[lg policy] Shifting Views on International Students and Teaching in English in the Netherlands

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Mon Jan 29 10:16:02 EST 2018

 Shifting Views on International Students and Teaching in English in the

In a progressively more polarized world, a nuanced approach to
internationalization is increasingly important and it should not be a
debate about the numbers of programs taught in English, international
students, or branch campuses.
Hans de Wit <https://www.insidehighered.com/users/hans-de-wit>
January 27, 2018

While, elsewhere in the world, universities compete fiercely with each
other to attract international students and increase the number of courses
taught in English, in the Netherlands—a country that has been on the
forefront on these two issues over the past two decades—an intense debate
is taking place in politics, in the media, and in the higher education
sector itself, on the risks and challenges related to the increasing
international commodification of higher education.

Dutch higher education has the highest percentage of courses taught in
English among non-English speaking countries and has seen its number of
international students increase every year, to a total of 112.000 in
2016–2017, the majority coming from Germany followed, far behind, by China.
Dutch higher education also received permission from the former government
to engage in cross-border operations, as long as no public funding is
invested in them and there are sufficient guarantees of academic freedom.
All in all, the picture looks bright, in particular compared to other
countries such as the United States, where the combination of a changed
political climate and the high cost of study threatens international
student recruitment. But, over the past months, an intense debate has
emerged in the Netherlands about the effects of these developments.

*Opening a Branch Campus in China*

Current plans by the University of Groningen to open a branch campus in
Yantai, China, are fiercely opposed by students and academics within the
university as well as the media and some political parties. High costs, a
lack of interest from Groningen faculty to teach there, fear that the
project will distract the university from addressing quality issues at
home, and concerns about academic freedom, are the main points of
discussion. Whether the university council will support the leadership’s
plans in China remains to be seen.

*Teaching in English*

The increased number of courses taught in English is also being questioned
by Dutch academics, students, the media, and political parties. The leading
conservative party in government is advocating a massive increase in the
recruitment of international students. Last year, amid heavy protest from
the academic community, Pieter Duisenberg, the conservative party’s higher
education spokesperson in parliament, was appointed president of the Dutch
Universities Association, signalling a support for that policy. But other
political parties, the media, and representatives of student and faculty
groups have begun to question this pressure to increase the number of
courses taught in English. Psychology students at Radboud University in
Nijmegen protested the fact that they had to take courses in English, even
though they had selected a program taught in Dutch. A Danish (!) faculty
member at the same university criticized the fact that her master’s
students had to use the English translation of Vondel, a classical Dutch
author, in their master theses. Last September, Annette de Groot, a
retiring psychology professor at the University of Amsterdam, made this
issue the topic of her farewell lecture under the title “Dutch required!”
These are just a few of many cases that caught media attention.

The issue is not so much that English is used as a language of instruction;
what is questioned is the presumed inevitability of English “in our age of
globalization” and the potential impact on the quality of teaching. A 2017
study by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences addressed some
of these issues. In a balanced way, the study raises issues of quality,
implications for the labor market, participation, and social impact. The
academy recommends that the language of instruction must be a conscious
choice. It also recommends that, although language policy is set at the
institutional level, the language of instruction is best decided at the
department or program level, with due consideration for the nature of the
program of study, the educational resources to be used, the specific
profession for which students are being trained, and so on. It states that
institutions must be aware of the associated costs and benefits,
opportunities and risks, and advantages and disadvantages. And the decision
to use a particular language of instruction should be firmly anchored in a
language and internationalization policy.

The study has been well received by the higher education community in the
Netherlands, since it provides a balanced and nuanced approach to teaching
in English, compared to the polarizing debate taking place in the media.
But it remains to be seen whether its recommendations will help slow
momentum towards more English language incorporation or if those opposing
the use of English will be satisfied.

*More International Students?*

The issue of international student recruitment was also heavily debated in
2017. In the first place, it was related to the issue of the increasing use
of English in study programs. Second, due to the lack of sufficient
services to support those students, in particular, accommodation, also in
short supply for local students. And, third, because of the increasing
student/teacher ratio. From 2012 to 2016, overall enrollment grew by 11
percent, while the number of teachers only grew by 6 percent. To a large
extent, the growth in the student population is the result of growing
numbers of international students. This has led to serious concerns about
the quality of teaching.

In reaction to all these developments, the rector of the University of
Amsterdam— a key institution in numbers of both international students and
courses taught in English—addressed the need to limit internationalization
in her anniversary address to the university. Karen Maex, a Belgian
national, made her speech in English and stated that the University of
Amsterdam is at risk of becoming a hostage to its success in
internationalization, stating, “What we spend too little time thinking
about is the optimal balance on three different levels: the balance between
Dutch and international students; the balance between English and Dutch in
the wider university environment; and the balance between programs taught
in Dutch and English.” Maex made an appeal for a more balanced
international approach, less dependence on international (in particular
German) students and asked the new minister of education to address these
challenges and limits in her new strategy of internationalization of higher

*Setting Limits and Focusing on Quality*

In an increasingly polarized world, a nuanced approach is important.
Internationalization should not be a debate about the numbers of programs
taught in English, international students, or branch campuses. The
discussion should be about why, what, how, and when, focusing on improving
the quality of higher education. The address of the rector of the
University of Amsterdam and the study of the Academy of Sciences are
important signals on how the higher education community should address the
limits and effects of internationalization. Opponents on both sides in the
Netherlands—in the media, politics and academic circles—should give up
extreme positions and pay greater attention to issues related to relevance
and quality. The minister of education should not succumb to pressures and
take an extreme stand. And other countries should follow the debate and its
outcomes closely.


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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