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NETHERLANDS: Dutch loses ground

The Dutch Inspectorate of Education published the results of an investigation which suggest that in May last year the association ‘Beter Onderwijs Nederland’ (BON or Better Education Netherlands) had perfectly good reasons for filing a lawsuit against two Dutch universities and the inspectorate of education itself in an attempt to stop the unbridled anglicisation of higher education in the Netherlands.

English is already more important than Dutch

Beyond any doubt, the investigation shows that many institutions of higher education in the Netherlands violate the Dutch Higher Education Law. If it had indeed followed developments regarding internationalisation, as it says in the very first sentence of the investigation report’s summary, shouldn’t it – or the minister responsible – have acted accordingly years ago when all the official figures about degree programmes taught entirely in English indicated that the law was being massively ignored? In view of the unmistakable intent of the WHW to safeguard the position of Dutch, the figures concerning the number of degree programmes completely taught in English in Dutch universities are downright stunning, and higher than anywhere else in Europe. In the academic year 2017-18, 23% of all bachelor degree programmes and 74% of all masters degree programmes offered by Dutch universities were entirely in English. Nevertheless, the anglicisation process continues. The latest numbers, issued in December 2018, show that this academic year there has been an increase of 5% for bachelor degree programmes and 2% for the masters programmes that are conducted entirely in English. Tipping point reached With these new figures, the tipping point has been reached of more programmes being taught in English than in Dutch. At the University of Twente and Maastricht University, the two universities that BON summoned to court in 2018, English saturation is nearly complete, including in bachelor degree programmes. It is extremely puzzling that in about one-third of the codes of conduct a different principle than the clear ‘Dutch unless’ standard is adopted, including its opposite, the ‘English unless’ principle – and the reasons for deviating from Dutch as the default language are often not explained. In view of the fact that the law was issued in 1992, a final noteworthy outcome of the inspectorate’s inquiry is that half of the codes of conduct date from 2017 and 2018. One cannot help suspecting that the institutions in question may have drawn them up to retroactively legitimise their language policy, possibly responding to growing public concern about English rapidly replacing Dutch in Dutch higher education.

Internationalisation does not mean to forget roots

The main motive for providing all-English programmes is that these are strong magnets for foreign students, who, in an increasing number of programmes, outnumber their Dutch peers. For example, the percentage of international students among first-year psychology students at the University of Twente, Maastricht University and the University of Amsterdam rose, respectively, from 50% to 80%, from 52% to 86% and from 3% to 57% the year entire programmes were first offered in English. Dutch (research) universities have seen their student numbers expand substantially over the last couple of years, mainly due to the increasing influx of international students. Just this academic year the student population increased by 5%. Since 2000 universities have seen their student population grow by 68% without any proportional rise in funding. They have now reached a point at which they can no longer cope with the influx – there are more than 1,000 first-year students bursting out of the lecture halls in some fields of study. Ironically, in an attempt to gain control over the inflow of international students, the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) is trying to get the minister’s approval for a cap on enrolment on all-English programmes in order to secure the educational quality that is jeopardised by universities’ uncontrollable growth.

The risk of losing the mother tongue

Another reason why educational quality is at risk on all-English programmes is that proficiency in a second language is generally lower than in a native language. This also applies to the Dutch, who tend to greatly overestimate their fluency in English. This lower proficiency in English impedes students’ knowledge acquisition and academic development and hampers the transfer of knowledge and skills by lecturers. In view of the fact that WHW article 1.3 clearly aims to foster students’ Dutch language proficiency and protect the position of Dutch in general, all-English instruction also adversely affects educational quality because it results in the opposite: a declining Dutch language proficiency in students enrolled on such programmes and the gradual disappearance of Dutch as a scientific and cultural language. Let there be no mistake. The opponents of anglicisation of higher education in the Netherlands do not object to the prominent presence of English in education next to Dutch. Many would even welcome the balanced presence of Dutch and English on truly bilingual programmes. What they instead oppose is the complete replacement of Dutch by English, as happens on all-English programmes. It is by offering these programmes on such a large scale that Dutch universities have built a Trojan horse that is now defeating them within their own walls.
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