Over recent decades, the People’s Republic of China has developed at a truly astonishing rate. Following the government’s decision to reform its failing centrally-planned economy and open up to the free world, the country has grown from an inefficient and insular nation to a global economic and political powerhouse. As well as maintaining record-breaking GDP growth for the last 30 years, China’s reforms have also lifted a phenomenal 800 million people out of poverty — the most successful such transformation in world history. As recently as 1990, 66 percent of China’s population were living below the poverty line. Thanks to the country’s economic reforms, by 2013 that number had fallen to less than 2 percent.
With an increasingly wealthy population and an ever-growing need for a skilled, technical workforce, China’s higher education system has also undergone drastic changes. Recent estimates indicate there are now almost 3,000 colleges and universities in mainland China, with over 20 million students currently enrolled in academic programs. As the world’s most populous nation becomes more globally oriented, the Chinese government has made internationalizing its universities a major long-term goal.
In recent years, several Chinese universities, including Peking University and Tsinghua University in Beijing, have soared up the world’s top ranking list. Many of China’s institutions are keen to follow suit and improve their own international reputations by attracting qualified foreign academics. Our site will help you identify some of these exciting opportunities.
We’ve also witnessed the phenomenon of Sino-Western joint-venture universities, such as NYU Shanghai, Nottingham Ningbo and Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, where students study in their home country but can be awarded a prestigious degree from a foreign institution. These ventures are considered extensions of the host university, and follow a much more Western curricular model than Chinese universities, with courses almost always being taught in English. A number of other Chinese establishments have also forged ties with overseas colleges, many opening China research centers, developing academic exchange programs, and establishing Confucius Institutes in different countries around the world.
As well as luring foreign instructors, the Chinese government has also made significant attempts to encourage more international students to come to study in China. In 2020, it announced an initiative to double the number of foreign students to half a million, and this has been achieved largely through scholarship opportunities. In 2014, then U.S. president Barack Obama launched a scheme to send 100,000 Americans to study in China, with the aim of enhancing cultural and educational ties between the two countries.
In order to lure more students from overseas, China has drastically increased the number of advanced degrees where English is the primary language of instruction. This broad range of government policies has helped China become the world’s third most popular destination for international students.
All of these factors have created a huge and unique opportunity for lecturers and researchers willing to relocate to the Middle Kingdom. In this article, I offer a breakdown of the different types of academic jobs available in China. I also examine the typical range of salaries you can expect in different roles at various institutions, as well as the numerous benefits that are often provided.
Types of University Jobs
China offers a broad range of subjects for bachelor, master, doctoral and postdoctoral study, with courses taught in a variety of different languages. Most universities award degrees in the humanities and sciences, while others specialize in one particular domain, such as engineering or medicine.
Titles for academic positions generally, although not always, correlate with those in the West. The majority of universities have a five-tier system for academics holding a doctorate: beginning at assistant lecturer, lecturer, assistant professor, associate professor, up to full professor. Some also have a senior professor role available. Foreigners occupying these positions are formally classed as foreign experts by the Chinese government. Unlike in many other countries, if you have a Ph.D., postdoctoral experience and a handful of publications, you can apply directly for an associate professor position. With a good teaching and research record, academics can usually move much more quickly up the professorial ladder than they would in their home country.
Confusion sometimes arises over the titles of teaching positions. Very often instructor and lecturer are used interchangeably. However, instructor is more commonly used for English language teachers, while lecturer is assigned to foreign staff teaching non-linguistic subjects. As an instructor or lecturer at a university you will need at least a bachelor’s degree. However, some universities expect their lecturers to hold a master’s or Ph.D., especially if they’re required to teach and supervise postgraduate students. For an assistant professor role or higher, you’ll need to have a Ph.D. and several publications. To make matters more confusing, all foreign teaching staff are often respectfully referred to as jiaoshou in Chinese, which is translated as professor.
As part of its efforts to attract foreign academics and publish more English language articles, the government has also launched an international talent program. Recent Ph.D. graduates can apply for a range of funded postdoctoral opportunities, typically for two years, which usually involve very little teaching and allow plenty of time for research. Academics appointed as associate professors are also given significant freedom to design their own courses.
There are a huge number of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teaching positions available in China. In order to teach English at the tertiary level, you’ll need to be a native English speaker and hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, usually in TESOL, Linguistics or Applied Linguistics. However, other degrees are acceptable providing you have a minimum of 2-3 years’ experience teaching English to non-native speakers, and/or you’ve obtained a certificate in English language teaching, such as the Cambridge CELTA or DELTA.
Language instructors are given varying degrees of freedom. Some universities will expect you to develop your own curricula and assessment materials from scratch, while others provide a textbook or course manual to follow. EFL teachers frequently teach at designated language centers, as opposed to academic departments, although this depends on the institution.
There are also many openings in the domain of English for Specific Purposes (ESP), which has gained significant attention over the last decade. If you have an undergraduate or master’s degree in a non-linguistics subject, but you’ve acquired an English teaching qualification, there are well-paid opportunities to teach English for Business, English for Engineering, English for Economics etc., depending on your academic expertise.
Another growing area is English for Academic Purposes (EAP), particularly at the Sino-Western joint venture universities, in which students require language training to comprehend, read and write English at an academic level. Several EAP courses are tailored to the specific field of the students, such as EAP for Engineers, EAP for Computer Scientists, and so on.
There are also certain opportunities available for foreigners in non-academic administrative and librarian roles, although you’ll usually need to speak and read Mandarin Chinese very well. In order to attract more international talent, many Chinese universities have invested heavily in marketing, branding and communications. This means there are a growing number of openings in global recruitment initiatives, human resources and marketing departments.
Salaries and Pay Grades
Academic and administrative staff are paid relative to the structure of the academic year. Unlike Western universities, the Chinese academic period is typically divided into two semesters (Winter and Summer). The length of each of these varies depending on the dates on the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), which is either in late January or early February. The Winter semester typically begins in September/October and runs until the week before the Chinese New Year. The Summer semester begins at the end of February or early March and runs up to the examination period in June.
The typical workweek in China is five days, Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm at a Chinese university, and usually 9am to 5pm at a joint-venture university. The total working time per week is officially meant to be restricted to 44 hours. However, many academic and administrative staff work substantially longer than this, very often with no remuneration for overtime.
You’ll normally be required to teach a maximum of 20 hours per week, but most institutions expect you to spend the remaining time in the office, conducting research, preparing classes, marking papers, and advising students. Most universities don’t offer any paid overtime. Some will allow you to take on additional work elsewhere, although the vast majority forbid this in the employment contract.
Typical pay grades at Chinese universities for foreign expert academics holding a Ph.D. vary considerably from 100,000 RMB (USD $15,700) to as high as 350,000 RMB (USD $54,873) per annum. Day-to-day living expenses in China are much cheaper than in the West. At Peking University — mainland China’s leading institution — assistant and associate professors generally earn between 300,000 RMB (USD $47,000) to 350,000 RMB (USD $54,873) per year. At joint venture universities, non-Chinese lecturers can expect to be paid in the upper quartile. Individual income tax (IIT) ranges between 3% and 45% depending on a number of factors, including your total annual salary and the amount of time you’ve already worked in China.
The government is keen to attract visiting scholars, who can expect to be provided with accommodation and often reimbursed for travel expenses. The rate of pay is usually between 2,000 RMB (USD $314) and 6,000 RMB (USD $940) per month. However, there are also independent scholarship programs that offer higher monthly stipends.
Language teachers with a bachelor’s or master’s degree can make anywhere between 5,000 RMB (USD $782) and 25,000 RMB (USD $4,000) per month, depending on the location and reputation of the university. Sino-Western universities currently pay EAP and ESP instructors around 23,000 RMB (USD $3,600) per month, as well as providing accommodation, flight reimbursement and an international health insurance plan.
All employees are entitled to a minimum five-day annual leave plus the large number of Chinese vacation periods. The seven national holidays total up to around two weeks per year, and paid maternity leave is also available for female staff. Contracted foreign employees are paid as usual during the one-month winter vacation in February, as well as the summer break from July to September. Some universities also provide a travel allowance during the vacation period.
There are many other benefits put in place to lure international academics to China. Virtually every Chinese institution provides its employees with some kind of health insurance package, either a Chinese domestic scheme or AXA Insurance at joint-venture colleges. This can usually be extended to cover your spouse as well as a full family package. Some universities expect you to pay the medical fees yourself and then register for full reimbursement from the university, while others provide a plan through an international insurance company such as AXA or Allianz.
Most universities will reimburse your flight to China, and many will also pay your visa application expenses, such as document notarization and administrative costs. Universities almost always provide their international staff with decent campus accommodation, or you can request that HR employees assist you to find a private apartment. The rent for living off-campus is usually paid by the university up to a specific amount, between 2,000-4,000 RMB (USD $314-$630) per month.
As part of the recent government initiative to attract international students and staff, there’s also a large amount of funding available for research projects and conference visits, particularly within the sciences and the language teaching domains. Academics are very often given a significant amount of freedom to select their own research topics and design curricula for their own courses. A private or small shared office is always provided for international staff.
There are many other intangible benefits that emerge from an academic position in China, including enhancing your career and establishing long-term relationships with Chinese researchers. Many universities also provide optional free Chinese classes for foreign staff, which can help familiarize you with the language and culture.
As it continues to develop at a rapid pace, China presents myriad opportunities for Western academics looking to improve their résumé, conduct research in a foreign country and experience a new way of life. In spite of the initial culture shock, working in China is both an exciting and highly rewarding career move.
Author: Zach Bahr