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Teaching English in China: Do You Really Need a Degree and Work Visa?

There are two hot topics that have been argued ad infinitum and with unimaginable bitterness for years across China EFL teacher forums without clear resolution: Does one really need a college degree to get a good job as an English teacher in China and should a foreign teacher only arrive in China with a work visa? This article will attempt to answer those two questions based on research data derived from a year-long study of both former and current foreign teachers in China.

The Issue of Degree

Regulations and guidelines governing foreign teachers in China are established by the State Administration for Foreign Expert Affairs (SAFEA). In regard to education and experience requirements, the SAFEA states: “The foreign educational expert should hold a minimum of a bachelor's degree and more than two years of experience." 

Two important points need to be stressed here: First, the SAFEA uses the character for the auxiliary verb “should,” as opposed to “must,” and that the SAFEA’s guidelines are just that:  Provincial leaders are free to interpret and arbitrarily enforce each guideline as they see fit. Consequently, while one province may insist on a bachelor’s degree as a condition for issuing a work certificate and a foreign expert certificate (FEC), another may only require an EFL teaching credential, e.g., TEFL, TOESL, CELTA, etc., while others require none of the above.  To further complicate matters, requirements within provinces and municipalities often change from time to time and typically without notice: What is true today in China may very likely not be true tomorrow.

The best answer to the question “Does one need a college degree to teach English in China” is “it all depends on the province and municipality in question and the sensibilities du jour of the local officials.” Aside from the legalities involved, there are far more practical and useful questions one could ask, such as “Do foreign teachers with advanced degrees receive better paying jobs and do they report higher levels of overall satisfaction with their teaching positions and lives in China than do their non-degreed counterparts?”

The Empirical Evidence

In a study of 432 foreign teachers in China, we found that about 51 percent held a three or four year bachelor’s degree, approximately 34 percent were teaching with advanced degrees (master’s or doctoral level), and just under 15 percent were teaching with either a high school diploma or some post-secondary degree (A.A. or A.S.) or vocational school diploma.

To answer the question if teachers with tertiary and advanced degrees earn more money in China than do those without degrees, we converted the teachers’ reported monthly salaries into hourly rates based on annual statistics: annual take-home pay; number of contracted teaching hours, factoring in how many weeks per year each teacher needed to work for that salary; preparation time, and; any overtime hours they were working.

Based on our sample of 432 foreign English teachers, the average hourly rate came to 71.61 yuan (about $10.46 per hour) across all groups and there was no significant difference in hourly rate between degreed and non-degreed teachers until the number of hours worked per year was factored into the equation. The majority of teachers with less than a bachelor’s degree work at private English language schools, far more than do those with bachelor and advanced degrees, and their typical work year consists of an average of 48 weeks.

Foreign teachers at public schools and universities work approximately eight months per year (two 17- to 18-week semesters) while getting paid for 12 months, and teachers at private language schools, on the average, work about 11 months out of the year, i.e., the average total period of paid vacation time for teachers at private English language schools is four to five weeks and this is typically distributed across two to three separate periods of time. So while the take-home salary is about the same, teachers working at private schools will generally have to work about 30 percent longer (48 as compared to 34 weeks) for their money than do teachers working at public schools and universities.

Teachers with master’s and doctoral degrees in our study did earn significantly more than those who were either non-degreed or working with a bachelor’s degree, with an average hourly rate of 90.57 yuan per hour, which comes to an increase of about 22 percent more per hour.

Satisfaction

Perhaps the most interesting finding from our study involved revealing those factors that are most associated with foreign teachers’ overall degree of satisfaction with their lives in China. 

Overall satisfaction was not associated with education, school type, hourly rate, or, quite surprisingly, even one’s particular city of residence: In our study of 432 foreign teachers, only three variables were associated with overall satisfaction. These were, in descending order of significance, marital status, nationality of spouse or significant other, and the contributing percentage of Chinese friends to total friends in China.

Foreign men married to Chinese women, and both foreign men and women with the highest percentage of Chinese friends, reported the greatest degree of overall satisfaction with their lives in China and were the most likely to remain in China for more than one year.

The main explanation for these findings is that life in China is very isolating for Westerners due to the formidable language barrier. Thus, Westerners who are quick to develop a social support system that consists predominantly of Chinese nationals are the teachers who are the most likely to pass through the initial stages of culture shock the fastest and with the greatest of ease.

If you do decide to teach English in China, it is absolutely imperative that you try and build a social support system comprised predominantly of Chinese nationals as quickly as possible. Single foreign men and women with the smallest contributing percentage of Chinese friends were the least satisfied with their lives in China irrespective of education, school type, population taught, location, and salary.

Visas, Foreign Expert Certificates, and Residency Permits

In our ongoing study of foreign teachers in China, the respondents were very closely divided between whether or not they had entered China on a Z-visa (work visa) to earn income. Approximately 46 percent or 200 teachers did arrive in China with a work visa, while the remaining 54 percent, or 228 teachers, arrived with either a tourist (38.9 percent), business (10.2 percent) or student (3.7 percent) visa. 

There was a highly significant statistical difference between visa type and eventually receiving a foreign expert certificate (FEC) and residency permit with an odds ratio of 4.5:1 against eventually working legally in China among those who entered the country on anything other than a Z-visa.

While entering China to work on a Z-visa was not a guarantee that one would eventually receive a foreign expert certificate and residency permit (eight teachers arrived on a work visa and reported that they did not receive an FEC and residency permit), 4.5 to 1 are terrible odds when you are moving up to halfway around the world for employment. Table 1, below, summarizes our findings on obtaining the FEC by visa type.

 
Visa Type
   
Work
Other
Total
  Yes
192
192
384
FEC No
8
36
44
  Total
200
228
428

Summary

When you consider that the primary role of the foreign English teacher in China is to facilitate the students’ listening and speaking skills, most public school administrators and private school owners realize that one doesn’t need a PhD in linguistics to be successful at accomplishing this task. Consequently, although the SAFEA guidelines recommend that a foreign expert should be in possession of a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and two years of related work experience, these guidelines appear to be adopted only by the public school and university sector.

In terms of earning potential, there is no significant difference in the amount of take-home salary earned between non-degreed and degreed teachers until you convert salaries into hourly rates based on the total number of classes taught per year. As a rule, non-degreed teachers have to work longer, i.e., more weeks per year, in order to earn the same amount of money that degreed teachers do. Teachers with master’s and doctoral degrees, on the average, earn approximately 22 percent more than do teachers with bachelor’s degrees and no degrees, but we are only talking about a net difference of about $2.79 per hour, which many would consider to be a negligible one.

Overall satisfaction and teacher retention in China are highly associated with how successful one is at establishing satisfying relationships with Chinese nationals and Western men who are happily married to Chinese women report the highest degree of overall satisfaction with their lives and, related, are the also the most likely to remain in China for the longest duration.

While slightly less than half of our study’s respondents entered China to earn income with a Z-visa, generally speaking, there is a significant increase in risk in moving to China to work with anything other than a Z-visa in terms of whether one will eventually receive a foreign expert certificate and residency permit. For more information about the visa issue and how one can minimize the risk involved in entering China on anything but a work visa, it is highly recommended that you read the chapter titled The Z-visa Debate in our comprehensive eBook The Foreign Teachers’ Guide to Living and Working in China.

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