Misunderstandings abound, minister not that strict at all

English-taught programmes: what is the situation?

Internationalisering: taal Foto: Shutterstock, illustratie DUB
Illustratie DUB

“From the academic year 2025-2026 onwards, it will no longer be possible to teach more than one-third of the courses of a Bachelor's degree in another language,” published the national newspaper De Volkskrant. “Exceptions are only allowed if the usefulness of the foreign language is demonstrated.”

The Minister of Education, Robbert Dijkgraaf, reportedly said that during a debate with the Dutch Parliament on the internationalisation of higher education, held last Thursday. Other media, including the newspapers Trouw and NRC, followed suit. But what exactly is the minister proposing?

Starting point
The number of programmes taught in languages other than Dutch was never supposed to be this high, Dijkgraaf wrote in a letter ahead of the Parliament discussion. That's why he is investigating what can be done about it. 

“My starting point is that the language of instruction is Dutch”, he said in the debate. But some of the courses of a Dutch-taught programme may be taught in another language if need be. "My proposal is that no more than one-third of the courses may be taught in another language. In other words, most of the programme must be taught in Dutch but a few specialised courses may be offered in English."

It is important to note that he is talking about Dutch-taught programmes. Programmes that are fully taught in other languages will still exist. The current law already requires the language of instruction to be Dutch, with a few exceptions. But those exceptions are so broadly formulated that, in practice, there is hardly any way to stop a programme from being taught in English. As Dijkgraaf says, "A huge hole has been cut in the net and everyone can swim through it.”

Test for Bachelor’s programmes
So what would he like to change? Dijkgraaf wants to introduce a "test" for new programmes to assess how effective teaching them in another language would be. The realities of the labour market could make for a good argument in favour of teaching a programme in another language for example. The nature of the programme could be considered a good justification as well. “If you want to attract the world’s best violinists, teaching such a programme in English might be of help,” declared the minister. Additionally, issues such as regional needs and the availability of personnel both play a part.

“Can we justify funding a programme taught in a foreign language with taxpayers' money?” Dijkgraaf concluded. “That’s the most important question. And there are a plethora of reasons for asking it.”

He is only looking to introduce the test for Bachelor’s programmes, not for Master's programmes, which are shorter, more specialised, and sometimes more science-oriented. That is why he does not want to restrict them. “The real problem lies in the Bachelor’s programmes”, he told the House of Representatives.

How strict?
The test will be geared towards new Bachelor’s programmes, but in the long run, existing programmes will have to be tested as well. The main question is how strict that test is going to be.

Minister Dijkgraaf is certainly not an opponent of internationalisation. He identifies many reasons for teaching a programme in a foreign language. The geographical location could be a decisive factor. Offering a Physiotherapy programme in German in a border region would make sense, for example. “I think that institutions are very capable of weighing up that argument”, said the minister.

That does not sound particularly strict. In any case, Dijkgraaf wants to entrust his "centralised control" to the institutions themselves, which should work together to steer internationalisation in the right direction — as long as they adhere to the government’s guidelines. The minister would only be able to intervene if things went considerably wrong. 

“That control would be tasked to deal with the big issues, such as the connection to the labour market”, explains Dijkgraaf. “What is the added value? How are things going with regard to accessibility? There are so many questions you can ask.”

The language of instruction should be part of the discussion as well. “Is it a good idea for institution X to teach study programme Y in English? This is something that should be debated among the institutions.” He is therefore happy to leave the major decisions to the institutions themselves and it is unlikely that he will thwart those decisions with a rigid test related to the language of instruction.

So, does that mean that English-language study programmes will disappear? The answer is no. Dijkgraaf does not seem to be planning a massive U-turn. A couple of programmes may have to change their language of instruction but his main aim is to get people to reflect on the situation. “We have seen examples of study programmes where everyone is well aware that they can no longer fully justify doing it that way.” 

In the meantime, media reports are creating their own reality. Various people and institutions are reacting – either critically or with relief – to a plan that does not yet exist. Some even fear a wave of dismissals among international lecturers.