• The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education

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Shifting Views on International Students and Teaching in English in the Netherlands

In a progressively more polarized world, a nuanced approach to internationalization is increasingly important and it should not be a debate about the numbers of programs taught in English, international students, or branch campuses.

January 27, 2018
 
 

While, elsewhere in the world, universities compete fiercely with each other to attract international students and increase the number of courses taught in English, in the Netherlands—a country that has been on the forefront on these two issues over the past two decades—an intense debate is taking place in politics, in the media, and in the higher education sector itself, on the risks and challenges related to the increasing international commodification of higher education.

Dutch higher education has the highest percentage of courses taught in English among non-English speaking countries and has seen its number of international students increase every year, to a total of 112.000 in 2016–2017, the majority coming from Germany followed, far behind, by China. Dutch higher education also received permission from the former government to engage in cross-border operations, as long as no public funding is invested in them and there are sufficient guarantees of academic freedom. All in all, the picture looks bright, in particular compared to other countries such as the United States, where the combination of a changed political climate and the high cost of study threatens international student recruitment. But, over the past months, an intense debate has emerged in the Netherlands about the effects of these developments.

Opening a Branch Campus in China

Current plans by the University of Groningen to open a branch campus in Yantai, China, are fiercely opposed by students and academics within the university as well as the media and some political parties. High costs, a lack of interest from Groningen faculty to teach there, fear that the project will distract the university from addressing quality issues at home, and concerns about academic freedom, are the main points of discussion. Whether the university council will support the leadership’s plans in China remains to be seen.

Teaching in English

The increased number of courses taught in English is also being questioned by Dutch academics, students, the media, and political parties. The leading conservative party in government is advocating a massive increase in the recruitment of international students. Last year, amid heavy protest from the academic community, Pieter Duisenberg, the conservative party’s higher education spokesperson in parliament, was appointed president of the Dutch Universities Association, signalling a support for that policy. But other political parties, the media, and representatives of student and faculty groups have begun to question this pressure to increase the number of courses taught in English. Psychology students at Radboud University in Nijmegen protested the fact that they had to take courses in English, even though they had selected a program taught in Dutch. A Danish (!) faculty member at the same university criticized the fact that her master’s students had to use the English translation of Vondel, a classical Dutch author, in their master theses. Last September, Annette de Groot, a retiring psychology professor at the University of Amsterdam, made this issue the topic of her farewell lecture under the title “Dutch required!” These are just a few of many cases that caught media attention.

The issue is not so much that English is used as a language of instruction; what is questioned is the presumed inevitability of English “in our age of globalization” and the potential impact on the quality of teaching. A 2017 study by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences addressed some of these issues. In a balanced way, the study raises issues of quality, implications for the labor market, participation, and social impact. The academy recommends that the language of instruction must be a conscious choice. It also recommends that, although language policy is set at the institutional level, the language of instruction is best decided at the department or program level, with due consideration for the nature of the program of study, the educational resources to be used, the specific profession for which students are being trained, and so on. It states that institutions must be aware of the associated costs and benefits, opportunities and risks, and advantages and disadvantages. And the decision to use a particular language of instruction should be firmly anchored in a language and internationalization policy.

The study has been well received by the higher education community in the Netherlands, since it provides a balanced and nuanced approach to teaching in English, compared to the polarizing debate taking place in the media. But it remains to be seen whether its recommendations will help slow momentum towards more English language incorporation or if those opposing the use of English will be satisfied.

More International Students?

The issue of international student recruitment was also heavily debated in 2017. In the first place, it was related to the issue of the increasing use of English in study programs. Second, due to the lack of sufficient services to support those students, in particular, accommodation, also in short supply for local students. And, third, because of the increasing student/teacher ratio. From 2012 to 2016, overall enrollment grew by 11 percent, while the number of teachers only grew by 6 percent. To a large extent, the growth in the student population is the result of growing numbers of international students. This has led to serious concerns about the quality of teaching.

In reaction to all these developments, the rector of the University of Amsterdam— a key institution in numbers of both international students and courses taught in English—addressed the need to limit internationalization in her anniversary address to the university. Karen Maex, a Belgian national, made her speech in English and stated that the University of Amsterdam is at risk of becoming a hostage to its success in internationalization, stating, “What we spend too little time thinking about is the optimal balance on three different levels: the balance between Dutch and international students; the balance between English and Dutch in the wider university environment; and the balance between programs taught in Dutch and English.” Maex made an appeal for a more balanced international approach, less dependence on international (in particular German) students and asked the new minister of education to address these challenges and limits in her new strategy of internationalization of higher education.

Setting Limits and Focusing on Quality

In an increasingly polarized world, a nuanced approach is important. Internationalization should not be a debate about the numbers of programs taught in English, international students, or branch campuses. The discussion should be about why, what, how, and when, focusing on improving the quality of higher education. The address of the rector of the University of Amsterdam and the study of the Academy of Sciences are important signals on how the higher education community should address the limits and effects of internationalization. Opponents on both sides in the Netherlands—in the media, politics and academic circles—should give up extreme positions and pay greater attention to issues related to relevance and quality. The minister of education should not succumb to pressures and take an extreme stand. And other countries should follow the debate and its outcomes closely.

 

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