World insight: The use of English in universities will not kill off Dutch

Martin Paul believes that the advantages of teaching some courses in English far outweigh the disadvantages for students in the Netherlands

February 3, 2016
Dutch flag Netherlands Holland

The end is near – at least the end of the Dutch language – if we are to believe some of the discussions taking place in the Netherlands.

In the true spirit of internationalisation, many Dutch universities offer a lot of their programmes in English; my university in Maastricht has actually had this policy for 20 years. In some circles, this is seen as a huge threat.

What are the points of the critics? They are concerned that the rising tide of English-language education is threatening Dutch culture and will lead to a marginalisation of the Dutch language in society. Others claim that the dominance of English will force young academics to publish only in English-language journals, subjecting themselves to a sort of scientific rat race that neglects quality in favour of mere quantity. Last but not least, they claim that one cannot function on the same level as native speakers in academia without perfect knowledge of a language.

These were exactly the arguments that I was confronted with during a recent hearing in the Dutch Parliament, where I was invited to make the case for English as an expert.

What were my arguments? First of all, I made it clear that the question should not polarise us as academics. Of course there must remain a place for Dutch educational programmes in the Netherlands. Even at Maastricht University, the most international university in the Netherlands and the 14th most international university in the world, according to Times Higher Education’s recent ranking, we do not teach exclusively in English.

Programmes such as Dutch law and medicine are taught in Dutch, because students will have to deal with Dutch clients or patients. But we also have a European Law School and an international track in medicine for students who aspire to an international career. And we have programmes such as international business, European studies and global health that we offer only in English.

Read more: Developing an internationally relevant curriculum

We call this policy “English Unless”, where only programmes that are specifically targeted at the Dutch labour market are offered in Dutch. This is my point: English-language education in a country with another national language should not the default choice, but must be based on how international a subject is, and the international employment potential for students after graduation. A recent Erasmus study showed that 92 per cent of employers seek graduates with transversal skills, such as intercultural skills and proficiency in a second or even a third language.

In most cases, a graduate’s command of a language does not have to be perfect, but it should be sufficient to interact in an academic context or in the workplace. And there is another important argument: choosing a world language such as English (which is arguably also the lingua franca of science in most disciplines) creates a level playing field for students from different backgrounds and nationalities.

It enables them to interact in what we call the International Classroom, an environment where students address challenges not only on the basis of knowledge that they have acquired, but also within the context of their own cultural background. With almost 50 per cent international students from more than 100 different countries, the impact of culture is an important part of the learning process for us.

But “why English?” you may ask. Could this also be achieved in Dutch?

Yes, of course, but as English is the most commonly used first foreign language in most countries, it does not only create a quick common base, it is also an asset for international employment opportunities. And, let's face it, the great trade tradition of the Netherlands, a comparatively small country, has been built on language competencies beyond Dutch. Recent statistics rated the Dutch as the people with the broadest base of English knowledge in all non-English-speaking European countries.

Last but not least, we should not be afraid that a broad use of English in Dutch universities will lead to the extinction of the Dutch language. Nobody will question whether Hebrew is dying out in Israel because of the long-standing tradition of Israeli universities to teach in English, nor has the focus on English publications in my own native country of Germany threatened the native language competencies at universities.

This went through my head when I was speaking to the parliamentary commission in The Hague and, as the speaker before me held the view that you could only gain a top job in the Netherlands if you speak fluent Dutch, I could not resist briefly teasing him. I said (in Dutch): “First of all, my apologies for my imperfect Dutch. Nevertheless I am glad to be the president of a Dutch university.”

Martin Paul is president of Maastricht University.

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