Compulsory Dutch Looms for Foreign Students

Universities in the Netherlands fear the impact.

August 15, 2019

Universities in the Netherlands fear the government may force international students to do part of their degrees in Dutch, potentially decimating recruitment from outside the country.

Several sources have told Times Higher Education that this is one of the ideas being considered by the country’s Ministry of Education, Culture and Science ahead of a policy announcement expected next month.

This would be the most drastic option to curb perceived problems arising from the growth of foreign student numbers, blamed for precipitating a switch to English language instruction at the expense of Dutch, crowding out local students and putting pressures on housing.

Other possibilities thought to be on the table include making Dutch lessons compulsory, forcing universities to justify teaching in English and drawing up tailored plans with universities to increase a focus on Dutch.

Whatever the ministry decides to do, some critics see the overall policy direction as a major reversal. “I’m deeply disturbed by the developments in the Netherlands because they are putting the clock backwards,” said Jo Ritzen, a former minister of education, culture and science for the Labor Party. The move grew out of “nationalistic” sentiments and a “lack of long-term thinking," he said.

Concerns about English pushing out Dutch have existed for years in the Netherlands, where three-quarters of master’s programs at research universities are in English only. At bachelor’s level, the proportion is about a quarter.

Campaigners against this trend worry that it weakens Dutch culture if local students no longer use their mother tongue at university. They also have concerns about lecturers using poor English.

“To some extent, universities have brought it on themselves” by failing to think through the consequences of the switch to English, said Ritzen, now a professorial fellow at Maastricht University. There was “some truth” to the accusation that they had swapped language simply to attract more students, he said.

But the Dutch system is “the only one [in continental Europe] that is competitive with the U.S., Australia and U.K. in terms of attracting foreign students from outside Europe,” Ritzen pointed out. It had achieved this “by accepting that English is the language of instruction,” and if this was reversed, “it will be a loss for Europe,” he added.

The ministry has already announced cuts effective from 2021 to Nuffic, a body that runs a 10-strong global network of offices which helps to recruit students to Dutch universities. The cuts will mean that the organization has to “scale back … activities drastically,” it warned last month.

Last year, in response to concerns about the declining use of Dutch, the Association of Universities in the Netherlands asked the government for more powers to cap non-European Union student numbers to help deal with the inflow.

But universities fear that instead of number caps, the ministry favors some form of compulsory Dutch. “Some element of Dutch will be part of the curriculum, but we don’t know how big it will be,” said Jos Beelen, professor of global learning at the Hague University of Applied Sciences.

Foreign students might be required to learn a “tokenistic” level -- like how to order things in shops -- or be forced to gain at least an intermediate proficiency, which may put off all but German students, he said.

Dutch universities have struggled to achieve a “balanced classroom,” he said, where foreign students come from a range of countries, not just Germany or China, for example.

“Language policy is used to control numbers, but it still doesn’t give you any control over the composition of the classroom,” Beelen warned.

Robert-Jan Smits, president of Eindhoven University of Technology, where all courses are in English, said that the language allowed the university to attract the best students globally and meant that Dutch graduates were better placed to pursue an international career.

But the university aimed to have at most one-third of its students from abroad, he said, and wanted to avoid “the situation which I have seen at several U.K. universities, where mostly for budgetary reasons, in certain departments, 90 percent of the students are Chinese. These universities are no longer British or international -- they are Chinese.”

This is not the only area in which the Netherlands is moving against trends that once seemed inevitable in global higher education. It is looking to replace some grant funding for academics with direct payments to universities -- as competition for money is seen as having gone too far -- and to rely less on citation metrics when judging researchers’ work. Plans are also afoot to make admissions more selective, chipping away at a long-standing taboo.

The ministry, which declined to comment, would have to win approval for any language-related proposals from Dutch lawmakers.

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