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A major university in northwest China has scrapped English tests as a graduation requirement, reigniting a heated debate over the role of the global lingua franca in the country’s education system after years of rise of nationalist sentiment under leader Xi Jinping.
In a statement on Wednesday, Xi’an Jiaotong University in the capital of Shaanxi province said students would no longer need to take a nationally standardized English test – or any other English exam – to be able to obtain a baccalaureate.
The announcement caused a stir on social media, with many welcoming the decision and calling on more universities to do the same.
“Very good. I hope other universities will follow this example. It’s ridiculous that Chinese university degrees have to be validated by a foreign language test,” said a comment with more than 24,000 likes on the site microblogging site Weibo, where a related hashtag attracted more than 350 million views as of Thursday.
Passing the College English Test, a national standardized exam first administered in 1987, has been a graduation requirement at the majority of Chinese universities for decades – although the government has never made it official policy .
This common practice highlights the importance that Chinese universities place on English – the world’s predominant academic and scientific language – particularly as the once-insular and poor country opens up and eager to catch up with the developed world. after the turbulence of the Mao Zedong era.
But in recent years, some universities have devalued the importance of English, either by replacing the national college English test with their own exams or – as in the case of Xi’an Jiaotong University – by abandoning complete English qualifications as a criterion for graduation.
“English is important, but as China develops, English is not so important anymore,” said a Weibo post from a nationalist influencer with 6 million online followers after the announcement. the university.
“It should be foreigners’ turn to learn Chinese,” the influencer said.
The downgrade comes as China becomes more nationalistic and inward-looking under the leadership of Xi, who has called on the country to strengthen “cultural confidence” and push back “Western influence.”
In schools and universities, teachers were banned from using Western textbooks or talking about “Western values” such as democracy, press freedom, and judicial independence.
Steps have also been taken to devalue the teaching of English in classrooms.
In Shanghai, China’s most cosmopolitan city, authorities in 2021 banned elementary schools from holding English final exams, citing the need to ease students’ academic load.
Some lawmakers and government advisers have also proposed scrapping English as a major subject in schools and university entrance exams nationwide.
In contrast, across the Taiwan Strait, the government has put in place a plan to make the island bilingual by 2030.
China made English a compulsory subject in primary and secondary schools in 2001, the same year the country joined the World Trade Organization.
At the time, the Ministry of Education welcomed the requirement as part of a national strategy to ensure that Chinese education “faces modernization, faces the world, and faces the future “.
For some liberal Chinese, the devaluation of English is symbolic of China’s withdrawal into itself and a strengthening of ideological control.
“We should have some cultural confidence, but that is not the same as being culturally arrogant, short-sighted or closed-minded,” said one comment on Weibo.
“We need English to understand the world. This is a fact and it cannot be hidden under the flag of nationalism,” said another.
Others have welcomed the removal of English tests at universities from a practical point of view, arguing that it is a waste of time and energy, as graduates rarely use the language in their daily life or in their careers after graduation – and when they do, artificial intelligence and machine translation can help them. outside anyway.
But some disagreed, citing the importance of English as the language of the world’s leading academic journals, particularly in science and technology.
“You don’t have to tie it (to graduation), but don’t underestimate the importance of English. Nowadays, if you don’t understand English, you will always lag behind in the science and technology world,” said a Weibo user.