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University EFL hiring: garbage in, garbage out

Dear minister of education Tatsuo Kawabata,

I wish to draw your attention to practices in university English departments in Japan that are by their very nature counterproductive and often harmful to the acquisition of English as a foreign language. I have been a university instructor for the past four years and have taught English in Japan for the past 12 years. I also have a TESL certificate and a masters in applied linguistics.

To understand this situation one must remember that most of the English teaching industry in Japan is based on the Nova (now defunct) model. As most professional EFL instructors are aware, Nova was not an educational institution. It was primarily a business. I am sure you are aware that most universities in Japan (some 1,700 institutions) are private. Over the past decade, rather than making an effort to make education in Japan more international by having more tenured foreign instructors, the university industry has opted to have more part-time Japanese and foreign instructors.

As you know, part-time workers receive no benefits, no bonuses, no professional development and very little job security — only an hourly wage. In fact, for the past five years, some Japanese universities have actually resorted to using dispatch companies (e.g., DILA, Westgate, etc.) to find their instructors. Using dispatch companies basically means that the instructor does not receive any pay during university holidays.

The main problem with treating English-language education as a business is that both the education and the welfare of the students are not primary concerns, and therefore both suffer. How does one become a EFL instructor at a Japanese university? In my experience many Japanese university administrators cannot speak English and view the whole hiring process as just too much trouble. Consequently, most instructors are hired because they are acquainted with an instructor who is working at a particular university.

The cronyism (i.e., favoritism shown to friends and associates) demonstrated at most universities in Japan almost certainly reduces intellectual debate and hampers institutional growth, thus guaranteeing a lower general standard of English education for students.

Basically, as long as the person “looks” the part, they can become a university English instructor in Japan. Background checks are almost never carried out. In the past, foreign “professors” have been found not to even have undergraduate degrees. In addition to some instructors having no master’s degree, which is a prerequisite for having a university teaching job in the West, some instructors have masters that are not language- or teaching- related. Such people are, nevertheless, teaching language courses or are teaching classes unrelated to their masters (e.g., MBAs teaching conversation and writing classes).

The implications of having instructors who are, in a word, unqualified are obvious: garbage in, garbage out. The calculation is a simple one: When learning anything, would you prefer to be taught by someone who has no experience or training or someone who has?

It is difficult for students to undo the poor instruction they receive from uncommitted instructors. The poor hiring practices of most Japanese universities directly result in students graduating with very little or no communicative competence in the English language. And, if universities, private or public, are not willing to uphold standards in the recruitment of their instructors, why should students bother to obtain an education given by substandard institutions with substandard practices? And, why should parents pay for such poor-quality instruction?

It seems more than a little hypocritical to ask students to adhere to university standards when the university itself isn’t adhering to any.

KARMO THARN Tokyo

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