20 December 2009

ELT in Japan, Issue 1, Feature Article: "Teaching as a Foreign National at Japanese Universities"

Teaching as a Foreign National at Japanese Universities: Shifting Terms of Institutional Status, Employment, Work Conditions and Related Concerns
by Charles Jannuzi, University of Fukui, Japan


The Japanese tertiary system consists of some 1250 national, public, and private four- and two-year institutions. At these degree-awarding universities and colleges, the terms 'foreign lecturer' or 'foreign instructor' refer to any non-Japanese personnel teaching below the status of professor. Most typically though the terms refer to full-time foreign language teachers who are 'native speakers' of the language they teach.

The vast majority of these foreign nationals teach English as a foreign language (EFL), but the number teaching other important languages, especially Asian ones, such as Mandarin Chinese, has also risen significantly during the past two decades. The non-Japanese teaching EFL in Japan are often assigned general English classes as part or all of their teaching duties. General English refers to service course English required as part of general education requirements of tertiary education.

Even when foreign nationals teach classes for a major or specialty or as a general education elective, their assigned courses tend to focus on 'English communication', which is often equated with oral English, such as listening and speaking/conversation. However, it is also quite common to find them teaching writing/composition, an expressive skill that requires literacy in the foreign language.

Foreign lecturer status at the national universities

The term 'foreign lecturer' ('gaikokujin kyoushi') in particular had also been the official name for a position within a program that was established by the ministry of education which, in effect, placed foreign nationals into Japan's national universities for the purposes of foreign language teaching and internationalization. While not integrated into the career structure or the collegial organization of the former national university system, the roles of the 'gaikokujin kyoushi' as language teacher, 'cultural informant', and permanent outsider are strikingly parallel to the JET Programme and the Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) it places in the secondary school system nationwide.

However, while the JET Programme continues to expand and entrench in lower and upper secondary education, the old foreign lecturer system of the national universities has been phased out. This system has roots going back to the Meiji Era, despite a hiatus between the wars, because at one time most of the teaching and research staff at Japan's elite imperial universities were foreigners. The special foreign lecturerships have disappeared subsequent to the top-down government reforms in 2004 that forced the 87 national universities to become 'national university corporations' (NUCs). Surviving foreign lecturers--along with the foreign nationals hired to supplement the foreign lecturer system back in the 1990s--have either been integrated into the new competitive career structures of the post-reform university corporations (that is, tenure track, but not necessarily tenured), or they have joined the growing ranks of adjunct and contractual teachers and researchers. Many of the adjunct faculty and contract workers have joined since the NUCs were created.

Foreign lecturers and EFL

Since the first waves of 'massification' of the university in Japan in the 1970s, most foreign nationals have been hired to teach EFL. It should be remembered that EFL is an area of the curriculum that does not fit with traditional academic subjects, even in liberal arts and humanities. In the case of the many Japanese nationals assigned to teach EFL (because so many required courses have to be run for ALL students), most come from what are supposed to be related fields--English education (TEFL courses of study for future high school teachers), linguistics and literature. Even if a foreign national has a background in fields such as these, they will be expected to teach courses and in styles that COMPLEMENT what the Japanese faculty and adjunct personnel do.

There is, however, a problem with any analysis that says there is a clear expectation of some sort of complementary role. The problem is the lack of specific and explanatory documentation of just what it is most foreign nationals or their more numerous Japanese faculty counterparts actually do in class. The content of presentations at language teaching conferences in Japan (e.g., JALT and JACET) might be only a partial and even misleading indicator because applied linguistics (AL) and second language acquisition (SLA) studies produce a 'meta-discourse' about language teaching and language learning, much of it alienated from the actual goings-on of the classroom. AL and SLA have academic priority for most who study beyond a bachelor's degree or pursue publication in TEFL. So there is not much esteem accorded those who give presentations on the actual conduct of classes and course design.

Still, you might wonder if the actual dichotomy could be the following: Foreign nationals are native speakers who teach EFL communicatively and they use a lot of oral pair work. Meanwhile, Japanese nationals find it difficult to use a lot of English in their EFL classes because the natural means of communication amongst Japanese is the standard national language, especially in a formal setting such as a university class. The other problem with such an expectation is that Japanese faculty give much more emphasis to teaching of upper level and graduate school courses, the sort of which lends itself to scholarship in their their declared specialties (in foreign language pedagogy, linguistics or literature).

General English, EFL content teaching, and English for Specific Purposes

Another trend over the past decade or so has been for Japanese universities and colleges of all types to hire foreign nationals to teach regular subjects in English. Though many of the academics and scientists (not EFL/ELT specialists) hired to do such courses may not be aware, this really is content teaching for EFL. Here the boundaries amongst general EFL, English for Specific Purposes (ESP), English for Academic Purposes (EAP), English for Science and Technology (at the numerous colleges of science), and content teaching all blur. However, it can not be emphasized enough that English really is a FOREIGN language for most Japanese, and not a means of regular communication in either oral or written forms. Therefore, content teaching in a foreign language in which most students have no proficiency is an uncomfortable fit with most academic programs.

Content classes in a foreign language are circumscribed by the need for well-planned language support and a scaled-down syllabus for the content that a course is supposed to cover. The teaching duties and classroom management for such content courses are often limited by the low-level English proficiencies of the students, so the courses have to be taught with stripped-down syllabi and the sort of structured language support that makes them, in effect, beginning level EFL classes, especially in terms of expression skills (speaking, writing, presentation skills, etc.). And given the average TOEIC scores of university populations (in a range of 400-500, at best), even a carefully planned, well-implemented approach to content teaching in EFL could very quickly prove worthless if most of the students in the class simply do not have the English proficiency required to learn a full-blown subject in a foreign language.

Remember this point, if you want to teach in Japan

It can not be emphasized enough that the main reason why there are a large number of jobs (both full-time and part-time) teaching EFL at universities and colleges in Japan is that so much English is a required subject. This is true of intensive programs, where some degree of mastery of English and other foreign languages might be expected (such as teacher training and cross-cultural studies courses). But it is also the case in the pervasive general education and liberal arts studies curricula, where EFL courses are more for familiarization and cross-cultural appreciation than for intensive study and or evaluated progress of language acquisition.

The national university system and the 'gaikokujin kyoushi' system

In addition to Japan's huge system of nearly 1000 private universities and colleges, the country has a system of 287 national and public (prefectural and municipal) four-year and two-year institutions. Of this total, the 87 national universities and 55 national technical colleges are in a period of imposed, top-down reform, reactive turmoil and even a transitional crisis, all of which would appear to be affecting the working conditions and career paths of their foreign personnel.

Full-time foreign nationals comprise only about 2-3% of the total full-time teaching staff at national universities and technical colleges, but the reforms affecting them are system-wide and could well usher in changes that will set precedents for the end of life-time employment for ALL the Japanese nationals teaching, researching and doing everyday administration at these institutions. In order to understand how the treatment of foreign nationals at the national universities might anticipate the changes that await ALL their personnel, a basic review of the system and the reforms it has undergone in the last decade might be useful.

An era of reform over-reach and a confusion of results

Prior to full corporatization, the national university system was reduced and consolidated in size from 99 to the current 87 universities (often through the merger of smaller national medical colleges and hospitals with the local national university). Because such mergers are still so recent, it remains unclear just how well integrated are the administration and operations of these forcibly joined pieces. For example, at one national university that was merged with a nearby medical college, the administration and faculty of the college of medicine have refused to allow lecturers and professors from the other parts of the university (a college of education and a college of engineering) to teach their students in many of the shared general education requirements, such as science, maths, Japanese, and EFL.

In addition to dissension over teaching and courses, combined finances are more complex and potentially more volatile. For example, the hospitals that come attached to the former medical colleges are often so heavily burdened with high-cost business operations that they could bankrupt the new NUCs. Without immediate reform, increased government subsidy, or an expanded ability to issue debt, the red ink at some of these hospitals could overwhelm the finances of the newly fledged combined institutions. This might give them such a bad credit rating that they couldn't issue bonds. So the NUCs which now have colleges and faculties of medicine have to establish 'firewalls' with the hospital operations while they try to move the provision of medical services into profit.

Most importantly, as of 1 April 2004, the national universities were 'denationalized' and incorporated into 'autonomous institutions' (or 'juridical persons'). The former national universities are now referred to in Japanese by a term that means something like 'national university juridical persons' but this translates better as 'National University Corporations'. The NUCs, at least in theory, have wider discretionary powers over personnel management, teaching and research assignments, program and curriculum development, and in the allocation of money for their mandated missions in teaching, conveying public services to their regions, and conducting basic and applied research in science and technology. This includes the already heated issue of being able to set tuition rates, which were, in the first year of independence, allowed to rise by a limit of up to 10%). Because of extensive--though diminishing-- national subsidy, the tuition rates (about US $5000) are currently about 64% of the average of private universities (about US $7800). In the next decade the most likely trend is that public and national universities will lose more and more of their government subsidies. Their tuition will increase to a level closer to the private universities--even as the more numerous private universities will be under pressure to reduce their rates to compete for fewer and fewer students.

Government goals: cut civil servant payrolls, save money, spin off

Denationalization was intended to rationalize, streamline, centralize, and inject executive decision-making into the national universities by empowering presidents to act as the chief officers in charge, with new entities for accountability and evaluation. Traditionally, many aspects of governance in the national and public tertiary systems have amounted to a cumbersome, consensual, collegial process of department meetings, committees, faculty meetings, and votes across the professoriates (or full faculty councils) of the several colleges that comprise a university. This bottom-up, consensual set of processes, then, has had to be co-ordinated with or give way to the priorities and prerogatives of the national government and its ministry of education. Or, in the case of public universities, collegial management had to be reconciled with prefectural and municipal governments, including local assemblies or legislatures. Of course, one important goal which looms over the university reforms is to make the institutions cost MUCH LESS as QUICKLY as possible. If they become more self-financing, the debt-ridden national government can further reduce its subsidy to them.

Personnel policies have been characterized as particularly wasteful and inflexible (that is, costly), and two strategies were immediately floated to make the NUCs more financially 'flexible': predictably enough, they are raising tuition while cutting staff. National universities and technical colleges only educate about 22% of the tertiary system's total 3.1 million students, yet they account for almost 40% of the sector's 176,000 full-time 'educators' (a share inflated, however, by the many faculty being assigned to scientific research as well as day-to-day administrative duties).

Much of the excess for which the universities are blamed, though, is really the national government's fault: during the last ten years, it encouraged the universities to hire more researchers and support personnel in order to staff their expanding research infrastructure, and, when it consolidated its separate, bloated system of national research centers in the 1990s, it shunted unproductive researchers (many with no teaching experience) to the colleges of science and engineering at the national universities.

Also, with corporatization has come the loss of civil servant status of the university faculty and with it one of the elements of job protection that full-time public employees universally receive in Japan. At the national universities, academic tenure was never the same as what might be found at an American university. That is, at least for Japanese nationals hired for full-time teaching and/or research, a permanent position and incremental rises in stature came by virtue of their full-time civil servant status and seniority, so tenure was neither very competitive nor limited to a select fraction but rather extended to most everyone. However, although national university faculty were allowed to form and join unions, collective bargaining was always severely circumscribed by law, since civil servants are not permitted to strike.

Now that the faculty are no longer civil servants, the unanswered question is whether or not their unions and representatives at collective bargaining will reconstitute themselves in forms strong and unified enough for effective industrial action. Certainly many Japanese nationals at the NUCS and PUCs, having lost their civil servant status, are becoming more aware of many of the employment and career issues that foreign nationals have long had to struggle with.

For example, for years Japanese faculty seemed unconcerned about the hiring of 'dispatch' instructors to run general education service courses such as 'General English'. As full-time civil servants, such moves to outsource really didn't affect or threaten them. Once they lost their civil servant status, however, many could see the issue as a sort of 'thin edge of the wedge'. If departments and faculties give up their obligation to manage the evaluation of applicants and hiring of teachers in English, then why not outsource other areas as well? Little wonder then that the faculties and now the Ministry of Education have found agreement on this issue, and there has been a move to stop dispatch hiring and outsourcing. Still, since this is 'guidance' ('daigaku kijun') suggesting what is and what is not acceptable, the only way it could change the picture at the more numerous private universities would be strong enforcement. That would require the Ministry of Education to take radical steps, such as threatening to de-certify the private institutions which refuse to follow its guidance against dispatch teachers and outsourcing.

Varied results of reforms spell trouble for foreign nationals

It is still too early to tell just how centralized and top-down the former national universities' administrations have actually become. However, inconsistencies in the restructuring, re-hiring and/or termination of foreign personnel might indicate that the reform liberalization and corporatization have actually created a power vacuum. For example, the national government and its education ministry had already withdrawn a lot of support for its nationwide 'gaikokujin kyoshi' system in the 1990s, which resulted in many older foreign nationals losing their posts because they were deemed to be too expensive to be paid full-time salaries until their retirement. So as soon as the national universities had been re-established as corporations, the ministry signaled that the 'autonomous' universities should phase out all their 'gaikokujin kyoshi' positions in two years and adopt their own policies and systems in keeping with their own teaching and research requirements and finances. At the same time, down-sizing and restructuring the civil service was achieved through these reforms to the national university system, even before the more famous privatization of the postal system. The NUCs' management of personnel shifted from being a function of the national government's civil servant system (the cabinet-level National Personnel Authority) to the much weaker oversight of the Bureau of Labor Standards (under the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare).

However, rather than there being an adoption of one unified policy across a centrally administered university, what is often evident is from the period of 2004-7 is localization and divergence taken to confusing extremes: foreign lectureship posts were phased out or re-assigned in different ways even within single departments and programs! Multiply these varying results across several departments and then again by several faculties, and it becomes obvious that there really is little agreement or top-down authority at many former national universities regarding how to phase out, renew and restructure the foreign lectureship system. Ironically, one reason for the flurry of centrifugal results might be the worry that a systematic reorganization of foreign personnel could possibly set a policy precedent that would then be applied vigorously to the Japanese nationals.

Because of the ongoing proliferation of arrangements for ending the current 'gaikokujin kyoshi' system, it is as yet very difficult to highlight one trend from all the former national universities that would enable a prediction about what is going to happen in the future. Some foreign personnel have been offered lectureships and assistant and associate professorships in such specialties as 'foreign language teaching', with reduced salaries but long-term career structure (whatever that might now mean given the loss of civil servant status). Others are being forced out as their posts become contractual and not renewable, although some have been offered the chance to compete for a new post if one is created. Or the 'gaikokujin kyoushi' type job could be filled by internationals taking up instructorships, lecturerships and assistant professorships, but, in effect, kept to three-year limits with unwritten, 'implicit' contracts, possibly renewed once (for a maximum of six years). Another phenomenon appears to be fewer full-time foreigners teaching such subjects as EFL and cultural studies, with their teaching duties more and more taken over by cheaper part-time personnel or 'dispatch' workers from commercial English conversation schools.

A new system for ALL emerging?

A controversial consolidation and downsizing at a public university might hold the key to detecting a pattern in all this apparent divergence of outcomes. There are 86 public universities and 47 two-year colleges in Japan run and funded by prefectural and municipal governments. These lesser known public universities and colleges have often been established to extend certain types of subsidized higher education to relatively remote regions where private institutions are too expensive or do not exist. They also may be situated near national universities but provide educations that complement the science, engineering and teacher training programmes of national universities with ones in the social sciences, business, and in some vocations, such as agriculture, fisheries, and nursing and medical technician programs.

Because of the political popularity of 'reform' during times of economic troubles and the reality of even worsening finances at many local governments, public tertiary institutions have been forced into corporatization, with the national universities as a model. Starting in 1 April 2005 many began the tedious and time-consuming process of being re-established along the lines of the NUCs, although separation is from a lower, smaller level of government. For example, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has proposed the establishment of a new public university through the consolidation of four existing institutions into one; the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Technology, Tokyo Metropolitan University of Health Sciences, and Tokyo Metropolitan College would all be merged with the prestigious Tokyo Metropolitan University.

Nationwide the main problem that emerged with the corporatization of the public universities was that there was no one central authority from which power could be 'devolved'. The national government, through its ministry of education, certainly has more authority over public universities than it does the much more extensive private system because the public universities are dependent on government funding. But much of the funding is directed through a further layer of local government rather than there being any direct relationship between the institutions and a national ministry. Because of the relatively weak and diffuse authority of local governments in Japan, privatization of the public universities has not gone as quickly or smoothly as reform advocates would have liked.

Many of the faculty at all the institutions affected by the consolidation and reform of institutions under the control of Tokyo Metropolitan Government have objected vociferously and effectively to the proposed imposition of performance-based pay and five-year contracts. Those who objected refused to sign agreements for course assignments, which the administration needs in order to apply to the national government for approval in establishing the new public university. The professors and lecturers demanded, among other things, that faculty councils retain control of teaching appointments and that full-time teachers not be forced to submit to the five-year contracts. At the heart of the conflict between the administration and the faculty was the desire of the former to restructure faculties in order to offer new courses of study at both undergraduate and graduate levels focused on 'urban' themes which might appeal to a demographically declining pool of applicants (i.e., urban liberal arts, urban environment sciences, system design, and health services). Many of the affected faculty objected to the proposed heavier load of introductory level classes with larger numbers of students to teach and evaluate.

Foreign lecturers become the test case at one former national university

Although the national universities were forced to lead the way in privatization and corporatization, the plan to combine public institutions in Tokyo is considered a model case which could be applied as 'best practice' for management in the reorganization and streamlining of both public and former national universities nationwide. The proposals for five-year contracts and merit pay for teachers has drawn special attention.

The contract-and-competitive-tenure system that the Tokyo Metropolitan government is now attempting to impose on the teaching faculties of its universities and colleges has its antecedents. The plan comes from an idea put forward at national research centers and at the former national universities in order to 'invigorate' government-funded research. It most likely originally comes from private industry and private universities (who were the first to use the status for educators). This is the so-called 'tokunin' system whereby researchers sign contracts (usually five years for researchers, but often three years for teachers). Renewal--leading to a possible career track position--depends upon review processes and documentation of 'successful results', such as the development of patents and commercial applications stemming from the initial period of research. However, it is questionable whether such a system is the most appropriate for the professional development of university teachers, nor is it clear how their performance under such a 'tokunin' system can be effectively and objectively evaluated.

The administrations of the one-year-old NUCs, however, have appeared to be reluctant to propose such a system for their teaching personnel. That reluctance may have changed recently, and the largely powerless foreign lecturers became the test case. As of April 2005, University of Kobe, a former national university now a NUC, adopted a 'tokunin kyoin' system for its former 'gaikokujin kyoshi', limiting them to a three-year contract and no automatic renewal (though they will be allowed to try for the position should it be re-opened to new candidates).

Some concluding remarks about more numerous private universities

The employment conditions of foreign nationals within Japan's more extensive private system of universities and two-year colleges (together totaling some 996 institutions) vary a lot. This makes concise generalizations nearly impossible, except to say that there is a broad range of policies and practices. Let us take a lot at what such a vague statement might actually mean if you are going to teach at a private university or college in Japan.

At one extreme, the bad one, discrimination is obviously rampant: unlike their Japanese counterparts, foreign personnel might (1) face arbitrary dismissal, (2) have short-term contracts with strict renewal limits imposed, (3) receive lower salaries, no bonuses and more severe pay cuts, (4) be barred from meetings where decisions are made, and (5) be denied health insurance and retirement benefits (since employers avoid paying their share of the national insurance).

Any charge of chauvinist prejudice, however, has to be qualified because the administrations of some private universities and colleges are so dictatorial and their unions so weak that even Japanese nationals can face arbitrarily imposed employment conditions and unfair labor practices, such as the abuse of contracts or unjustified job termination. Moreover, the very numerous part-time personnel (who often do more teaching than full-time faculty), regardless of nationality, have very little control over their situations and fewer employment rights or benefits.

At the other end of the spectrum for management-employee relations at private institutions, internationals teaching EFL (or content courses in EFL) might receive equal treatment, on par with Japanese nationals. This entails things like tenure-track leading to permanent positions, full benefits such as health insurance, retirement and bonuses, and perhaps most importantly, the extension of collegiality in decision-making.

At the internationalized end of the range of private universities, such enviable conditions seem to be most noticeable in their rarity, often limited to universities or colleges with full-blown foreign language and cultural studies program and the financial resources and business plans to support them. Now there is a need for input from qualified and committed foreign nationals in an era when the numbers of open slots for matriculation exceed applicants and each new enrollment is hotly contested by a rival institution or program. A producer-consumer relationship, however, can be a problematic one for normal academic achievement. It might prove an even more troubled one for low-ranked teachers with no job protection assigned large general education classes of beginning-level students who only study a foreign language like English because it is required.

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