Mohsine el Baghdadi always wanted to be an English teacher in China, considering such a job to be ideal.
A friend who taught English in China told the 27-year-old Moroccan that foreign teachers are in high demand, there are boundless opportunities and the jobs are well paid.
Baghdadi’s own experience confirmed this. Replies flooded in after he posted a message on Facebook, stating: “Hello from Morocco. I am an English-language teacher searching for a good job with a good salary in China.”
Many of the replies were job invitations from recruitment agencies, while others came from language institutes. For the most part, they told Baghdadi that applying for a job in China was straightforward. It was sufficient merely to submit a resume.
The salary also was tempting. Baghdadi teaches English in Morocco, where he is paid $500 a month. However, those who approached him from China offered a monthly salary ranging from $1,500 to $2,500, with a bonus.
But he said some of those who replied appeared too eager to hire foreign teachers, and Baghdadi said he was even given “illegal advice” about getting a job.
The regulation on foreign experts’ work permits states that overseas language teachers in China must obtain a work visa and be a native speaker with a bachelor’s degree or higher, have at least two years of related teaching experience and no criminal record.
This means that Baghdadi, who is not a native English speaker and does not have sufficient experience in teaching the language, may never have the chance to work in China as a teacher.
“But some agencies told me that they could help me apply for a Chinese business visa, and I could become a teacher in China, come what may,” he said.
Teaching English is a lucrative business in China, as the country’s opening-up to the world means more people are looking to learn the “universal language”. For foreigners, their nationality and even their skin tone can, at times, be their ticket to securing a teaching job.
According to a report last year from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 300 million people in China were learning English. There were 50,000 English-language training institutions in the country and the training market was worth as much as 500 billion yuan ($72 billion), the report said.
The high demand for English-language instruction had made finding a job for most foreigners, particularly those who are white, little more than a formality.
According to a survey by Banyuetan, a Xinhua News Agency magazine, in 2017, there were more than 400,000 foreign teachers working in the education sector in China, but only one-third of them were employed legally.
In recent years, the country has been rocked by a number of high-profile scandals resulting from a lack of vigilance in hiring foreign teachers. In some cases, people with questionable backgrounds have landed jobs.
The latest such case occurred last month. On July 23, an English-language teacher from Colombia working at the Hong Huang Lan Kindergarten in Qingdao, Shandong province, was arrested for allegedly molesting a 4-year-old girl.
Earlier in July, 16 foreigners were detained in Xuzhou, Jiangsu province, for allegedly taking drugs. According to Xuzhou police, seven of them work for an education company, and the remaining nine are students.
Media reports later said a number of foreign teachers from the EF Education center in Xuzhou had been detained by police for allegedly taking drugs. According to the company’s website, EF is an international education company based in Sweden, and has centers in many Chinese cities.
In April 2013, media reports said that Neil Robinson, from the United Kingdom, had taught at the Beijing World Youth Academy, an international school, for nearly four years while being wanted for questioning by British police in connection with child sex offences.
Such cases have aroused widespread concern among parents and students, with many of them calling for the qualifications of foreign teachers at English-learning organizations to be subject to nationwide inspection.
On some online expatriate forums, topics such as “How to become an English teacher in China without a work permit”, or “nonnative speakers can also teach in China” are popular. They offer tips for those who want to work in the country without the required documentation or experience.
One of the items stated, “Although a Chinese work visa is the only visa that it is technically legal to teach with, there is also the possibility that they might offer you an alternative one instead, such as a student visa or a business visa.
“These are easier and less costly to obtain, which is why this option is sometimes preferred by schools. Additionally, these visas may also be issued if you don’t meet the requirements for a work visa (i.e. you don’t have a bachelor’s degree). While these alternative visas are not technically legal for work, they will permit you to remain in China for an extended period of time, making it easy to find work as a teacher.”
Alan Coleman, an Australian who is a qualified teacher in Beijing, said many people are teaching because the jobs are well-paid and relatively easy. “It is the fault of the schools, as they employ people who shouldn’t be teaching,” he added.
Most teachers are not qualified. For example, they have not been certified by an internationally recognized English-language teaching and testing program, but still land jobs due to the high demand for native English speakers, Coleman said.
Under the law, only foreigners with teaching qualifications or a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate or TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) certificate, are allowed to teach in China.
Huang Minjiao, who works for a startup English-language teaching institution in Dongguan city, Guangdong province, said, “The truth is, parents seldom ask an agency to look at a teacher’s credentials, but want to see if the teacher ‘looks like a native English speaker’.
“Some families in China spend a considerable amount on foreign English-language teachers for their children, but sometimes parents mistakenly think any foreigner－regardless of the level of their skill in the language－can provide quality education in English,” Huang said.
Coleman added: “Even if someone is a native speaker, I don’t believe that they can necessarily become an English-language teacher. Teaching a language is not easy. It’s very difficult and you need to work hard to be able to do a good job.”
With more than 10 years’ teaching experience in Portugal, Sudan and Saudi Arabia, Coleman found his job in Beijing through a recruitment agency.
A report in China Education Daily said the contracts of the majority of foreign English-language teachers at Chinese schools are still handled by for-profit, third-party recruitment agencies, rather than the schools directly.
Eager to make money, many such agencies place applicants’ appearance ahead of their teaching qualifications. For them, hiring English-language teachers simply means recruiting foreigners, no matter where they come from. They often hire from countries such as France, Germany or Cuba, and then pressure the recruits to lie to schools about their backgrounds.
A Ukrainian student who studied in China wrote on her blog that when she was looking for a job in the country, one agency wanted her to “disguise” her identity and state that she came from the UK. A member of staff told her: “You’re blonde and pale-skinned. Anyway, students can’t tell which country you’re from.”
According to some media reports, these agencies also offer contracts to foreigners who do not qualify for work visas, and instruct potential teachers to lie on their visa applications to avoid disclosing their work plans. They also fake documents to employ teachers on tourist or business visas rather than the legally required work visas.
He Chugang, general manager for the South China region at Amber Education, an overseas study consultancy, said, “Chinese parents remain enthusiastic about English-language acquisition, as ‘monotonous’ public education cannot satisfy their diverse demands.”
He said this has led to cases of unqualified, unmotivated and sometimes even non-English-speaking foreigners tutoring Chinese children.
He Shu, an associate professor at Peking University who teaches English as a foreign language, said Chinese parents often think that foreigners can introduce their children to Western cultures and improve their English.
“However, some parents are not educated or experienced enough to tell the difference between a professional teacher and a foreigner who lacks many teaching skills,” she said.
“Also, some non-English-speaking parents believe in the stereotype that every foreigner is supposed to speak English. This phenomenon is not only commonplace in big cities, where overseas tutors are in high demand amid an overwhelming number of foreigners, but English-language tutors are also being sought in smaller provincial towns.”
However, the situation is expected to change soon. On July 15, the Ministry of Education, together with five other central authorities, issued new guidelines on after-school training to specify the qualifications, requirements and supervision needed for such services.
The guideline states that educational institutions must publicly display the personal details of any foreign teachers they employ, including their names, photographs, teaching qualifications and previous academic and professional experience.
Institutions should rectify any “problems” before the end of June next year, or could face punishment ranging from a fine to being suspended or closed, the guideline added.