Putting the brakes on English in higher education

Oriëntation Day for international students of Utrecht University 2019, photo DUB

The increased internationalisation of higher education – and the unavoidable anglicisation of Dutch degree programmes – have been a subject of debate for many years now. Universities are unequipped to handle the influx of foreign students, instructors are unqualified to teach in English, and Dutch students’ proficiency in their own language is deteriorating, critics argue.

Step 1: the NVAO
Something needs to change, agrees Minister Van Engelshoven. In order to curb internationalisation, she wants degree programmes taught in any language other than Dutch to demonstrate the added value for students. In principle, according to Van Engelshoven, all programmes should be taught in Dutch, unless there are compelling reasons to use another language. These reasons could include the needs of the labour market, for example, or the common working language in a particular sector. The Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO) will be tasked with assessing degree programmes and enforcing the new policy.

But how does the NVAO intend to go about this? “That’s not entirely clear yet,” a spokesperson said. “We first need to define the concept of ‘added value’ in this context. Once we have that definition locked down, we can draw up an action plan.”

The Council of State agrees that ‘added value’ could be a stumbling block, arguing that Van Engelshoven’s plans to replace the ‘necessity’ requirement with ‘added value’ will only open the door for universities to offer even more programmes in languages other than Dutch. “This new substantive criterion is in fact less stringent,” the advisory body states.

A thought experiment: psychology
Clearly, the NVAO has its work cut out. But once that’s done, which English-language degree programmes would be first on the chopping block? We asked one of the current system’s most outspoken critics, Ad Verbrugge, co-founder and chair of Beter Onderwijs Nederland (BON) – an action group that has taken legal action against universities in order to force them to offer Dutch-language instruction.

As far as Verbrugge is concerned, all non-STEM Bachelor’s programmes should come under scrutiny. But that’s unlikely to happen, he thinks. “Psychology would be my first suggestion, or humanities and economics programmes.”

Psychology is one of the first programmes (in Dutch, ed.) Minister Van Engelshoven has in mind as well. With almost 6,800 international students enrolling in 2018-2019, it’s the second most popular programme among this group. If the minister’s plans go through, most of these students would no longer be able to study psychology in the Netherlands due to the language barrier. This could have a major impact on enrolment numbers at Dutch universities, especially those close to the border, which would hurt revenues.

Leave it to the experts?
But will the NVAO really crack down on psychology programmes? “That’s going to be a lot more difficult than it sounds,” says Professor Emeritus of Psychology René van Hezewijk. As a former chair of the NVAO’s Psychology Review Committee, he has assessed his fair share of degree programmes. Although the committee did not assess programmes based on language of tuition during his tenure, he does have an opinion on the matter.

“It wasn’t that long ago that the ministry told us we needed to open up our programmes to international students. You can’t just decide on a whim that a whole field of study needs to switch back to Dutch,” says Van Hezewijk. “It’s going to hurl us back in time 50 years.”

According to him, 90% of the literature is in English. Students need to understand this professional language in order to stay up to date on the latest developments in their field. Clinical psychology forms an exception, says Van Hezewijk. “Clinical work requires you to talk to patients, so you’re much more bound to your native language. But even so, an English-language track in addition to the Dutch-language programme wouldn’t be unthinkable.”

If Van Engelshoven decides to leave implementation of her policy up to the NVAO expert committee, which seems likely at the moment, it remains to be seen whether this will lead to an actual reduction in the number of English-language programmes. To ensure effective enforcement, either the minister or the Inspectorate of Education must monitor whether the NVAO is doing its job properly, says BON chair Ad Verbrugge. And if it turns out that this is not the case, there need to be stringent repercussions. “Otherwise there’s really no point,” he says.

Politicians are faced with a choice: opt for a hands-off approach – ‘risking’ the possibility of nothing changing at all – or actively try to bring about reforms. One thing is certain: the debate about English in higher education is far from over.

HOP / Melanie Zierse