Cut loose at Fifty: Chapter Thirteen – Claim jumping in China!
By Chris Clancy
Meeting students outside class, in their groups, brought lots of positives.
As long as I stayed clear of sensitive topics they could be quite chatty. The truth is, I learned a lot more about them and China than I otherwise would have.
In particular, I didn't realize just how many of them were pursuing some kind of English language qualification - in addition to everything else they were doing.
Of this world they had a lot to say – and nearly all of it bad..
When I first arrived at ZUEL there was a rule that every accounting student had to pass a qualification called the College English Test (CET) at at least Level 4. They could not graduate unless they had done so.
This requirement was dropped a few years later.
I assume it was because employers stopped taking it seriously. As one student put it, in barely comprehensible English, he had CET 4, but couldn't speak the language.
The three most popular qualifications which students went for were the Cambridge Business English Certificate (BEC), the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).
BEC is aimed at students who will go straight to work in China after graduation. The other two are aimed at students who want to continue their studies abroad at postgraduate level - usually in the USA or the UK.
In addition to these qualifications there are many others. In fact there's a veritable plethora of them. The reason why is simply because it's a very lucrative market.
The one thing which these qualifications all have in common is they don't come cheap.
Hence the range on offer – it's almost mesmerising.
It's a situation which cries out for some kind of rationalisation.
An organization called BULATS – BUsiness LAnguage Testing Service – has taken on the job.
What they have done is to devise a common framework into which all the major qualifications fit. This means that they can all be compared and contrasted. Their objective, in the end, is to sort out the whole English language qualifications mess, not just in China, but worldwide.
In a global economy it makes sense to have one common language. It also makes sense to have one which can be assessed using one set of uniform standards or competences.
At some point in the future, BULATS, or something like it, may well become the one internationally recognised English language qualification, in itself.
I remember once saying to students that if Chinese were the international language I would have given up a long time ago.
Fortunately, for native English speakers, this is not the case and never will be.
English is the one true international language.
And here's why:
A good degree, combined with a high level of proficiency in English, should lead to a well paid job and a decent standard of living - if not in China, then somewhere else in the world.
For the average Chinese student this provides a very strong incentive to learn the language.
As for the size of the English language market in China:
I think this quote bears reading a few times – just to take in the numbers.
A significant amount of training is provided by very big, well known and well established language schools and institutes. Most of these are Chinese owned and foreign managed or foreign financed and organised as partnerships or somesuch permutation in between.
In spite of their glossy advertising and high profile position in the market many students have told me, from their own first hand experience, that they were very unhappy with both the quality of was served up and the price they had to pay for it.
Not that the students have much choice in the matter.
The alternative to these organizations is worse.
I refer to the training provided by thousands and thousands of private "schools" in towns and cities spread all over China. Most of these are Chinese owned but nobody knows how many there are.
This is because this market is almost totally unregulated.
In many ways it reminded me of stories I'd read, as a kid, about the goings-on back in the days of the 1890s "rush" in Alaska.
More akin to "prospecting" than English language provision.
There are many similarities.
It's a sort of feeding frenzy.
Grab what you can, while you can, as fast as you can. A cut-throat business infested with thieves, conmen, liars and scoundrels. An unholy free for all.
The strokes pulled to attract customers, or steal them, work them for all they were worth, and then abandon them, range from the outrageous to the hilarious and everything in between.
Like some crazy variation on "claim jumping".
But the boys in the Yukon had nothing on this lot.
I'm no fan of regulation, but if you want to set up a good case for it, look no further than this.
An old Chinese proverb puts it solemnly:
"The mountains are high and the emperor is far away."
We rejoin with a more familiar English equivalent:
"While the cat's away the mice will play!"
But where, you may ask, are the students in all this?
You'll find them stranded in the middle somewhere – not quite knowing what's hit them – seriously out of pocket and badly trained. From all this you may well wonder how anyone in China ever manages to learn the language? Well, the answer is they obviously do. But little credit goes those who purport to train them. In the end they do it by themselves.
A point comes when they say enough is enough – no more!
Once they emerge from the mayhem they turn to another highly lucrative industry – the one that provides personal self-help learning materials. Books, journals, CDs, DVDs, internet services, talking dictionaries and God knows what else.
If you visit schools, colleges or universities in China, don't be surprised if you see students standing in a quiet spot somewhere - in buildings or on the grounds - reading, reciting or just talking out loud to themselves.
They are practicing their spoken English and, just for a change, not getting ripped off.
Another way to "supposedly" practice, free of charge, is to attend a thing called an English Corner (EC). The idea is that for one evening each week students can meet foreign teachers and practice their conversational English.
They are attended with great enthusiasm when freshmen first arrive at university, but, after a few weeks, soon reduce to just a handful of people.
In general, they're a waste of time.
Students congregate around the foreign teachers and ask the same old questions again and again.
"Where are you from?"
"How long have you been here?"
"Where have you travelled to?"
"Do you like the food?"
"How long will you stay?"
"Do you miss home?"
Etc, etc, ad nauseam.
I only ever came across one EC that worked – which was precisely because there were very few foreign teachers present – which meant the students had to actually converse with each other in English – which was the purpose of the thing in the first place - rather than asking the same old questions to bored foreigners again and again.
What the handful who persevere with ECs really want, is to find a practice partner.
Their counterparts in the West are also feverishly looking for partners – but not to improve their language skills.
Their respective understanding of what the term "leisure time" means is very different.
In China it means that extra hours can be spent studying in solitude. In the West it means more time to party – more time to to sharpen certain skills - in things like drinking, fighting and screwing.
How totally different they are.
I wonder what it all means for the future?
As for the "gold rush" – it continues apace – more so now than ever.
"Yeeehah! Whadda we waitin' fer boys, let's git goin, there's gold in them thar hills!"
Yes siree bob!
There's still money to be made – and plenty of it!
Chris Clancy lived in China for seven years. Most of this time was spent as associate professor of financial accounting at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Wuhan City, Hubei Province. He now lives in Thailand where he spends his time reading, writing, lecturing and, whenever he gets the chance, doing his level best to spread Austrian economics.