The year 1636 is printed on many a UU student’s sweater. Photo: Bart Weerdenburg, UU

Englification hinders accessibility and depth of education

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Loudly voice your objections to the advance of English at the university. That’s the message university council members Floris Boudens (VUUR) and Sebastian Wijnands (De Vrije Student) send their successors. More than ever, students have a voice in discussions on education, but that means students need to speak up as well.

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The year 1636 is displayed on the sweaters of many UU students. This was the year Voetius, in a speech, promoted the illustrious school to university. At the time, the university was exclusively open to wealthy men. The language used was Latin, which didn’t exactly contribute to the accessibility of scientific education.

This centuries-long tradition wasn’t abolished until 1846, when Cornelis Willem Opzoomer held his inaugural lecture in Dutch for the first time. The use of Latin remained mandatory until 1897. The switch to Dutch included a move to democracy; away from aristocracy. ‘Opzoomeren’ became a verb in the Dutch dictionary, meaning something like ‘keeping good contact with neighbours’. Because language connects, and Opzoomer understood that like no other. Dutch universities are anchored in Dutch society. They’re not separate entities: universities are paid for by society, and educate people for that same society.

English as new lingua franca?
In our time, we’re on the road to a new lingua franca: English. The question is whether that’s a wise thing to do. Let students at least think about this in depth, and don’t let the discussion be voiced entirely by managers or ‘prominent people’. In diverse media, these people have voiced their opinions. In newspaper De Volkskrant, a plea is printed to our representatives in The Hague (‘Members of parliament, the future of the Netherlands is in your hands’).

DUB also regularly publishes the opinions of notables, such as the rector (in Dutch ed.), and the Social Sciences dean. It’s our opinion that students should also have a say in this debate, and that’s why we’re addressing this piece to our student representatives.

The reason more and more is done in English, is the goals the university has in terms of internationalisation, creating a global generation, or an international classroom. For a while now, science has wondered whether we should be in service of the international community or Dutch society. The past, at least, teaches us that by using a non-Dutch language for science, the gap between the people and academia grows. Social geographer Josse de Voogd is a lot less subtle in his text (in Dutch, ed.) ‘An English-teaching university is a middle finger to society’.

Cosmopolitan bubble
De Voogd states that Englification isn’t the same as internationalisation. By speaking English at an international campus, you don’t learn about different cultures, you create aa cosmopolitan bubble. We’re not the first, then, who see that internationalisation isn’t the same as Englification. And yet, more and more programmes are taught in English, with the hope that it makes these programmes more attractive to the international community. If all universities strive to create an international classroom, we’re all attracting the same students, which doesn’t benefit the university’s profile: it creates sameness, or as the Dutch say, ‘unity sausage’.

Additionally, this policy doesn’t benefit diversity at all. International students are generally students from wealthier families who, throughout the world, from the beaches on Bali to SoHo in London, live in their own circles. This results in a closed community that often excludes first-generation students. This is especially poignant given the goals of internationalisation. Those who think internationally, would be better off involving students who aren’t as used to a cosmopolitan environment. By creating more importance for their place in academic society, ‘internationalisation’ would also contribute to emancipation in our own country. Instead of this, then, more Englification: for and by a small group, aimed at cosmopolitisation and uniformity of academic existence.

Students’ exchange has value
Still, English in science does have some value. By writing research in English, exchanging research results internationally is easier. Furthermore, there are many disciplines that are done in English where it makes sense: International Business and Economics, Global Sustainability Science, etcetera. Exchange programmes for students, if they’re accessible to every student, are also of great value. Different perspectives from different cultures can contribute to creating solutions to modern-day issues. We’re not writing because we oppose English, we’re writing because we’re worried about the lack of vision, the lack of student participation, and the lack of a meaningful balance between our own language and other languages.

Utrecht University is struggling with its language policy. In the past year, the university council has repeatedly asked the Executive Board how it’s possible that students of certain programmes, who have been taught in Dutch for years, suddenly have to write their theses in English – without, in our view, sufficient substantiation. The response is always simply a referral to the university’s language policy.

The language policy: paper and practice
The language policy is known, and focuses mainly on Dutch Bachelor’s programmes and English Master’s programmes, unless there’s a reason to deviate from this. The reasons for different choices, however, aren’t properly defined. Faculties create their own, broad definitions. Within the university, there are cases in which courses were Englified because doing so prepared students for their English-taught Master’s programmes. With that reasoning we could, despite the current language policy, switch to English in every single Bachelor’s programme. That’s undesirable.

For that reason, the university’s language policy should be maintained better. The reasons for diverting from the policy should be checked more thoroughly. The Executive Board consistently says this is a role for the decentralised co-determination boards (faculty councils and programme committees), as they have the last word. This is even documented in the law. It is, however, not always clear to faculty councils and programme committees that they have this right, leading to situations in which managers are able to Englify their programmes with weak arguments.

Last year, the university council, in agreement with the Executive Board, created the language policy. The UU is relatively restrained in its Englification compared to other universities in the Netherlands. We’re happy about that. For the long term, however, the accessibility and in-depth education in Utrecht are also threatened by ongoing Englification. Education loses depth because students are best at expressing themselves in their mother tongue, which is Dutch for almost 90 percent of students. In other languages, they constantly struggle to find the right words, and their vocabulary is limited. The same is true for many teachers. For this reason, it’s harder to go in depth within education. Furthermore, students are often more hesitant to speak up in class when they’re not allowed to do so in their mother tongue.

It’s the job of co-determination groups to join in the debate about our educational language in name of the student. That’s why we’re addressing them: put the subject on the agenda, finetune points of view with your constituency, and don’t simply agree with every proposal for Englification. Co-determination: the future of Dutch is in your hands.

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