Professors still in the dark about national cooperation

‘Students of French and German must keep a real home base’

De Trans, where employees of the French and German programmes are based. Photo: DUB

First of all, one needs to clarify a misunderstanding. Many people who read the news on language courses last week assumed that, in a few years' time, French and German would only be available at a single Dutch university.

But that is not correct, according to UU professor of French Linguistics & Semantics, Henriëtte de Swart. “Something like that would be disastrous. You certainly won't get more French students or French teachers if the programme is not accessible to those from North Groningen.”

A bridge too far
Last year, Dutch universities came up with a joint plan to stop a decline in the number of students in language courses and teacher training for those languages. The proposals were part of the university sector plans for which the Minister of Education, Robbert Dijkgraaf, has allocated 200 million euros annually.

The National Committee for Sector Plans (NCSP), which assessed the plans, was positive about them, but universities were allowed to go a step further as far as the committee was concerned. In the future, they should consider giving a single national diploma per programme, and perhaps have a single location too.  

But it won't come to that. For the faculty deans, that's a bridge too far. Minister Dijkgraaf apparently agrees with them, since the advice was not present in the letter he sent to the House of Representatives. In a debate on new investments in higher education, held last week, he confirmed that the committee's recommendations are not part of the sector plan itself.

The Dutch language & culture programme escapes the spotlight completely, although more national cooperation is also needed there.

Need more explanation
According to De Swart, it is not yet entirely clear what the French programme in Utrecht — for which approximately twenty students enrol each year (15 this year) — can expect. Dijkgraaf only states in his letter that "we are working towards a joint national Bachelor's programme per language".

Later this week, the faculty deans will provide more information about the way in which they want to implement the collaboration. “It is certain that we will have to offer fewer language-specific courses at each university. The only question is to what extent we'll have to shrink.”

Alongside colleagues from other universities, De Swart published a response to the sector plans last week (text in Dutch, Ed.). In her view, the plans should primarily be regarded as a call to get the programmes closely involved with the new steps.

So far, they have mostly been on the sidelines of a process that's been mainly administrative and not very "bottom up", even though the programmes already have a lot of experience with national cooperation, such as the Masterlanguage project, at the Master's level.

The importance of a home base
One of the things De Swart draws attention to is the future generation of students. “You don't want them to have to travel a lot or follow a lot of online classes. Having a home base is particularly important for Bachelor's students.”

In addition, she believes it is crucial that the expertise in the field of French Language & Culture is at least maintained in the long term, if not strengthened. After all, fewer courses could simply mean fewer employees.

The deans believe that the current formations can be maintained if the language programmes start engaging in more interdisciplinary collaborations with programmes that attract more students. That's a spearhead of dean Thomas Vaessens in his future plans for the faculty. He thinks that there are enough students interested in the expertise offered by language and culture programmes to be found in broader programmes such as Liberal Arts & Sciences, or even in specialised programmes that happen to be more popular.

But De Swart would like to see some guarantees. “We all know that administrative memory can be short. This also puts us in a dependent position. Our knowledge must be recognisable and visible in the long term as well.”

Ewout van der Knaap, a Professor in German Literature & Culture, endorses De Swart's observations. He emphasises that he does not know yet where he stands. “The minister's formulation still leaves a lot open to interpretation.”

In any case, a pilot comprising the three universities in the Randstad conurbation (Utrecht, Leiden and Amsterdam), in which German students would follow a shared semester, has been cancelled. “The question is whether one semester is enough according to the Minister of Education, and Nijmegen is now joining the project.”

Van der Knaap also underscores the importance of a nice balance between a local and a national range of courses. “That is very important for the feasibility of a programme, as well as for the supervision of freshers.”

His programme in Utrecht had 7 enrollments last year, while there were 21 a few years ago. Decades ago, there were as little as 4. In addition, he notes that programmes with few students used to be financially protected, which no longer happens.

Van der Knaap identifies several reasons why interest in studying German could revive. After all, the number of Dutch high school students who have taken German has increased these past few years. In addition, there is an assignment from the Ministry of Education to make the languages taught at school more attractive and change the exam.

According to the professor, UU students are showing an interest in German as a minor or as a second Bachelor's degree. “We want to be able to capitalise on that. That's why I think a single location would have been really disastrous.”

Lost talent
The professor has enough confidence in the contribution that he and his colleagues can make to interdisciplinary courses and programmes, provided that other programmes offer scope for them to do it. “For example, there are is a relatively large number of students who can understand and read German.”

However, he believes it takes more to really strengthen German and French as academic disciplines and increase the number of teachers at Dutch schools than setting up a national cooperation between Bachelor's programmes and promoting interdisciplinary cooperation with other courses.

Van der Knaap had secretly hoped for a national Master's degree. Students who really want to focus on German at the Master's level will have to go abroad. There are no more language-specific Master's degrees for German and French in the Netherlands. As a result, talent is being lost.

More positive 
But he also refers to negative trends in society and universities. “It looks like working as a teacher is not really attractive, partly due to their high workload. At the same time, administrators tend to focus on science programmes or broad interdisciplinary programs at the university level, which are often taught in English. This is a matter of responsibility as well. Language & Culture studies could be presented in a more positive way.”

NCSP thinks that German and French should be able to start offering a joint range of courses in the 2025-2026 academic year. That seems too fast to both De Swart and Van der Knaap. Van der Knaap: “The examination boards have to get to work and the Education and Examination Regulations will have to be adjusted, which then has to be passed through co-participation bodies. Such things require time and attention.”

Dean Thomas Vaessens says he understands professors' concerns about retaining the number of staff members and the number of subdisciplines. But, according to him, the new plans can make sure that programmes will not have to reduce their workforce or expertise.

“In recent decades, we have had to make choices time and time again because the number of students had declined. These choices were generally not coordinated nationally, which has really created gaps. That is the downward spiral we have to get out of now. We don't want to reduce the size of the staff as we really need those people to implement our plans.”

According to Vaessens, the deans of the universities that have French and German programmes will present an action plan on Friday, April 28. The document contains three principles: Firstly, there should be more national coordination on staff policy and on the content of education and research. Secondly, the deans want to ensure that staff members contribute their expertise and provide more classes for programmes that do have many students. According to Vaessens, there are many students interested in languages who are enrolled in broad interdisciplinary programmes or other popular programmes. They just preferred not to follow an entire programme in that area. Finally, reducing the shortage of language teachers at Dutch schools is of utmost importance. Obtaining a teaching certificate should become easier for students in both programmes.

In addition, students who graduate from other programmes but have sufficient knowledge of a language must also be able to gain access to a teacher training course. Vaessens emphasises that the new action plan describes which parties will be involved and where the responsibilities will lie. One cannot expect any statements about what a joint program will look like, how many ECTS credits programmes will have to hand in, and what the future holds for the various areas of expertise within the participating universities.

According to the dean, it is not clear yet what exactly the minister expects or demands from a joint programme. At the insistence of the NCSP advisory committee, the deans adjusted their original plans and promised further-reaching cooperation. “However, we are taking this step by step. Of course, the programmes themselves have the most important say in how to develop things further.” UU is to receive a total of 3.2 million euros from the sector funds. Just over 6 tons is intended for improving the position of modern languages.