[lg policy] English takes over Europe's lecture halls

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Sep 18 14:22:25 UTC 2009

English takes over Europe's lecture halls

Published on September 16 2009  |   El País

 Ja, whatever. German students attending a lecture. | Erasmus, makers
of Europeans since 1987

Ost in translationThe European Higher Education Area arrives is
officially launched at the start of 2010, with the aim to harmonise
studies across the European space. But in what language? With European
universities offering more and more university degree programmes in
English, their British counterparts are beginning to worry about
losing their “competitive edge”, notes El País.

What language can a Spanish student in Poland do his studies in? What
about a Polish student in Spain? And a German in Sweden? A French
student in Lithuania? The plethora of EU languages is actually an
obstacle to the realisation of the European Higher Education Area,
which is supposed to promote student mobility. As a result, everything
suggests that English is going to serve as the lingua franca of
European academia. But achieving that goal will require medium- and
long-term investment (not only economic, but above all organisational
– as well as plenty of political impetus), and will not be without

In the first place, mobility means host countries have to invest in
educating foreigners whose tuition fees in many cases (as in Spain and
Germany) do not come anywhere near covering the actual cost of their
studies. In effect, the host State is financing the education of
neighbouring populations without receiving anything in return. This is
a consideration member countries have yet to address.

The Erasmus model

Secondly, the range of courses offered in English (especially degree
courses) is still meagre, particularly in southern European countries
that have been dragging their feet for decades about the pending task
of providing solid instruction in English.

This is the situation in which the EU finds itself three months away
from the official launch in 2010 of the European Higher Education Area
(EHEA), for which 47 countries have signed up, after having agreed its
creation in the 1999 Bologna Declaration. And to this day, the
governments have yet to come up with policies and measures to overcome
these obstacles.

English, lingua franca of academia

“Total mobility to pursue degree courses will remain the exception for
many years to come, confined to highly prestigious universities and
the odd degree course,” predicts the president of UNED (Spain’s
National University of Distance Education), John Gimeno, who also
chairs the International Affairs Committee of Spain’s Standing
Conference of University Presidents (CRUE). “The Erasmus-type model is
going to develop a great deal, that is to say students are going to
study some courses in other EU countries, as well as double degrees
from various universities, inter-university agreements.... But total
mobility will still be many years in coming.

“Charles V used to say he spoke Spanish to God, Italian to women,
French to men and German to his dog. Nowadays he might add: and
English to academia.” This anecdote prefaces the presentation of a
seminar to be held this December in Brussels on university language
policy strategies for the EU. A lot is at stake here for Europe. “Are
we better off teaching in English?” the experts wonder. But several
issues underlie this debate: How can we promote a lingua franca to
further mobility whilst making sure those studying in a foreign
language get solid academic training? To what extent will languages
and cultures be weakened by an overly market-geared university
language policy? And can these policies be rendered compatible with
policies to promote European diversity and multilingualism?

To each country its own model

And at the other end of the field there are the British – on alert.
The prestigious Times Higher Education recently devoted an editorial
to the matter entitled “Everyone is talking the talk”. “The increasing
use of English in higher education across Europe could cost the UK a
vital competitive advantage,” it warns. So what if English were to
become the lingua franca of European universities? “Clearly,” responds
the UNED president, “the British supply won’t cover the current demand
for studies in English; the slack is being picked up by the
Scandinavian countries and The Netherlands, for example, which
traditionally offer more courses in English.

The last and perhaps most important determinant of student mobility is
funding. Who is really going to foot the bill for students who change
countries? After all, state subsidies for degree courses are not equal
throughout the EU. In Spain, tuition and registration fees at public
universities average 12% of current subsidies, and the average subsidy
per student is €5,000 a year. In Anglo-American countries, on the
other hand, tuition fees correspond to 35% of average state subsidies.
In the US, for example, the average annual subsidy in some states
comes to roughly €20,000 euros per student. Each EU country has a
different financial model, which only makes things more complicated.


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