HONG KONG - A leading university in China has removed an English language test from its degree requirements amid a growing debate about the subject's practical benefits for many people.
Xian Jiaotong University, a public research university in the northwestern province of Shaanxi, has confirmed that it no longer requires students to complete the College English Test, or CET, to enter the university or graduate.
The CET is an annual exam for undergraduate and postgraduate students, who usually must pass two levels - Band 4 to be given a place at a university and Band 6 to graduate.
According to the university's academic affairs office, the change was "a normal measure made by the school according to current developments". It added that college-level English courses based on the CET would still be taught.
The university belongs to the Double First Class University Plan, an official list of China's top 5 per cent universities. It is the first on the list to make such a change.
Yu Xiaoyu, a doctoral linguistics researcher at the University of Hong Kong, said that although the removal of CET as a degree requirement would not reduce the importance of the English language in China's education system at large, students may become less motivated to learn the language.
"What hasn't changed is that much of the job market for university graduates still considers English to be beneficial, so there's a high chance that students with higher English proficiency, especially those who can prove it, will come across more opportunities," said Yu.
Yu suggested that some companies and most universities in China may require English proficiency because of the positive qualities associated with having a "second language experience", such as strong memory and the ability to learn new concepts.
Yu, who was educated in Chengdu, as well as New Orleans and Cambridge, said the concept that learning a second language would interfere with the learner's native language skills is misguided.
"Children possess the ability to become bilingual or even multilingual when they're exposed to more than just one language.
"College students, who are mostly adults, have already reached proficiency in their mother tongue, and no matter how many new languages they learn, they will always be able to use their native language," said Yu.
Xian Jiaotong University is the first elite Chinese school to scrap the English language test.
Alongside Chinese and mathematics, English is one of three compulsory subjects in the national college entrance exam, or gaokao. Each compulsory subject accounts for 150 points, with overall points varying with jurisdiction.
Plans to reduce the weight given to English while raising that given to Chinese have been under discussion for around a decade, with universities also being urged to lower the bar to ease pressure on students, especially those from rural areas where English is rarely, if ever, spoken.
Lawmaker Tuo Qingming drew further attention to the debate during the annual legislative session in Beijing in March, saying that the subject had "limited practical value for many people".
"For a considerable number of people, learning a foreign language is only for admission to higher education. What they learn is actually exam-oriented … They will seldom or never use foreign languages in their work or life," Tuo said.
Yu said the non-practical nature of CET courses means students who score highly in the exam may still struggle to communicate in English but said the system should be reformed rather than abolished.
"We shouldn't interpret the university's decision as a sign that they're attaching less importance to the English language.
"Instead, this may imply that Chinese higher education systems are now seeking reforms in college-level English exams to fit current students' educational and career needs," said Yu, adding that students should ideally be provided with diverse language training, ranging from speech delivery to interpersonal communication.