The Netherlands, an outsider's view.

The Netherlands, an outsider's view.


University in NL speaks English but not everyone is happy

by Serena Gandolfi



Courses in English yes or no? This is the hot topic in the Dutch unies. Universities are enthusiastic at the exponential increase in registrations, and international teachers and researchers flock to the Netherlands to continue their careers. And yet, on the flip side, native Dutch are worried about the growing presence of foreigners: the issue might be limited for Dutch students, but above all, teaching in English might penalize the quality of teaching itself. 

Some universities are considering to introduce a test and more stringent linguistic barriers but in general, whether justified or not, locals feel a certain “siege syndrome”. The most obvious element is the multitude of courses offered in English

English as an official language in MA

But let’s have look at the numbers: in the last ten years the registrations of foreign students have doubled. As reported by the organization Nuffic, in 2018 the number of internationals reached 122,000. The percentage of non-Dutch students in the first three years of the bachelor’s degree is today 14%, while 23% are those students enrolled in master’s courses.

Those are important numbers, followed by the boom of teachings given in the language of Shakespeare. English is slowly monopolizing the classrooms: just over half of the bachelor’s programs are offered in Dutch, while the masters in the local language are only 15%

Many people believe that the internationalization of the universities represents an added value for both Dutch and foreign students, but at the same time the anglicisation of education certainly raises doubts; one wonders if teaching and learning in a vehicular language does not end up compromising the quality of the courses.

Not everyone is optimistic

Beter Onderwijs Nederland (BON), an organization in defence of Dutch education, was among the first to slow down the English race for high-level education by organizing a fundraising and a petition against the Universities of Twente, Maastricht and against the government itself: “I want to clarify that we are not against the arrival of foreign students or teachers, nor to the use of the English language by itself” explains Gerard Verhoef, a member of Bon, professor of Mathematics and Physics at Hogeschool of Amsterdam. “What worries us is the surge in foreign registrations. At this rate, Dutch risk becoming a standard B language. – And it is not just a matter of – identity: BON’s concerns are linked to economic issues, such as the improper use of public and practical resources, as the main risk is that an educational exchange may prove to be too superficial. “If English is not the mother tongue of either the teachers or the class, how can there be good communication? Especially when it comes to complex issues such as those faced in university classrooms.”

The Minister of Education Ingrid van Engelshoven defended few months ago the internationalization by simply defining it a resource. But reassuring the academic world, she added: “places for Dutch students will always be guaranteed, as well as a number of courses in the mother tongue. The primary purpose of the institutes must not be just to attract foreigners from abroad.”

Mistakes in the exam text and using Google Translate for the slides

It was the excellent reputation of Dutch education that brought Teresa, a 20-year-old German student, to enrol in the first year of a degree course in Psychology at UVA. “For us, Europeans studying in the Netherlands is not expensive (around 2,000 euros, the same tax the local students pay) and the international offer is very attractive,” she told 31mag. “I do not believe that the use of English reduces the quality of learning but it is true that in at least two translations of written exams, I found non-marginal spelling or grammar mistakes: they were oversights that made it difficult to understand the test itself”, continues Teresa. “Not all teachers master the language and it happened in a course, that the teacher used slides translated with google translate“.

Eva, who is Dutch, attends the same course as Teresa but following the path in her mother tongue. Dutch and foreign students attend the same lectures given in English, they are then divided into work groups where they are compared, respectively, in the national idiom and in the foreign one. “From this point of view, the University is organized rather well and the presence of foreigners does not slow down the lessons,” she explains. However, it seems to capture the difficulty of some teachers: “Sometimes I get the impression that they really can’t express what they want. As if, having to speak English, they could not deepen and go into the details of complex concepts as they would like.-

However, among teachers, optimism seems to prevail

At the time of hiring, all professors are required to have a specific level of linguistic competence and foreign teachers, also because of the great training demand, represent a resource for universities in the Netherlands. Each year their work, as well as their fluency, are also evaluated by the students.

31mag then met another Eva, always Dutch, who imagines herself as a future researcher. She chose specifically an international program: “My plan is to do research or to stay in this area anyway. If one day I will go for reasearch, I will have to publish in English in order to reach a wider audience. Furthermore, I don’t think it is tiring to study in another language, it is just a matter of getting use of it. –

Internationalization has now become synonymous with anglicization: although English is the global language and its use in technical-scientific fields does not seem to have raised severe issues, it remains doubtful whether it can adapt equally well to the deepening of subjects such as literature, history and social sciences linked to the local historical-political context. The humanities departments now having to deal with students from the most diverse cultural backgrounds begin to question their programs. However, among teachers, optimism seems to prevail.

Joris Larik teaches International Law at the University of Leiden and sees only opportunities: “English allows you to communicate with heterogeneous classes, prepares students for international careers and I don’t think we can really say that the quality of education, in general, is affected. Multi-nationality classes are very lively and full of ideas. I always encourage my students, especially those who come from particular regions or situations, to contribute to the lessons and to go beyond reading the texts in English. Their points of view often go deeper into the lessons. –

In the debate on internationalization, the voices are many and many are the possible facets of the issue. è un progetto indipendente di giornalismo partecipativo.
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