Almost all Asian universities demand some English proficiency. Despite its ambivalent feelings towards English since independence from Britain, Myanmar makes English one of three subjects required to get into university. In Indonesia both public and private universities set English tests, whatever candidates intend to study. Since all Singaporean state schools teach in English, students coming from China take a year of English as a university entrance requirement, even though most of their Singaporean teachers will be Mandarin speakers. And nearly all Japanese university entrants take a test in English – even though they may not need to take one in maths or Japanese language.
Many countries continue to make English study obligatory after university entrance. Most of India’s 272 universities not only have required courses in the language but use it as their main medium of instruction. Uzbekistan allows students to choose among English, German or French, but increasing numbers of institutions – including Tashkent University’s departments of Economics, Management, International Relations and Science – have made English compulsory.
In the University of Laos, levels of English are still generally low, but students have a strong incentive to learn it since a lot of the material in their library is in that language, having been donated by international aid development agencies.
While English has long been the main tertiary medium in former British and American colonies, English-medium programmes are increasing in Japan, Thailand, Saudi Arabia and other countries where the language has no official status. This seems to be a global, rather than an Asian, trend, with over 1500 master’s degrees now being taught in English in non-anglophone countries around the world. But motives for teaching in English vary widely, from lack of materials or teachers in local languages, through desire to increase the number of foreign students, to the need to raise international ranking. Recently, Kabul University announced its intention to teach all subjects in English as soon as practicable, but it is suspected that the main aim is not to further its ambitions to be regarded as “the Cambridge of Afghanistan” so much as to find a neutral tongue and avoid antagonisms that have developed during the country’s policy of using both Dari and Pashtun.
Behind most of the initiatives to go ‘international’ through English, however, lies economics. A few decades ago only a tiny elite could dream of going to an overseas university. Indeed when I was a graduate student at London’s highly multicultural School of Oriental and Asian Studies, I had the feeling that many of the Asian and African students there already knew each other because they had been sent to the same schools in Britain and America by their wealthy families. But nowadays overseas education is a possibility for more people.
Global university league tables have been published by the London-based Times Education Supplement (TES), the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) group (which used to collaborate with TEX, and by Shanghai ‘s Jiao Tong University, Many prospective students study them furiously to see how their local institutions compare internationally. According to British linguist David Graddol there is now an “educational arms race.”
QS and Jiao Tong do not always agree, but both have a disproportionate number of English-speaking institutions in their upper rankings. This has naturally led some people to claim there is a bias toward the English language, and even toward Anglo-Saxon patterns of education, in these university rankings. Whatever the truth of this, it is notable that universities in many parts of Asia, are moving up through these rankings. In 2012 QS ranked the University of Hong Kong at 23 and the National University of Singapore at 25 in the world. Both are English-medium. But the universities of Tokyo, Kyoto and Seoul, which teach very few courses in English. followed them closely in the rankings.
English crops up everywhere in Asia and looking at the various ways Asians interact with it tells us a lot about the diversity of English and the diversity of Asia itself. Since Asians use the language in a variety of circumstances for a variety of reasons, it is getting increasingly difficult to make predictions about someone's wealth, education or political views from the mere fact that they speak English. Or from the fact that they don't.