Foreign university faculty face annual round of ‘musical jobs’

Universities in Japan force most of their foreign instructors to play an unnerving version of musical chairs. Every year the music starts and instructors with expiring contracts scramble for an opening at a new school. University administrators force teachers to play “musical jobs” by offering limited-term contracts.

The game has lots of players ? many with permanent residence and families ? searching for a vacant chair. There are about 5,700 foreign instructors working full-time at Japanese universities, the vast majority on limited-term contracts.

Contract conditions for foreign instructors at Japanese universities vary widely. Some offer bonuses, housing, private offices and research allowances, while others don’t. However, contracts share certain common features.

Contract instructors typically teach almost twice as many classes as the tenured faculty. Whereas tenured professors usually teach six or seven 90-minute classes a week, instructors on contracts usually teach eight to 10 classes, with 12 or 14 not unheard of. The number of possible contract renewals is also capped, most commonly at three years. Finally, contract jobs often come with a starting age limit of 35 or 40. The practice of mentioning age limits on job ads has now been banned, but with date of birth written on the resume, de facto limits are certainly still imposed.