More universities ‘could follow XJTU and scrap English exam’

Decision might be politically motivated but will do little to help science graduates, researcher suggests

October 4, 2023
Two men work on a Bank of China sign
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A leading Chinese university has dropped its English test requirement for graduates, drawing public praise and prompting speculation over whether others could follow suit.

Xi’an Jiaotong University (XJTU) announced that its undergraduate students would no longer need to show English proficiency in a standardised exam currently required at most Chinese institutions to receive a diploma.

The decision, a contrast to the strategy in neighbouring Taiwan, which is seeking to make its education system bilingual by 2030, comes amid cooler relations between Beijing and the anglophone West.

Since the pandemic, China’s president Xi Jinping has put greater emphasis on building up domestic strength in research and science. Meanwhile, political friction and mutual suspicion between China and the West have made institutions wary of international collaborations and contributed to Chinese academia turning inward.

It is against this backdrop that XJTU’s move drew praise on Chinese social media, with many commenters calling for more universities to scrap their requirements, according to reports.

Huan Li, a doctoral researcher in the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) Faculty of Education, believed that “overwhelming support” for the move could kick off a “golden period of reform”.

“Other universities may follow suit, as their previous reluctance to make this change may have been due to inertia,” he said. “With a precedent now set and universities having more autonomy in this regard, they will be more willing to make such attempts.”

But, while some Chinese institutions might be keen to follow, their scope to make changes without consulting administrative authorities is still limited, he noted. “The reform of graduation requirements involves a wide range of considerations, and most universities are cautious about making drastic reforms in this regard.”

Jiangnan Zhu, associate professor in politics and administration at HKU, said the decision was symbolically significant.

“This…may also be interpreted as an indicator of how much China still values the Western or outside world,” she said.

“Downgrading the importance of English education is related to how Chinese universities define their college education objectives, such as what kind of talent they want to train and how much teaching and learning freedom to give to students.”

While she believed that students focusing on going abroad would be less affected, because they need to pass the TOEFL English exam anyway, it could affect the English exposure of students who pursue their studies and career within China. 

William Kirby, professor of China studies at Harvard University, called XJTU’s decision “bizarre”, adding that it was “not doing any favours to their students who seek scientific careers”.

“[It] sounds more like they are currying political favour than favouring sound academics,” he said.

While Professor Kirby expected some institutions would follow suit for “political reasons”, he believed China’s leading universities – overwhelmingly those with the strongest international ties – are “very unlikely” to scrap English leaving exams.

Others were more sceptical. “I would not read too much into this decision by XJTU,” said Titus Chen, a professor at Taiwan’s National Sun Yat-Sen University.

He noted that XJTU – despite the attention its decision has drawn – is far from the first Chinese institution to do away with the graduation requirement. Already in 2005, a handful of institutions, including Fudan University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, East China Normal University, and East China University of Science and Technology, abolished it.

“If China is really turning away from the world, its government would cancel English as a core subject of the college entrance examination,” he said.

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