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A case study of the College English Test and ethnic minority university students in China: negotiating the final hurdle

Abstract

The College English Test (CET) is one of the entry and exit requirements for undergraduate study for any major at universities in China. Its high status reflects the prominent role ascribed to the English language in the nation's economic development. For many students from China's 55 ethnic minority groups, the CET represents a formidable hurdle: they typically received piecemeal exposure to English, as their primary and secondary schooling was conducted in relatively under-resourced areas. The paper reports the case of a university that lowered the CET entry requirements for these disadvantaged students. However, similar adjustments were not made to the exit requirements, resulting in the failure of hundreds of ethnic minority students to graduate. A subsequent court decision ruled that the university had not breached any laws. The paper discusses the questions of social justice that are posed by the university's actions in particular and by the importance attached to English in higher education in general, and concludes that there is a fine line between affirmative action and discrimination, and the university's language policy failed to take full account of the reality facing many ethnic minority students.