Hong Kong Baptist University has held an open meeting to review a controversial Mandarin exemption test following a student stand-off with the administration.

The meeting took place on Tuesday, almost a week after the Baptist University Student’s Union (BUSU) held an eight-hour protest at the university’s Language Centre. The centre is in charge of running the newly-introduced exemption test.

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Standoff between students and university staff. Photo: BUSU, via Facebook.

Undergraduate students at the Baptist University are required to reach “foundation Putonghua proficiency” in order to graduate, according to a notice from the Language Centre. To meet the requirement, students must either enroll in a Mandarin course, or prove their language proficiency – such as by passing the exemption test.

Years-long campaign

Students have long been campaigning against the Mandarin proficiency requirement. In 2016, students organised a referendum on the issue, with nearly 90 per cent of 1,544 students voting in support of withdrawing the policy.

Student representatives have also issued an open letter and held internal meetings with the administration, according to BUSU.

Last June, the school agreed to introduce an exemption test. According to the students’ union, the administration said at the time that it expected most students would be able to pass the test.

The Language Centre ran the first round of tests between last October and November. But students expressed outrage after the results were released last Monday, revealing that 70 per cent of those who sat the test failed. These students must sign up for a three-credit course offered by the Language Centre.

In a joint statement issued on Sunday, BUSU and 21 other student groups said: “The school was being irresponsible for introducing the test in a hurry. The assessment criteria are also not transparent at all.”

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Hong Kon Baptist University. File photo: InMedia.

“The school has reassured us that the exemption test will only assess students’ basic Mandarin communication skills, but it did not keep its promise,” they wrote, referring to feedback suggesting the assessment was too difficult.

They complained that the assessment lacked an appeal system, adding that some students were told that they failed their tests for “strange reasons,” such as “their tone did not match that of the character.”

Chinese and English are the official languages in Hong Kong. Cantonese is commonly spoken in Hong Kong, as opposed to Mandarin in mainland China and Taiwan.

Disciplinary proceedings

Following the release of the test results, BUSU members held a protest at the Language Centre last Wednesday demanding talks with the administration.

Baptist University President Roland Chin criticised some students for using “abusive” language during the standoff. A video clip showed BUSU chair Lau Tsz-kei uttering profanities while speaking with staff members.

“Nothing hurts a teacher more than inappropriate conducts [sic] by students whom we all care for so much. In the light of what happened at the Language Centre last Wednesday, we will pursue disciplinary proceedings in accordance with our established policy,” Chin said in an email to the campus community last Sunday.

“Abusive language and hostile behaviour have no place at our University and will NOT be tolerated. Our University and the community hold high expectations of university students, and when even if only one student behaves irresponsibly, all of us at HKBU suffer.”

He did not comment on the students’ concerns.

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Ronald Chin. File Photo: Ronald Chin/Stand News.

Lau later told Now TV that the use of foul language was a “slip of tongue” and that he was willing to apologise for his words.

Education sector Ip Kin-yuen said the school should be more responsive to students’ concerns, while criticising the “rude and impolite” conduct displayed by some students during the row.

“It is unacceptable and does not solve anything,” Ip said. “I hope students will show self-respect and respect for others while voicing their concerns.”

‘Bastion of freedom’

Current affairs commentator Leung Kai-chi, who graduated from the Baptist University, wrote in an op-ed in Stand News stating that Mandarin skills should not be a graduation requirement, citing the importance of universities allowing students to freely pursue their own interests.

“Universities are not vocational training schools,” he wrote. “If universities can force students to do something because they think it is ‘good for their future,’ they can ban students from engaging in political activities with the same logic. How, then, can universities serve as the bastion of freedom?”

“If the university thinks that learning another language is beneficial for students, it could make them take foreign language courses without restricting the choice to Mandarin. It could be Japanese, Thai, Hakka or any other languages.”

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.