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Teach Uni in East Asia

Lisa Magloff looks into the benefits and drawbacks of university teaching in the region

Teaching in a university in China, Japan or South Korea can be a rewarding experience. It offers you the opportunity to live in exciting cities and teach bright, enthusiastic students. Many of these jobs also offer ample time off and a relatively light teaching load. Sounds perfect?

Be careful, this is very different from teaching in a private school. The picture, in terms of qualifications, remuneration and student motivation is not straightforward. So, let’s take a closer look at some of the terms and conditions you can expect if you land a job teaching university-level English in one of the top three East Asian destinations.

What Qualifications do I need?

In Japan, teaching English in a university is like most other academic jobs. You will usually need a minimum of a Master’s degree, preferably in TESOL, Education or English Literature, although other specialities may be accepted. Universities also look for applicants who have a minimum of three academic publications. Prior teaching experience is a must, preferably in Japan. Some ability to speak Japanese is also a distinct advantage, although not a requirement in most cases.

“Some schools will hire you with only a BA if you also have at least two 
years’ prior university teaching experience.”

By contrast, in China, post-graduate qualifications aren’t top of the list, at least in order to get a work visa. In fact, the colour of your passport is likely to be more important. University English teachers do not have to be native English speakers, but must hold a passport from one of a limited number of English-speaking countries, including the US, UK, Australia, Ireland, Canada, US Virgin Islands, British Cayman Islands, New Zealand, Singapore, South Africa, Guyana or Gibraltar.

You must also have, as a minimum, a Bachelor’s degree, TEFL certification and two years’ of teaching experience. In fact, these are exactly the same qualifications you need to work in a language school. Unsurprisingly, though, many universities do require a Master’s.

The basic qualification to teach at university level in South Korea is generally a Master’s in Education, TESOL or linguistics. Some schools will hire you with only a BA if you also have at least two years’ prior university teaching experience. Although a TESOL certificate is a requirement for teaching in state schools, university jobs most often do not require any qualifications other than a Master’s degree.

If you have a PhD, you may well be offered contracts with fewer teaching hours and higher pay, but these tend to come with added duties, such as committee work, advising graduate students or attending faculty meetings (but beware these tend to be conducted mostly in Korean).

In all three countries, universities often prefer to recruit locally, hiring people who already have a work visa. A lot of university teachers in Japan, for example, started out in language schools, got their MA while working there, and then moved on to teaching in a university, rather than coming directly to teach at university. By contrast, in China, where the same work visa terms cover both language schools and universities, teachers head to local campuses not to make more money, as salary levels are similar to those of private language schools, but to get their foot on the EAP ladder.

Chinese cities like Dalian can offer lower salaries than Beijing, but living costs can be just as high.

How much can I earn?

The minimum salary for teaching English at a university in Japan is around 4.5 million (£33,080) to 5 million yen (£36,755) annually. A lot of teachers also work part-time in a second university in addition to their full-time position.

If the contract is full-time, then the National Health Insurance and Pension plan are mandatory, and the cost is shared between the employer and employee. Income tax and residence tax must also be paid by the employee. Some universities also offer reduced-rate accommodation, but most teachers find their own places to live.

Universities in Korea tend to pay between 3 million (£2,030) and 4 million (£2,700) won per month, with universities in the capital of Seoul paying at the higher end. Overtime classes are available at most universities, and busy teachers can almost double their base salaries with these. Some universities also allow you to take on private classes, which can be very lucrative.

Universities in Korea will also provide a housing allowance or even free housing, often on campus, and if they are recruiting from abroad they will generally also provide flights. Health insurance and pension costs are usually shared between the university and the employee.

Salary packages vary enormously in China, but in general, the 50 top-ranked universities will offer the highest salaries, along with those in Hong Kong and Macau, where salaries can be around £2,800 a month. Elsewhere, salaries can be anywhere between £1,200-£2,300 a month, which is barely better than you’d get at a language school.

Rents can reach Western levels in the top-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai. So, opt for one of the many universities that also provide free housing, often on campus, or a housing allowance, as well as medical insurance. Some institutions also offer a relocation allowance.

British universities which run Transnational Education (TNE) courses offering dual degree courses validated in the UK and China, will often employ EAP tutors on British terms and conditions. Depending on the job description (tutor/teaching fellow, co-ordinator or head of a language centre), if you land such a ‘lectureship,’ you can expect to be paid a UK salary of between £30,000 to £55,000 annually.

How many hours will I teach?

For many teachers, this is the real benefit of teaching at university in one of these countries. Most contracts involve fewer than 20 hours a week of teaching time, along with lengthy holidays. But watch out – there can be extensive additional duties.

In Korea, contact hours can be anywhere from 9 to 18 hours per week. You can also expect to put in up to four hours weekly for office hours, faculty meetings and other duties. Some universities will require that you work classes during summer or winter holidays, or on between-term camps, but most pay extra for this.

There are also around 4-8 weeks of vacation for the summer break in July/August, and another 4-8 weeks off for a winter break in January/February.

Teaching hours in China vary, from around 10 up to as many as 25 hours a week. Hours tend to be spread out, and you may not be teaching every day. There is also usually a break of between six and eight weeks for Spring Festival, and another 8-10 weeks off in the summer.

University teachers in Japan can generally expect to teach for 15 weeks in the spring semester (beginning in April) and 15 weeks in the Autumn semester (beginning in September or October), with around 12 weeks off each year. Full-time teachers usually teach only four days a week, but may need to attend meetings or special events on the fifth day.

What should I look out for?

If you choose to work in Japan, remember that teaching English is seen as a normal academic job so full-time teachers are often expected to continue publishing. Also bear in mind that contracts are usually one or two years in length, but are only renewable two or three times. After that, you will need to find a new job! If you are a less-experienced teacher, you may have some luck bagging a university job using an agency such as Westgate to place you.

Many universities in China have specialisations, such as technology, music or textiles, and students who do not earn top marks in the entrance exams are often assigned a major, rather than choosing their own. This can mean that disgruntled students are a common problem.

For teachers, one-year employment contracts are standard, and indeed are Chinese Government policy, but can be renewed. Teachers should research thoroughly before taking any position, as some cities are now very expensive to live in – Dalian, for example, recently eclipsed Beijing for its high cost of living.

Koreans study a lot of English – achieving proficiency in English is a requirement for many jobs. But most teaching at the K-12 level focuses on reading and grammar. In Korea, many university positions are specifically for teaching writing and speaking. Applicants who have specialised skills in areas such as drama, debating, job skills or academic writing may have an edge. But if you’re looking for career development beware: teaching positions rarely offer the opportunity for advancement, and salary rises are few and far between.

Thanks to Mark Krazanowski for his assistance with this article.

The University of Tokyo, in Japan.
Image courtesy of PIXABAY
Lisa Magloff
Lisa Magloff
Lisa is a freelance editor and author with a Master’s degree in International Boundary Studies from King’s College. Lisa has worked as an editor and reporter for publishers in the UK, USA, Egypt and UAE. She has experience teaching at both primary and secondary level, as well as Political Geography at King’s College, and has authored more than 70 education textbooks and classroom materials.
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