Why English should not be the only official language of the UU Council

The discussion about the official language of the University Council has erupted yet again. A growing group within the UU community doesn’t speak Dutch and it would therefore not be ‘inclusive’ if the UU’s most important codetermination council were to continue speaking Dutch in its meetings. Although this argument seems, at first glance, to make sense, there’s a deeper, more nuanced side to the story that often remains neglected in language issues at Dutch universities. The discussion often focuses on principles: at a Dutch university, people speak Dutch, and that’s that. You can argue about principles, of course, but one thing that’s undisputed is that switching to English as the main language brings with it numerous practical issues, as well as more in-depth social objections.

First of all, switching to English leads to lower-quality discussions and debates. Even in this globalised world, people are better at expressing themselves in their native tongue rather than in today’s lingua franca, English. Even given Dutch people’s high level of proficiency in English, certain nuances will disappear from the debate. The average Dutch student still uses a sort of bare-bones English, with simplified grammar and a limited vocabulary. This, combined with the fact that many of the staff in the University Council aren’t comfortable with expressing themselves in English, undoubtedly leads to an impoverished debate in the University Council – and, consequently, to less efficiency and professionalism in codetermination.

Additionally, the council is in contact with various actors within the UU’s Corporate Office. From the Registry to policy officers, from the Executive Board to the Supervisory Board: Dutch is the only language used in all layers of the organisation. An English-speaking council would therefore be an exception within Utrecht University. Naturally, this would bring (un)necessary organisational hassle with it as well. Think, for instance, of miscommunication via e-mail, policy officers who have to translate all their writing and presentations, and a registry that will have to be responsible for making all these things run smoothly. That would contribute to employees’ already increasing workloads, which have been right at the edge of undoable for quite some time now. Moreover, other bodies – such as faculty councils, educational committees and associations – still speak Dutch. The exchange of information between the bodies mentioned above and the University Council will be a lot more complicated: which language should be used? In short, a University Council that uses English as its main language will only lead to higher workloads and a University Council that’s isolated from other councils and UU bodies.

Aside from these practical objections, a switch to English would cause an entirely new form of inequality. After all, the average UU student has a decent enough grasp of English, but some students still feel decidedly uncomfortable when they have to use English. These are often first-generation students, whose parents didn’t go to university. They weren’t exposed to English from a young age as much as their more privileged peers were, and so they already lag behind other students. Children of less-educated and less-fortunate people have the disadvantage here. Often, they won’t have a Netflix subscription, a PlayStation, or a laptop of their own, which others use from a young age on and in doing so, learn English.

This deficit will only increase the more the university switches to English. These are students who often consciously choose a Dutch programme at a Dutch university, because a study programme taught in English simply isn’t a feasible option for them (yet). Depriving them of access to the university’s highest codetermination body because of the language policy is therefore problematic. It can’t be the case that disadvantaged Dutch students have to learn a second language in order to participate in codetermination, simply so the exact same thing won’t be required of (often incredibly privileged) international students.

Keeping all this in mind, the current solution to this issue – a bilingual council in which non-Dutch speakers can express themselves in English and are supported by an interpreter and a translation system – seems the most elegant solution. This way, the workload for the codetermination support remains under control, the council remains accessible to Dutch students who aren’t fluent in English, and international students can participate in codetermination without having to learn Dutch. It might not be a perfect situation, but a fully English-speaking council isn’t the way to go either. That wouldn’t solve the issue of inclusion of international students; rather, it would just move it to a group of disadvantaged Dutch students.

Related: Why English Should Be The Official Language of the UU Council