Dutch senators put law against the anglicisation of universities in the deep freeze

The Binnenhof, which houses the House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as the Prime Minister's office. Photo: Pixabay

When the cabinet falls, it is customary for the House of Representatives to put aside any proposed laws considered "controversial". Earlier this week, senators declared three draft bills "controversial", including one called Language and Accessibility, which concerns the anglicisation of Dutch higher education.

The draft bill proposes to require study programmes taught in English to demonstrate the added value of making English their lingua franca. The bill also wants these programmes to actively advance the students' communication skills in Dutch.

The draft law is a response to the growing criticism of the internationalisation of higher education in the Netherlands. A number of universities have been creating more and more programmes in English, mostly at Master's level.

Critics argue that those institutions are only recruiting foreign students to rake in extra government funding, sometimes at the cost of the quality of education: some politicians believe that the constant use of English is deteriorating students' skills in the Dutch language. Others counterargue that higher education in English prepares students for a globalised labour market, not to mention that research has long been highly internationalised.

Squeezed out
The "accessibility" in the bill's title refers to a different issue. Some parties are concerned that foreign students will exclude Dutch students from study programmes with a set number of places (numerus fixus). 

The proposed solution: apply the numerus fixus principle to the foreign language stream. Dutch students would then always have a place, as universities would be able to restrict the influx of foreign students when necessary.

Senators were considerably critical of the draft law. Some of them predicted it's going to lead to a mountain of bureaucratic paperwork. 

On hold
The Senate apparently didn't want to wait for the Dutch Minister of Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, to defend the bill. They put the debate on the proposed legislation on hold. Discussions will resume after the elections.

Presumably, the minister had been hoping for a different outcome. She took the liberty of sending a scheme to the Senate and House of Representatives in which she expanded on the proposed legislation, as if everything was going as planned.

The current draft bill was already the result of a "balancing act", the Minister said at the end of 2019, meaning that she had been forced to weigh "the quality and accessibility of higher education against the added value of internationalisation and the interests of the Dutch language".

But she also had to keep an eye on the political relationships within the government coalition. The balance of power will likely change after the elections, but how? One thing is certain: it's going to be an exciting time for language policy in higher education.