Teaching English in Shanghai

National Diplomas are well-known and well-respected in South Africa. For certain professions, most notably in applied science and engineering, employers often value them more than regular degrees because they’re more job-specific.

However, you need a work visa in order to work legally in China, and for this you’ll need to have a degree and at least two years of work experience if you wish to teach English in Shanghai. I understand China’s need to improve the quality of English teachers, but this degree requirement has unfortunate consequences for those who hold a National Diploma from a South African technical university.

The undergraduate education system in China is modelled after its American counterpart, with four years of study for a bachelor’s degree being the standard length. In South Africa, bachelor’s degrees take anything between three and five years to complete, but the vast majority of them require three years. So, I find it ridiculous that English teaching job requirements are usually “a bachelor’s degree in any field” – as though there exists some sort of global standard.

While the length of study for a National Diploma is the same as for the average bachelor’s degree in South Africa, good luck trying to explain that to the Chinese. They don’t seem to care how many years of study it took to get your university qualification. Unless you’re able to produce a piece of paper with the words bachelor’s degree on it, you’re not going to get anywhere. Believe me, I’ve tried countless times.

So, you have these recent graduates with next to no life experience securing well-paid teaching positions just because they have tertiary qualifications that are understood by the Chinese, basically just mucking around and viewing teaching English as a lucrative way of funding their partying and travelling. This can be really disheartening if you are serious about teaching English and making a meaningful contribution.

I considered all of the options that were available to me in terms of getting a degree, but I found that none of them were viable. So, out of sheer desperation and frustration, I was on the verge of buying a degree online because it’s part of the work visa application process rather than an inherent requirement of teaching oral English. My impression was, and still is, that most schools would happily employ any white face from an English-speaking country but that they insist on a degree only so that they don’t get into trouble for employing foreigners illegally.

I would’ve never considered doing something like this back home, but I find myself in a culture where many of my personal values are not held in the same high regard by the majority of others, so I eventually realised that rethinking my firmly held beliefs and perhaps recalibrating my moral compass may not only be in order but actually required because moral relativism, which basically means that moral judgments are emotional responses based on cultural values, definitely makes the most sense to me.

Though it took me some time to reach this point and was something I only considered as a last resort, buying a degree online would’ve been something I could morally justify given my educational background, work history, life experience, and my noble intentions. I believe that even staunch supporters of moral universalism would agree that depriving myself of a livelihood and others of an education because of some well-meaning but ill-conceived man-made rule does not maximise the happiness of everyone involved and that the end would’ve justified the means.

These diploma mills exploit a legal loophole that makes the issuing of degrees perfectly legal, and although one is not responsible for other people’s assumptions, it is nevertheless highly questionable from an ethical point of view at least if you present one of these degrees knowing that a prospective employer will in all likelihood take it to mean that you’ve completed the necessary coursework that would normally be required before such a degree is granted.

It is highly improbable that the rubber-stamping public servants at the local labour bureau would’ve checked that the degree was issued by a reputable university, but the more desirable language centres (the ones that will pay your in full and on time, treat you humanely and not as a cash cow to be milked for all you’re worth, and that are mostly foreign-owned and managed) just might have decided to run a Google search. At best, this would’ve meant not getting hired; at worst, a ruined reputation.

Of course, there will always be those ready to exploit well-intentioned foreigners who have not quite come to the realisation that the idea of moral universalism is probably unfounded – by providing a service that bridges the gap between a candidate’s qualifications and experience and what the law requires. I’m talking about so-called “teaching internships”, which is how my path crossed with Shanghai Meiji (China Teach) shortly before I reached this point.

I’m not going to help increase their Google PageRank by linking to their website, but you can search for them if you’d like to check them out, and in the coming days I’ll do a follow-up post that’ll go into more detail regarding my experience with them when I feel like it. [Edited: 22 July 2015]

In the end, I decided that going into business for myself was the least disruptive to my conscience, offered the best prospect in terms of personal growth, and it offered me the most personal freedom and greater opportunity for financial gain – even if it comes at the expense of not having the the perceived (but illusionary) security that a regular job has.

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