• The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education


The Increasing Dominance of English

In the Netherlands and elsewhere, there is a trend to move from teaching in the local language to teaching in English. This increase is not welcomed by all.

October 2, 2016

Teaching in English was introduced in Dutch research universities, and later also in universities of applied sciences, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was the result of increasing cooperation and student exchange in the framework of European programs, in particular Erasmus, and bilaterally with other countries. The University of Amsterdam was the first to introduce teaching in English, and I played an active role as senior international officer and later as vice-president for internationalization. To exchange students and scholars with universities in other countries, a research university in a country with a language as little used as Dutch would have to offer a package of courses in the most widely spoken second language in the world, English. This had a very positive impact on both our incoming and outgoing student flows.

Other research universities soon followed. And in addition to offering a selection of modules, the universities introduced full degree programs in English, mainly at the graduate level. Since then, every so often there is a debate in the academic community, the media and in politics on the increasing dominance of English in Dutch higher education, its commercial motives, its lack of quality, and the fear of loss of Dutch language and culture as a result. This is in itself a valuable, but, most of the time, the discussion lacks nuance.

As Times Higher Education wrote (see also Inside Higher Education), 60 percent of courses in Dutch research universities are now taught in English, and for the master level it is 70 percent. The engineering universities in Delft and Eindhoven stand out with 100 percent of their graduate courses taught in English. The Universities of Groningen and Maastricht call themselves bilingual universities.

This increase in the use of English is not welcomed by everybody. As I wrote in The World View last year, teaching in English is a contentious debate not only in the Netherlands but also elsewhere, from the smaller European countries to bigger ones like Germany, France, and Italy—as well as in China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia. In Italy, where a few years ago the rector of the Politecnico di Milano, following his Dutch colleagues from Delft and Eindhoven, announced the shift from Italian to English for all graduate education, the issue is still waiting a court decision. Rankings, reputation, and competition are mentioned as the main drivers for this shift to English, which is already quite a common language for research.  

Opponents criticize the trend to commercialize higher education through the recruitment of international students and scholars, according to them the main reason for teaching in English. Those in favor emphasize the importance of an international classroom environment. Bastiaan Verweij, a spokesman at the Netherlands’ Association of Universities, that represents the interests of the country’s 14 research universities, told Times Higher Education that the elements that make up an international classroom include “a good mix of students from home and abroad and an approach to content that integrates the students’ cultural backgrounds into the teaching.”

These two arguments, commercialization and international classroom, are not in themselves in conflict with each other, but I notice that in several countries, for instance Russia, Korea, and Japan, teaching in English is indeed driven by the recruitment of international students—but international students are rarely placed in classrooms with local students and local faculty, who may not have enough knowledge of English to participate in an international classroom. In such cases, one can wonder about the added value of teaching in English, other than to generate income and try to move up in the rankings, based on quantitative indicators and not qualitative arguments. In the Dutch universities, this is not the case.

Quality is an argument used by both opponents and defenders of teaching in English. The first refer to the fact that teaching in another language than your mother language reduces the quality of transmission of knowledge, due  to the poor levels of language skill of local teachers, students and international students, none of whom have English as their mother tongue. The Dutch, a population always rather critical about its own qualities, have even a word for it: “Steenkolenengels” (“coal English”), which finds its origin in the rudimentary communication of port workers with English coal ship crews at the beginning of the twentieth century. ‘Dunglish’ is another word used in this context. My experience is that most foreigners, also those with English as their mother language, are very positive about our language skills in general, and about our mastery of English in particular. My Dutch countrymen instead tend to be very critical about other Dutch using English, while, in my opinion, participating in a scholarly debate in a language other than your mother tongue is a brave, stimulating and rewarding endeavor.

Those opposing the use of English in teaching should consider the following counter argument: in surveys, international students do not complain so much about the quality of the English of non-native, English-speaking teachers, but more about the quality of the English of native English-speakers, who tend to speak too fast, often with a dialect and who tend to dominate during discussions. On the other hand, non-native English-speakers who have to read and make presentations in English, often take—in my experience—much more effort to prepare and express themselves clearly, than those whose mother tongue is English.  

The quality of the language of communication in an international classroom is a central issue, concerning both the teacher and the students. In Times Higher Education, Verwey enhances that: “Of course, it is important to continuously work on the improvement of English teaching skills.” Yet it is too simple to say that “the presence of international students produces a more ambitious study culture, which acts as a major impetus for improving the quality of teaching,” and that “the international study programs will in turn enhance the quality of education itself.” This requires serious attention and action. To teach in regular classes in Dutch universities, teachers are required to get a certificate indicating their qualification as a teacher. Likewise, a special certificate is needed for teaching in an international classroom, as recommended in a study about Internationalization at home by EP-Nuffic, the Dutch agency responsible for international cooperation in education.

To conclude, it is my opinion that, in the Netherlands and elsewhere, there has emerged a trend to move from teaching in the local language to English, but in most cases the move lacks a serious debate about the why, what, and how, as well as about the assumed qualitative outcomes of such a measure. To teach in English only because it is assumed to be needed for reputation, rankings, and to beat competition is too simple and too risky. Universities should be more cautious and strategic about the need and consequences of teaching in English. It is not a matter of doing so because others do it and needing to be part of the game. But when done well and based on clear rationales, it can indeed contribute to a higher quality of teaching and learning.




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