Why teaching is one of the most unwanted jobs in China

September 18, 2018 14:53
In May, some 200 unpaid public school teachers in the city of Liuan in Anhui province took to the streets to demand payment of their wage arrears, and local police responded with excessive force to quell their protest. Photo: CNSA/Internet

Back in 1985, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee passed a resolution declaring Sept. 10 of every year as Teachers’ Day across China.

Coincidentally, it was on Teachers' Day this year that Alibaba Group chairman Jack Ma Yun announced that he is going to retire next year in order to return to his previous profession of teaching.

Suddenly, it looks as if teaching were the noblest, most promising job in the mainland!

Unfortunately, the opposite is true for many teachers in the country.

In May this year, some 200 unpaid public school teachers in the city of Liuan in Anhui province took to the streets to demand payment of their wage arrears, only to face a crackdown by the local police who used excessive force to quell their protest.

Some of the protesters were handcuffed. An injured female teacher was denied hospitalization by the authorities, and had to be carried to a maternity and child healthcare hospital to receive emergency treatment.

After the incident, a female teacher who took part in the protest and experienced the harsh treatment from law enforcers, posted an angry thread on Weibo, saying: “I’d rather be a prostitute than a teacher!”

She might have posted the message in anger, but there seems a kernel of truth in it.  At least from her point of view, school teachers in the mainland are sometimes even worse off than prostitutes in terms of pay and social status.

Alibaba's Ma might have decided to return to teaching just for fun, and those who will become his students are very likely to be wealthy. But what happened to the dozens of unpaid teachers in Liuan who are relying on their salaries to support their own families is a different story.

As we all know, education forms the cornerstone of a nation.

Cognizant of the vital role teachers play in society, many developed and developing countries hold them in high regard, and show their appreciation by showering them with various kinds of allowances and subsidies including housing allowances and social security benefits, as well as bonuses, honorary titles, medals and citations.

In fact, in many countries, teachers are often paid more than those working in other fields with similar qualifications.

For example, in Japan, the average salary of primary and secondary school teachers is 16 percent higher than that of those who graduated from college in the same year but who are working in other industries.

In the United Kingdom, primary and secondary school teachers on average get paid 35 percent more than ordinary employees in other sectors, while primary and secondary school teachers in France are earning almost twice as much as senior skilled workers. In the United States, teachers earn 25 to 35 percent more than those working in ordinary companies.

In China, there were 15.78 million teachers in various types of schools across the nation as of 2016.

However, they are far worse off than their western counterparts in terms of compensation and employment conditions.

According to an international study published last year, the purchasing power of teachers in China ranked third to the last around the world.

And the fact that teachers are being so underpaid and disrespected in the mainland has discouraged many young talents from joining the profession.

Worse still, rotten apples are commonplace in the teaching profession in the mainland.

Malpractices include verbally or even physically abusing students, giving additional lessons for extra compensation, accepting goods or money, etc.

Enforcing a nationwide pay rise for teachers and substantially improving their terms of employment might not be able to eliminate all the malpractices in the teaching profession overnight.

But at least it can facilitate a healthy cycle under which there would be more incentives for young talent to become teachers and less motives for them to milk students for extra income, thereby boosting the overall image of teachers in society in the long run.

During the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, school teachers were brutally persecuted.

Yet sadly, 40 years on, mainland teachers have not seen much improvement in terms of their social status.

Recently, a 71-year-old professor from Xiamen University Tan Kah Kee College in Fujian was sacked after his students accused him of using "extreme" rhetoric during his lectures.

The news suggests that some people still don't hold much respect for educators these days.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept 15

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Hong Kong Economic Journal contributor