We need to talk about pay inequality in international schools
Paying ex-pat teachers more than locals, even if they have the same qualifications and experience, should no longer be acceptable, writes Denry Machin
I know I am not the first to say this, but there is an elephant lurking in the international school room. And, as diversity is gaining long overdue priority across the field, that elephant is becoming even more obvious.
We all know it’s there, and most of us are likely uncomfortable with its presence, but few have yet been brave enough to draw attention to it. James Hatch from Seisen International School in Japan has already pointed out inequality in remuneration (expressed through employment contracts) for different categories of international school staff. Broadly, the distinction is between local staff, locally hired staff and expatriate staff, with benefits and salary usually increasing in that hierarchy.
Which raises an interesting question: do international schools really value diversity? Critically, value here is expressed financially. Are international schools willing to put their money where their mission statements are? Most international schools make efforts to foster a sense of social responsibility in their students, and most (if not all) promote tolerance, but given potentially divisive human resource policies, is this merely window dressing?
"Differential contracts operate in many parts of the world."
Does differential pay inherently devalue diversity? This is not an easy issue to address. Thanks to James though, a dialogue has started. But before I contribute to the debate, an important caveat: these arguments do not apply to all international schools. Differential contracts operate in many, but by no means all, parts of the world.
"Type 1" teachers are likely to be local nationals, most often teachers of the local language. Sports coaches, activities staff and learning support staff may also be employed within this category. "Type 2" staff are those who were resident in the country at the point of employment. As "local hires", they may have differential access to the salary scale and to benefits – flights and accommodation being obvious omissions.
Typically, these staff might be defined as qualified or unqualified, with different levels of remuneration dependent on status. Staff on a "Type 3a" contract are "overseas hires" who, for a variety of reasons, may not fit a school’s criteria for qualified status. They might, for example, hold a PGCEi rather than a PGCE, or not yet have the requisite years of experience.
"Type 3b" are the traditional expatriate hires, with full access to the salary scale (or to a different scale entirely) and to full benefits: most commonly flights, accommodation and health care. Senior managers and principals are, of course, likely to be on a different salary scale again and may have different benefits; a more generous housing allowance perhaps. For the purposes of this article though, they can be treated as Type 3 staff, albeit relatively well-remunerated ones. Schools also have an additional category of staff: administrative support staff, usually on a different local scale to that of academic staff. The points below apply equally to these staff.
"West shouldn’t be considered ‘best’."
Despite the best efforts of some curricula (eg the International Baccalaureate), it remains the case that some international schools are not only sites of privilege, exclusivity and elitism, these are the very reasons why they flourish. International schools may exist in the space between the local and the global, and indeed draw on both realms. Their fundamental attraction though is opportunity beyond the local; for their students to enjoy access to "international" - most readily defined as "Western" - modes and mediums of education.
This is precisely what parents are paying for. However, one consequence of this bias towards the West is that local and locally-hired academic staff are often paid less than their expatriate counterparts. Moreover, they are often paid less for doing the same job. A local language teacher, with the same teaching responsibilities as an expatriate, may very well be remunerated differently. The question is whether such practices are ‘right’? The answer, of course, is a resounding: No. Yet, as James argues in his article, this practice not only exists in some international schools; it persists to the point of being normalised and, despite staffroom grumbling, accepted.
Cast in the light of school mission statements claiming justice and equality, the elephant starts to look very awkward indeed. There is some justification for short term expatriates receiving additional benefits. They face actual costs in relocating (compensated through flight and relocation allowances) and they face the emotional and cultural challenges of overseas living. The market also rewards their expatriate status; parents value, and are willing to pay for, teachers with the "proper" qualifications, experience, credentials and cultural background – the latter, as readers will be aware, a very loaded and very contentious criterion.
"Staff undertaking the same roles should be on the same salary scale, regardless of place of hire."
There may also be justification for "unqualified" staff to be remunerated differently. Few would argue that study and experience should not be rewarded.
Superficially, the solution is simple: equal pay for staff within the same job category, regardless of nationality, place of hire or qualification. Variables such as qualifications and experience can be accounted for by differential placement within bands on a salary scale. Key is that staff undertaking the same roles are on the same salary scale, regardless of place of hire.
That may be easier said than done, but it has to be the ideal. Indeed, there is an argument that accrediting bodies should include ‘equal pay for the same work’ amongst their criteria. That would, at the very least force us to acknowledge the elephant’s presence.
Whilst few might disagree with this moral position, the counter is market forces. Teachers’ willingness to work for a given school and parents’ desire for a particular type of teacher (demand) dictate that expatriate teachers command better packages. There is the argument too that, if alignment of remuneration leads to an increase in fees, parents are likely to be vociferous. I do not deny the truth in this; the market is a cruel master. But if international school missions are to mean anything, the moral imperative is to challenge the status quo, one difficult decision at a time. There is little justification, economically or morally, for paying different rates for the same work.
"Localisation may be the only practical way to reduce inequality and increase diversity."
A second possibility is localisation. This practice, now common across many industries, sees expatriate benefits reduced after a given number of years or when expatriates commit themselves long-term to a given locale (by marrying a local and/or purchasing a property, for example).
Rather than seeing this practice as colonialist, I suggest that it is the opposite. Localisation reduces the differential between local and (long-term) expatriate hires, increasing equity. International schools may well be instruments of neo-colonialism, but here I see this as naturalisation rather than colonialisation.
Indeed, localisation may be the only practical way to reduce inequality and increase diversity. The suggested solutions may be imperfect, but we would do well to heed lessons from the schools who, laudably, already offer equal pay for equal work. Perhaps, with our collective might, we can usher the elephant out of the room.
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