Elitist international schools biased against local hires

By Christopher Cottrell Source:Global Times Published: 2015-11-8 18:33:01

How woefully ironic that in a city that prides itself on its international schools, the most of any city in China, among those elite institutions of higher learning that cater expressly to expatriate families in Shanghai, many struggle to hire or retain quality teachers for their privileged student body.

This past September, right before the fall semester started, some of Shanghai's most eminent international schools (who I will extend the courtesy of not naming and shaming here) were seen bottom-feeding on Craigslist, the skid-row of job ads, for last-minute hires. This is bizarre given the high tuition that expense-account expat parents, who are often compensated by their companies, pay to send their children to these private schools.

According to figures one can freely browse on Shanghai educational listings site Chalksmart, the per annum cost for international primary-aged students in Shanghai averages between 80,000 ($12,596) to 150,000 yuan, with the highest at 220,000. Secondary international schools in Shanghai average between 160,000 to 200,000 yuan, with the top three pricing at 260,000. These numbers are higher than Hong Kong, one of the most competitive educational markets in all of Asia.

With all this cash pouring into the coffers of international schools, and a growing expat populous, why do they have such a shortage of teachers? Even more perplexing, why is there such a high turnaround among their teachers?

A large part of the problem, I have deduced after speaking with some foreign teachers and expat parents here, is that in spite of their exorbitant tuitions, most international schools fail to redistribute their wealth back to their teaching staff. Many international schools use a stingy pay grade scale that goes by years of experience and accreditation, with fresh hires earning only 300,000 yuan (on average) for their first year, and taking up to a decade to reach 400,000.

In an outrageously expensive megalopolis like Shanghai - ranked among the world's highest cost of living cities  - 25,000 yuan per month is barely enough for a foreigner to survive on after factoring in rent and other costs. This is reason enough to send most certified teachers scurrying back to their home countries, where at least they can collect insurance, unionized protection and a pension.

But after deeper digging, I uncovered an even more peculiar discrepancy. Among the top 20 international schools in Shanghai, several have a two-tier payment system for overseas hires and local expatriate hires. On the recruiting page of one elite school in Jinqiao, it is stated very clearly that "the benefit packages for teachers depend on whether a teacher is hired from abroad or locally."

"School fees (are included) for teachers' children for up to three children if both parents are teaching and up to two children for a single teacher or a teacher with a non-teaching spouse," their website states for Overseas Expatriate Faculty. And yet for the local hires: "Teachers may apply for tuition remission for one child within guidelines set by the school."

This haughty incongruity is based on the very low opinion that expat teachers here are held in, with the assumption generally being that most are "unqualified failures" who couldn't hack it in their home countries. Because of this bias, international schools prefer to avoid hiring from the local talent pool and instead recruit from abroad, which many teachers contend reflects a lack of long-term thinking.

"They (overseas hires) tend to experience severe culture shock, which impacts their performance in the classroom. They stay only a year or so then vanish," one international school teacher I know told me. "I've been teaching in Shanghai for 10 years and know how to get international kids adjusted and motivated. Yet I make several thousand yuan less than my new-hire colleagues."

For foreign teachers in Shanghai who are feeling unappreciated by their international schools, a solution may be in the most unexpected of places: Chinese schools. Based on my own cursory research, at least three private Chinese high schools in Shanghai are paying advanced placement (AP) foreign teachers a starting salary of 400,000 yuan per year, along with additional benefits.

And with the growing trend of Chinese students opting to study in overseas universities (more than 15,000 graduating high school students from Shanghai were granted visas to study abroad in 2014), more local high schools are opening international "college prep" divisions. In order to attract talented foreign teachers, the tempting pay and benefits being offered by Chinese schools will soon eclipse Shanghai's international schools - eventually restoring the balance of power back to locals, and local hires.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Times.

Posted in: TwoCents, Metro Shanghai, Pulse

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