Will English become the working language at Dutch universities?

Excerpt from digital New Year's wish from UU

The switch to English is not surprising. Already in 2015, the Twente Executive Board expressed the wish to use English as the working language, but it took a while before this was decided. Eindhoven University of Technology made the decision in early 2018.

English is a sensitive topic in higher education. Van Engelshoven wants to monitor the language of instruction more strictly. Programmes must in principle be Dutch, unless there are good reasons to deviate from this. The bill on this subject is submitted to the House of Representatives for approval. But the language of programmes is slightly different than the working language in, for example, policy documents and employee participation. In both Twente and Eindhoven, some programmes will remain Dutch.

The SP-fraction in the House of Representatives thinks it is strange and asks written questions. Does the switch to English not conflict with the General Administrative Law Act (‘Algemene wet bestuursrecht’), "which states that administrative bodies, and persons working under their responsibility, use the Dutch language"?

Earlier, the SP also asked parliamentary questions in response to the message that English became the official language at Eindhoven University of Technology. What happens to non-scientific staff that doesn't speak English? "I share the opinion that this should not lead to people losing their jobs," says Van Engelshoven. According to her, universities will assess the level of English they should be able to speak per position or even per individual employee.

Both universities cite the presence of international students as the main reason for the switch to English. “The language in which we communicate must contribute to inclusiveness and diversity. It is important that everyone can understand each other and be involved in what is happening," says the University of Twente on Twitter.

In practice, this means that meetings and job interviews will be held in English, and that minutes, official documents and signs are all in English. In some cases, small deviations to Dutch can be made, for example in documents that are delivered to governments.

At other universities with a large share of international students (Maastricht, Groningen, Delft and Wageningen), the discussion is less relevant. They are already bilingual and have no plans to switch to English completely.

In Maastricht, where half of the students come from abroad, English has gained the upper hand in practice. Many policy documents are only written in English and the language of representative bodies is often English, even if there are only Dutch participants. "Many scientists prefer to discuss their research in English, but switch to Dutch in private," said a spokesperson. The language used for job applications depends on the applicant.

The other universities are just as pragmatic. "English is the official language where it is helpful and useful," said a spokesperson for Wageningen University. In meetings, everyone speaks their own language and interpretation is provided, just like in Groningen. Delft University of Technology also does not intend to switch to English as the working language in the near future: “We consider ourselves a university rooted in the Netherlands. The Dutch language is part of that," said a spokesperson.

Parallel use of language
Utrecht University assumes "bilingual communication across the board". Therefore, the university decided this fall that all information on the intranet and on the university website should generally be available in both Dutch and English. Now, a text is often only available in one of the two languages. In addition, all policy documents that are important for employee and student representation must have an English translation or an English summary.

It is still being investigated whether "parallel language use" can be used during administrative consultations and consultations with employee and student representation bodies. This would mean that all attendees can determine themselves whether they speak in English or in Dutch. This will require an investment in particularly the passive command of Dutch by internationals. The University Council previously suggested the use of interpreters during meetings. It is unclear to what extent that suggestion is included.

UU will publish an integral memo on university language policy early next year, including agreements on the language of instruction and the language level of teachers.