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Removing the Language Barrier

June 27, 2007

As European universities continue moving toward standardizing their degree cycles, universities in the continent's non-English speaking countries are increasingly offering master's degree programs in which English is the language of instruction -- in a bid to increase their competitiveness throughout Europe, and beyond.

“It’s taken off in the past 5 to 10 years, since the advent of the Bologna Process,” says Mariam Assefa, executive director of World Education Services, a non-profit organization specializing in foreign credential evaluation. The Bologna Process, named for the Italian city where the agreement for “harmonizing” European higher education was signed in 1999, aims in part to foster greater student mobility by creating a common structure for higher education in Europe.

“Basically when they decided to open their systems internationally, it was thought that English-language taught programs would make the programs more accessible, because the students don’t necessarily come equipped in German or Dutch or French – particularly if they wish to attract students from beyond Europe,” Assefa explains.

The English-language professional degree programs are primarily in business, the sciences and engineering, but as more and more pop up, more and more options are obviously available. A database of "international" master’s programs (which, by and large, are taught in English) maintained by Finland’s Centre for International Mobility yields 151 master’s degree programs in everything from radio frequency electronics to forest products technology to tourism. The number of master's degree programs taught in English in Germany has risen to 362, with most of the programs less than a decade old. The University of Heidelberg, for instance, offers master's degree programs in American Studies, international health and molecular and cellular biology, all in English.

Even France, a nation not known for its love of the English language, has jumped into the arena with a 206-page guide to programs taught in English. “Students no longer have to choose between coming to France and studying in a language they understand,” André Siganos, director-general of Agence CampusFrance wrote in a message to potential students in the front of the guide.

“That,” says Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president for the Institute of International Education, “was a big break-through in France over the past decade or so.”

The faculty composition for these programs can vary, with M.B.A. programs often taught by a mix of international and host country faculty, and engineering programs, on the other hand, mainly taught by host country faculty fluent in English, Blumenthal says. The cost of these programs for international students can also vary dramatically, from nothing at all (the old European price model) to 20,000 Euro or so, or about $27,000 (much more akin to the American model). Yet, by offering instruction in English, the international language of business, universities aren’t solely looking to attract American or British students in search of a cheap(er) or even free program -- far from it.

In Germany, for instance, the majority of students are coming from China, India and Latin America, with a “considerable” number also hailing from Eastern Europe, says Ulrich Grothus, director of the German Academic Exchange Service’s New York office. “There's a much smaller number of students coming from developed countries like the United States or Western Europe – in these particular programs,” says Grothus. “It is true that the majority of American students coming to Germany do so not in spite of the fact that we speak German but because we speak German.”

While most American employers still lack a strong understanding of the European higher education system, Blumenthal said the notion of European countries attracting Americans for degrees “is a notion that Europeans are just now starting to widely market.”

“Really, the notion of an M.A. is fairly recent in Europe. The typical program for a German was to go straight through from an undergraduate [level] through a Ph.D. and maybe take eight or 10 years," Blumenthal says in reference to the ongoing changes in degree cycles brought forth by Bologna. “Now that different European higher education systems are developing discrete B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. programs, that allows students to move just for the M.A., for example."

“It’s the most attractive way to recruit degree-seeking students," Blumenthal adds. "Europe has always been the destination of choice for Americans who want to study abroad in the short-term.”

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