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What We Use in China

Fake Degrees and Titles Hurt Foreign Teachers in China


Professor Corey Irwin

A particularly memorable occasion when I encountered the use of fake degrees and titles among foreign teachers in China was back in September 2004, shortly after I had arrived in the city of Haikou.

I had the opportunity to meet another foreigner for the first time when I entered a local restaurant to pick up some lunch. He and his girlfriend had already ordered and had just been served. He invited me over to join them and during the course of introductions described himself as a professor.

Of course, I was curious and asked him what discipline he was a professor of. He seemed surprised by the question and, in so many words, eventually explained that he had assigned himself the rank of professor on the basis of having taught oral English at a public Chinese university for four months before being terminated. I would later learn that his field of expertise was in "mechanical engineering," i.e., he had worked for 30 years in the military as a plane mechanic. Apparently, his current private school employer was sufficiently satisfied with his qualifications to have "conferred" upon him a fake bachelor's degree in engineering.

I wish, for all our sakes, I could say this was the first and last time I had encountered the use of fake degrees and titles in China but, unfortunately, that is not the case.

My first year in China, while living and working in the city of Shenyang, I was aware of one private school that routinely issued fake degrees to all its non-degreed foreign employees as a matter of practice because the local PSB was a bit fussy about only issuing Z-visas and residency permits to foreigners with college degrees.

Who lies for you
will lie against you.
Bosnian Proverb

Quite recently, I had a series of discussions with another foreign teacher in China who actually uses the title "professor" in his e-mail signature even though he had never taught one day in his life at a university before arriving in China (nor would he be qualified for an academic appointment at any level in either the States or China). His justification for doing so is that he possesses an advanced degree in a non-related field and his current university employer "doesn't mind." Given his older age and genuine dedication to his students, it's an honorary title he truly believes he deserves and has every right to use. The fact that "Professor of Oral English" has no meaning in China or anywhere else in the world is apparently lost on him.

When I made a point of mentioning my dismay over this particular case of academic mockery, if not fraud, to yet another foreign teacher, his response was no less disheartening: "Well, the Chinese don't care very much about these things and aren't very formal about academic ranks." Aside from feeling disturbed by his failure to appreciate the damaging effect of this to all of us, I knew—of course—that this statement couldn't be any further from the truth.

My personal observation has been that the Chinese probably care more about university reputations and academic ranks than our own Western countries do. (Ask any Chinese college student—who can't otherwise speak one word of English—if he can name the Ivy League schools and he will rattle off all eight of them in rapid succession.) What they don't care about is the teaching of English as a foreign language and, consequently, Chinese academic administrators simply don't take their foreign English teachers very seriously. Unfortunately, it appears that there are more than a couple of us who have decided to exploit that disregard and capitalize on our relegated status as outsiders for the sake of their own self-aggrandizement.

...if your university is turning a blind eye to your use of an "honorary academic title," ... it means that your administrators secretly regard you as an outsider and object of amusement.

What is the problem with using academic titles here that we haven't earned and could never use without serious consequences either as a real academician in China or back home?

The answer as I see it is that it perpetuates and reinforces the very disregard and disrespect that Chinese university and private school administrators already hold for their foreign teachers. It capitalizes on the fact that the Chinese don't regard us as real educators but as a necessary evil to either meet their national exposure to a native-speaker requirement or as a marketing tool (in the case of private language schools). In addition, doing so both insults and undermines the integrity of the real Western academicians in China who were genuine assistant, associate, and tenured professors back home.

What is the problem with using fake degrees? In addition to the apparently not-so-obvious ethical problem, the answer is related to the one above: It perpetuates the ubiquitous perception among Chinese school owners, university administrators, not to mention our own students, that foreign teachers are not real teachers but, at best, friendly visitors and, at worst, performing monkeys. Obviously, any private school or recruiter that proffers fake degrees to its foreign teachers is expressing nothing but contempt for all of us. Any foreign teacher who uses a fake degree to obtain employment or naively accepts one in China is actively lending justification to this professional disregard and disrespect.

If you don't have a real degree, not only is it unethical to use a fake one, but it's entirely unnecessary for obtaining employment at most private language schools. In the end, the use of fake degrees hurts all of us. In addition, if you are caught, it is sufficient grounds for termination and deportation. And if your university is turning a blind eye to your use of an "honorary academic title," don't for one moment delude yourself into believing that this is an indication of positive regard or special status. Just the opposite, it means that your university administrators secretly regard you as an outsider and object of amusement.

Are there any foreign oral English teachers in China, currently referring to themselves as "professor," who believe for one moment that this same practice would go unnoticed and unchallenged if, for example, a Chinese teaching assistant decided to award himself the unearned rank of professor? Such a gross and blatant mirepresentation would be regarded and promptly responded to as a very serious matter. Such a misrepresentation would very likely result in termination, both in China and in each of our respective Western countries.

What Exactly Does It Mean to Be A Professor?

Many people, even well educated ones, believe that the title “professor” is a generic term that describes anyone who teaches at the university level, as evidenced by our aforementioned airplane mechanic who genuinely believed that his four-month stint as an oral English teacher earned him the right to use the highest academic rank there is.

In reality, it takes many years of dedicated and challenging full time university experience to earn the rank of (full) professor. For those who aren't familiar with the process, please read on to learn what is involved.

In the United States, there are four academic ranks: instructor; assistant professor; associate professor, and professor. In China, the comparable academic ranks are assistant teacher, lecturer, associate professor, and professor. In America, the rank of instructor is generally assigned to a full-time academic employee who has been accepted into a tenure-track position pending completion of his doctoral degree. Upon completion of the degree, the rank is automatically upgraded to assistant professor.

An assistant professor, as a rule, is a relatively new academician who, typically, has just recently completed his doctoral degree. Most universities allow an assistant professor five to seven years to build an academic record strong enough with which to apply for tenure (essentially an unlimited employment contract) and promotion to associate professor. Promotion to the rank of associate professor is determined by a review committtee's assessment of the candidate's performance across three broad areas: 1) Research and publication; 2) Teaching evaluations, and; 3) Community service.

Not all publications are academically worthwhile or applicable to promotion. Generally speaking—and this varies by university and academic discipline—an assistant professor must publish at the rate of one article per year of employment in professional refereed journals. A refereed journal is one in which three colleagues are provided with your submission anonymously and then essentially vote on whether your work is worthy of publication. For this reason, refereed journal articles carry considerably more academic weight than do book chapters and even entire books. At my current university, for example, only one book or book chapter can be used as a publication when applying for promotion.

In addition to research and publication, the candidate must demonstrate above-average teaching ability and a history of professional service to the university and community.

Seeking promotion from the rank of associate professor to professor is typically more difficult than from assistant to associate professor: At the very least, it requires seven to ten more years of distinugished teaching and community service with an equal number of additional publications in which at least one must be regarded as a notable contribution to the field.

In essence, those who assign themselves the "honorary" rank of "professor" are misrepresenting themselves as having 14 to 17 years of full time academic experience, a minimum of 12 publications in refereed journals, and a 14- to 17-year history of above-average teaching evaluations and community service.

What Is The Proper Academic Title for an English Teacher in China?

Technically speaking, foreigners are not bona fide full time employees at Chinese universities no matter how many hours they are contractually obligated to work. One must be a Chinese citizen to be a full time employee with full benefits and a pension.

All foreign teachers are essentially adjunct teaching faculty. The term adjunct refers to an academic employee who is teaching part-time, is not eligible for full time employee benefits, and is not responsible for conducting research or community service.

If you have a bachelor's degree and are teaching oral English at a university, your actual rank is adjunct teaching assistant. Those with a master's or doctoral degree can safely refer to themselves as adjunct lecturers.

Doctoral level foreign faculty in China who previously held full time academic positions back home will typically be afforded, as a courtesy only, the same rank they officially held in their countries of origin. Please keep in mind that teaching in China with a doctorate does not automatically entitle you to award yourself the rank of professor, whether you are teaching in your own field or classes in oral English.

Full time doctoral faculty on sabbatical can refer to themselves as "visiting" faculty at the same rank they currently hold, i.e., visiting associate professor or visiting professor. (You must be tenured to receive sabbatical. Up until 30 to 40 years ago, it was possible to be tenured at the rank of assistant professor but this is unheard of today. As a rule, in order to be considered for tenure, you must be eligible for promotion. In some unusual cases, in order to "lower the stakes," a candidate may decide to apply for promotion without tenure. If an assistant professor does not apply for (is unqualified for) tenure and promotion by the seventh year of employment or if he or she does apply but is denied T&P, then that individual is not only terminated but more or less finished in academia.)

However, please be advised that if you are teaching at a primary or secondary school in China, you cannot appropriately assign yourself any academic rank at all as these are inapplicable outside of tertiary academic institutions. (Of course, this can vary by country. In Italy, for example, secondary school teachers are addressed as "professore" for men or "professoressa" for women.)

When in doubt, simply use the title in your employment contract as part of your signature, e.g., Foreign English Teacher, Director of Studies, Head Teacher, etc. While virtually all of your Chinese colleagues will look the other way, Western people—especially career educators—will regard your use of an unearned title (that is, one that you could not legitimately use back home) as a deliberate act of misrepresentation.

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# At Arm's LengthJohnty 2013-02-14 13:19
I would argue that the Chinese education system is fundamentally unsure why it is employing foreign English teachers, which contributes to a great many problems, not least fake or over-inflated qualifications.

There seems to be an obvious, if not maddening, contradiction in the expectations of people involved in the process; for example, expectations of the government / Ed institution, of the students (individually), of co-teachers, of the dean, possibly of the student's family etc.

It was largely rumoured at my previous university in Jiangxi that the university received a grant from the government each year based on the amount of foreign teachers it employed. Of course, it was only rumoured though with some vigour, but I can say that the university really cared not what quality of foreign teachers it employed. There has also been a concerted, successful effort from the PSB in Jiangxi to keep foreign teachers at an even more arm's length from interfacing with the system.

At my present university, in the more prosperous and developed part of China, foreign teachers are micromanaged to the point one does not feel like a professional teacher, though we are given the title of Lecturer. It is still interesting though to hear one of the foreign teachers regularly inform people at the many meetings that she used to be an Environmental Scientist for the past thirty years. It would seem that being an English teacher in China does not confer on her enough status in her advancing years.

I find it true that the Chinese do not regard foreign teachers as real educators, but this for me still holds a contradiction; the contradiction being students in ever more numbers flock to Western countries to be educated by 'foreigners'. The contradiction for me lies in the general confusion concerning Western, educational qualifications in China. The system cannot make even an attempt to distinguish between one foreign teacher and the next, not with qualifications, experience, suitability etc.

I have a P.G.C.E. (FE), a one-year teaching training course, which is unknown and therefore dismissed in China, though it enables, permits me to assist students with their education, as well as their English. Yet, universities still hanker for a TEFL, which I believe is a one-month course that contains no educational value (many of which are faked in China). I have also regularly been treated with equal contempt alongside the no-hopers one sees teaching English in China, because all foreign teachers are lumped together.

Foreign teachers permitted to give themselves inflated or non-existent titles is symptomatic of a dysfunctional system employing non-Chinese to work as teachers; a system that is largely unregulated and unmonitored. I feel the Chinese are a long way off to begin to correct some of the shortfalls of their educations system, made worse by the rich and powerful in China making all efforts to send their children abroad.

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