Education | Students with poor English skills may face dilemma over tighter rules abroad

Macau plunged five spots in the EF English Proficiency Index (EPI) last year, ranking 42nd worldwide and 12th in Asia, a performance that puts Macau at a low level in terms of English-language proficiency.

Although a number of high-
school graduates opt to continue their studies abroad, particularly students from international schools and from affluent families, the current performance of local students, whose first language is not English, showed poor results – a problem that may affect their choice of university in the future.

Late last year, Australia – one of the top choices for Chinese students – tightened its requirements for incoming foreign students.

This means that more than 150,000 international students will have to undergo tougher English language exams before they can start their preferred courses.

Prospective overseas students will have to take a new official test of their language skills before entering a university or vocational studies.

The Times contacted English-
speaking institutions in Macau to enquire on their standards on accepting students who are not native English speakers.

Alan Baxter, dean of the University of Saint Joseph’s (USJ) Faculty of Humanities noted that all students of USJ must attain a B2 Cambridge level early in their undergraduate program.

The Times is aware that students are required to attend English classes for four semesters during their four-year courses at USJ.

“This is through the international Cambridge certificate test. Students can only graduate if they have a certified B2 level,” said Baxter in a written reply.

Questioned whether USJ recognizes a problem in Macau in terms of English language skills, Baxter preferred to express his “personal, non-institutional, unofficial opinion.”

“There is a general problem in this regard, yes, but there are also some notable exceptions,” he said. “Non-native students in any setting, in Macau or anywhere else in the world, are capable of following lessons taught through the medium of English, but they must seek to reinforce their English skills in simple, readily available means beyond the classroom.”

Baxter suggested students to take several measures to improve their English proficiency such as to read newspapers in English, watch television in English and seek English speakers to practice with.

“Locally, I often feel that there is a lack of interest and lack of initiative on the part of many students, with regard to second language learning,” he added.

The Times also contacted School of the Nations and The International School but received no reply by press time.

The Education and Youth Affairs Bureau contested that for schools that use Chinese as the medium of instruction – and have English as the second language – the average number of such lessons must be five to seven times per week for primary students, while high school students must go through five to nine classes per week.

In addition to the provisions on the number of lessons, “The Requirements of Basic Academic Attainments for Formal Education of Local Education System” also sets the requirements for English ability at primary and high school education levels.

The requirements include the basic concepts, curriculum goals as well as the systematic and specific requirements for the listening, speaking, reading and writing skills in a bid to expand students’ grammatical knowledge.

“Based on the premise of following the ‘Curriculum Framework’ and the ‘Basic Academic Attainments,’ public and private schools […] have autonomy to develop their own school-based curriculum in accordance with their school characteristics and teaching needs,” DSEJ told the Times in a written reply.

Prospective overseas students who eye studying in Australia can take an intensive English course to prepare for further studies in Australia if they fail to have qualifications showing they can study in the language.

“The vast majority of language courses are providing high quality outcomes […] but some slip through the cracks and it’s unacceptable for that to occur,” said Australia’s Education Minister Simon Birmingham, as cited in several reports.

According to the minister, the standard would be enforced by the national education regulator.

During the first six months of last year, there were some 580,000 international students enrolled in Australia – a figure that Birmingham believed would not be affected by the new measures, as the new measure aims to strengthen the integrity of the country’s education system.

Prospective students will have to undergo at least 20 hours of face-to-face teaching a week through the intensive courses designed for non-English speakers who intend to study in Australia.

“Some students simply don’t have the English language skills they need to succeed. It means they draw away from getting involved in lectures, tutorials and group study work while their classmates and teachers struggle to bridge the language divide,” said Birmingham.

The Times is aware that there are a number of local students studying in English-language universities who could not keep up with the university’s medium of teaching, thus hampering the progress of the module due to the need to cater to students with poor English proficiency.

The Times also contacted the Tertiary Education Services Office (GAES) to enquire on the standards of English language in universities, but it declined to comment.

“As higher education institutions in Macau enjoy academic and teaching autonomy, our office would not be able to provide any information regarding your questions as it is not within the terms of reference of our office,” GAES noted.

DSEJ acknowledged that there is an increasing demand for English-speaking locals and pledged that it will further strengthen the development of foreign language education in non-tertiary education, and create a good language learning environment to improve local students’ foreign language proficiency and ability.

“In line with the “Language Education Policy of Non-tertiary Education”, the DSEJ strives to coordinate and implement local language education,” the bureau said.

The education department also revealed that a language training center for “learning, practice and testing” is planned for the Seac Pai Wan area and language camps for students will be held there.

“Using the immersion teaching method and providing real-life learning situations, students can flexibly use the learned language so that they can become more confident and capable,” it concluded.

Higher education institutions abroad require international students to take the English proficiency tests which includes International English Language Testing System (IELTS), Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and Test of English for International Communication.

These students should have a minimum TOEFL score of 80 in internet-based TOEFL, and a minimum IELTS score of 6.5 on the academic test.

Currently, DSEJ provides subsidies for student and teaching staff who wish to undergo such proficiency tests.

Categories Headlines Macau