When Dutch academia speaks English: between opportunity and “siege syndrome”

By Serena Gandolfi
Translated from Italian by Steve Rickinson

English courses, yes or no? A question long debated in Dutch universities. On one hand, the universities rejoice at the exponential increase in registrations, while international teachers and researchers see the Netherlands as a preferred destination for career expansion. Yet, on the other, there is a growing concern among natives that the presence of foreigners is becoming dominant in the country’s universities, limiting access to the Dutch and, due to the prevalence of English language use, affecting the quality of the teachings.

Some universities do consider more stringent linguistic barriers but, justified or not, a certain sense of siege syndrome is widespread. The most obvious element of which is the number of courses offered in the English language.

English as official language of the master’s degree

Over the past ten years, registrations of foreign students have doubled; As reported by 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 today is 14%, while 23% are students enrolled in master’s courses. Additionally, just over half of bachelor’s programs are offered in Dutch while master’s programs in the local language are at only 15%.

Many argue that the internationalization of the universities brings added value for both Dutch and foreign students, but at the same time the anglicization of education certainly raises doubts; one wonders if teaching and learning in a non-native language ends up compromising course quality.

Not everyone is optimistic

Beter Onderwijs Nederland (BON), an organization in defense of Dutch education, was among the first to mobilize with intention of curbing the English-based race for high-level education by organizing a fundraiser and petition against the Universities of Twente, Maastricht, and against the government itself: “I want to clarify that we are not opposed to the arrival of foreign students or professors, nor to the use of the English language by itself” explains Gerard Verhoef, member of Bon, professor of Mathematics and Physics at ‘Hogeschool of Amsterdam. “What worries us is the surge in foreign registrations. With this rhythm, Dutch risks becoming a standard B language. 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 risk that an educational exchange may prove 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 topics such as those faced in university classrooms”.

Minister of Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, does not agree. At the beginning of July (2018), in a letter to parliament, she defended internationalization by defining it as 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 objective of the institutes must not be just to attract foreigners from abroad”.

Errors in the exam text and Google Translate for the slides

It is the excellent reputation of Dutch education that brought Teresa, a 20-year-old German, to enroll in the first year of a Psychology degree course at UVA. “For us Europeans, studying in the Netherlands is not expensive (around 2,000 euros, the same tax as local students) 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 grammatical errors: they were oversights that made it difficult to understand the test itself. Annoying in that case because it was a penalty right at the examination stage”, continues Teresa. “Not all teachers master the language and in a course, the teacher used slides translated with google translate”.

Eva, 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 workgroups where they are compared, respectively, in the national language and the non-native one. “From this point of view the University is organized rather well and the presence of foreigners in this way does not slow down the lessons,” he 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 in English, they could not go into the details of complex concepts as they would like “.

However, optimism seems to prevail among teachers.

At the time of hiring, all professors, including foreign ones, are required to have a specific level of linguistic competence. Each year their work, as well as fluency, is also evaluated by the students.

31mag then met another Eva, also Dutch, who seeks a future in research and chose an international program: “I intend to do research or otherwise remain in this area. If I intend to publish, I will have to do it in English also to reach a wider audience. Furthermore, I don’t think it is tiring to study in another language, it is just a matter of habit”.

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

Joris Larik, who teaches International Law at the University of Leiden, 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 over internationalization, the voices are many. From concerns about the costs, economic and social, of a foreign-oriented education system, to the interests of many cities, especially the smaller ones, for the contribution made to the local economy.


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