting description of English teaching. While clearly a core nation for industrial production, Japan has had a very different kind of history from other non-English speaking core states. It has never been colonized and did not suffer the enormous economic drain and damage to development experienced in other Asian states.The importation of foreign expert labour into Japan during the Meiji Restoration is an often repeated story about Japanese development. This importation of expert workers continued up until militarism made it difficult, but was resumed following the end of the Second World War. Japan’s economic development and it’s relative political freedom combined with this history producing the first example of the commercial language school market and acting as a model for its spread throughout Asia.

When I taught in Japan from 1989 to 1994, a huge market for native English speaker language teachers was already well-established. Unlike the current situation in Taiwan, South Korea, and China, the largest portion of this market was the adult’s teaching market. The children’s market in Japan, on the other hand, continues to be poorly developed compared with the rest of Asia.

The conditions of foreign teachers in Asia are in many ways similar to those found by other workers throughout the world. Few language teachers have skills to peddle outside of aspects of their culture and language. The vast majority never achieve local language fluency. As a result, they remain ghettoized in a ‘culture industry’ requiring these services. In a situation similar to that found in the rest of Asia, foreign teachers in Japan have been forced by harsh working conditions in the commercial sector to pursue either ownership of a commercial school or attach themselves to a large educational institution.

At that time I was in Japan, it was widely accepted that universities provided the best jobs. For example, a colleague of mine with a Canadian law degree attended Temple University so she could get an M. TESOL and enter the university teaching market. In the early 1990s, university positions were so attractive that teachers like my colleague would go through great cost and trouble to qualify for them. Current jobs are much less attractive. This was a volatile time for the Japanese education market and demographic trends deeply effected school attendance. My friend was initially offered a job at a private university in Nagoya. When this university closed, she moved to another private university in Kyushu. When that school closed, she immigrated to Australia.

One answer to this has been the push to attract foreign students. The idea that huge numbers of students could or would master Japanese to study in Japan has not been viewed as realistic. Instead, there has been the creation of a large market for English-medium instructional universities, such as the Akita International University where my friend Dr. Percy Santos is a professor, that employ Ph.D. holders who teach academic content classes in English. Holders of master-level degrees can still find work, but these jobs have been significantly marginalized in the university hierarchy and are not at all attractive. Descriptions of the harsh contracts offered foreign teachers in Japan abound. I can provide an endless number of links to them, but for those of us in the industry, this is already old news. This 2001 description from Roger Jones VP of the University Teacher’s Union makes the picture clear. there is this article from The Independent or this recent article from the Japan Times. You could also check out the 105 names listed on the Black List of Japanese Universities. But I think my point is clear. For a typical master’s degree holder, Japanese universities do not provide a good market of jobs

English Teacher Market in the Semi-Periphery

Here I want to discuss some of the changes occurring in the semi-periphery states, such as Taiwan and South Korea. As these states battle for emergence into the core, education and universities are being used as an engine of change. There has always been the argument that education has been at the cusp of development in these states. A closer look makes it appear that education has been a result of development rather than a cause – citizens in states consume more education as they develop.

Demographic constraints on states are only one of the growing issues facing development in East Asia. Incorporation into the global economy has pressured these economies away from traditional goals toward goals defined by shareholders and accountants. The result has been a reorganization of education along the lines of core nations. Schools have become part of an industrial machine aimed at achieving vague concepts of ‘national competitiveness’. Government policies have aligned schools into national economic strategies that equate them with ‘excellence’. Universities in the semi-periphery are being forced into the research model of the university that attracts external funding and status. A secondary goal being forced on the university is as an industry that attracts foreign students willing to study in a downstream economy. Neither of these models have much room for the role that foreign native-speaker English teachers have historically played.

In economies competing for status and funding between schools, there is little place for the cost and trouble associated with keeping large numbers of foreign citizens around just to talk with students. The answer in the core nations of English has been to provide remedial English education for domestic and foreign students and allow the bulk of the university community to continue with its resources and funds for the historical function of knowledge creation. In the semi-periphery, we have seen the dismantling of the foreign teacher system along the lines seen in the English-speaking core and in Japan.

The Taiwan version of this change is well-known to readers of my blog. Foreign English teachers are being squeezed out of the market and replaced with researchers. The squeeze on master’s degree holders has been apparent for a long time. I have said many times there are still jobs available for such teachers, but the reality is that universities are increasingly looking for PhD holders with a research record.

The Future of the Foreign Teacher

Foreign teachers are not going to disappear. I should even say they are not disappearing. There are vast numbers of foreign teachers in the private sector. Universities and colleges continue to offer jobs to foreign teachers that are superior to private sector jobs. The difference is in the privilege afforded to these teachers. Increasingly, there will be a two-tier system of employment. Those with established research records or special academic skills will compete for prized jobs that offer flexible working hours and little student contact. Those with master’s degrees will be relegated to handling the bulk of day-to-day operations for the university, including managing most of the contact hours and work-intensive activities that involve students. Privileged positions for foreign teachers will most likely continue in struggling economies like China or Thailand. In more developed economies, like Taiwan and Japan, universities offering such jobs will increasingly be rural schools that provide poor support and working conditions and little opportunity for research even among those motivated in this direction.

The role of the foreign teacher is increasingly being marginalized, not only from the universities in Taiwan, but also from the role of university faculty internationally. Historically, foreign English teachers have interpreted their position as foreign experts within inferior education systems. This is no longer the internal interpretation of foreign English teachers in the university systems of industrialized Asian states. Increasingly, Asian universities are adopting the same definition as universities in the core. Foreign English teachers are staff in language centers, assistants to professors doing research, or temporary employees with no security or meaningful future inside the system.


2 Responses

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  1. […] I mentioned in this post, the role for teachers with this background is shrinking. Increasingly, MA TESOL positions are […]

  2. Andee said, on August 23, 2012 at 10:15 am

    Scott, thanks for this post and the others on the forumosa board re: uni jobs in Taiwan. Very informative.

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