In the competition to woo foreign students, ever more European institutions are offering tuition in English. Harriet Swain finds a mixed reaction to the trend
Aslak de Silva is from Finland. He has just finished at Jyväskylä Polytechnic in Finland, where most of his fellow global business management students and many of his tutors were Finns. But his three and a half years of study have been conducted entirely in English. Did it ever occur to him to go and study in England?
Well, no. He thought about trying for Harvard or Yale universities, but was worried he wouldn't make the grade. He knew that some of his tutors at Jyväskylä would be from England and the US, so he would learn from native speakers. And then there was cost. He says: "Studying in Finland doesn't cost a thing, whereas in other countries it costs a lot."
De Silva is not unusual. According to Philippe Van Parijs, who organised a recent European Union conference on the growing dominance of English in European higher education, nearly 20 per cent of higher education institutions in continental Europe offer programmes in English - more than half of them set up in the past five years.
Reasons for running these courses vary, but are almost all to do with attracting more students. As knowledge of English spreads across the world, most European countries will increase their pool of potential recruits by offering teaching in the language. This is especially true for countries such as Denmark, Finland and Sweden, where the native language is little known outside their borders. Native students, such as de Silva, may also be more attracted to a course that promises to broaden their international outlook and employability. Institutions in the former Eastern Bloc are keen to open up the country to Western concepts - a Tempus programme in Ukraine delivers a basic course in English law in English for postgraduates - while others are determined to attract the best academics from across the world to ensure that they are up to speed with the latest thinking.
Some countries that have trouble recruiting in a subject area also find it useful to look abroad to fill places. Sweden, for example, finds it difficult to recruit Swedish students to study engineering, which is popular among many students outside Europe. In some countries, this has meant that hundreds of courses are now taught in English. Denmark offers more than 1,000 semester-long courses and 120 full undergraduate and masters programmes; the Netherlands offers more than 850 international study programmes and courses, Finland 360 and Sweden 200 degree courses - more than double the number five years ago. Earlier this year, German universities mounted a publicity campaign to attract British students to their English-taught degree programmes, which number more than 300.
British and Irish universities, many of which will demand yet higher fees in future, should take note. At a time when competition is growing internationally between institutions seeking to expand their lucrative foreign-student markets, they appear to have lost their unique selling point.
But there are also more widely held concerns - first involving language, then money. Some academics have begun to argue that the rise in the number of these programmes could be bad news not only for individual European languages but also for English. This is something that will be debated at a session of the European Association for International Education's annual conference. As the summary of the session puts it: "As speakers bring their own culture's communicative norms and styles into this lingua franca communication, are they destroying or harming the English language... (or) is English a weed that is strangling all the beautiful language flowers?"
Michael Woolf, president of the Foundation for International Education in London, argues strongly that English is neither a weed nor at risk itself.
"International English", he suggests, is "denationalised" and "decultured" - "as neutral as the language of mathematical symbols". This, he says, quite rightly demotes the status of British English to simply a regional variant that exists as a separate language and culture alongside all the other European languages and cultures.
Van Parijs goes further, arguing that the importance of using a language that as many people as possible can understand outweighs other concerns.
"There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that we need a way of communicating directly and intensively across the borders drawn by the differences of our mother tongues, without the extremely expensive and constraining mediation of competent interpreters," he states. "We need it in particular if we do not want Europeanisation, and beyond it globalisation, to be the exclusive preserve of the wealthy and the powerful who can afford quality interpretation." While higher education teaching in English must be of high quality, it is not necessary to be too purist about it, he says. Most students do not want to be able to read and recite Shakespeare, but to operate effectively in a context in which everyone's English is at about the same level.
This is not enough for Wolfgang Mackiewicz, president of the European Language Council, based at the Freie Universitat, Berlin. He concedes that English is essential for those studying the hard sciences - particularly at PhD level - and for those studying at higher levels in some branches of humanities and social sciences research, but he has reservations about some English-taught degree courses in European countries. "People are beginning to realise that there is a danger that languages are becoming impoverished - that whole domains are being excluded," he says.
In countries where English is coming to dominate undergraduate study, will schoolteachers know enough about how to explain key concepts of a subject in their own language? he asks. And is the standard of English as good as everyone insists it is? Even Mackiewicz, teaching those studying the English language for its own sake and at advanced level, has come across examples of English being laughably misapplied and often wondered whether his students would be more eloquent in their own language.
Many of those involved in developing degree programmes taught in English agree that the standard of English used is "variable". One admitted: "I am at times frightened by the English I hear and read." Mackiewicz suggests that while communicating through English is one thing, teaching in it is quite another. "English as an academic language is sometimes very bad English," he says.
Bernd Waechter, director of the Academic Cooperation Association, who co-authored a survey of English-language taught-degree programmes, published last year, said he had found little evidence to support this.
"One university president told me through an interpreter that everyone in his institution spoke excellent English," he says. "But that was a rare exception." Generally, he says, the standard of English used is high enough to deliver quality education.
But Mackiewicz and others are worried at the way commercial considerations seem to drive the introduction of many English-language-taught courses and that this might have an increasingly damaging effect on quality.
Certainly, few would dispute that the desire to be competitive lies behind the introduction of many of these courses. Woolf argues that since the major fee-paying market for study abroad is America, where languages other than English tend not to be spoken, European universities have no choice.
If they want to become seriously competitive with UK and Australian institutions, they will have to offer more and more courses in English.
While he argues that institutions will also have to ensure the courses they offer are of high quality to remain competitive, he concedes that developing and marketing such courses and training people to teach them will be expensive, and that, like Britain, many other European countries will have to ask participants rather than national taxpayers to help foot the bill. "The desire to be internationally competitive will lead to a growth in private-sector provision that is not bound by conservative and ideological rejections of fee-paying mechanisms," he says. "Simultaneously, or instead, public institutions will learn from the private sector and begin to behave as if they were in a competitive environment."
This is already beginning to happen. Private institutions are springing up, particularly in Eastern Europe, while the tuition fee issue is being raised in a number of countries so far committed to publicly funded education.
Sweden's semi-independent Stockholm School of Economics is considering introducing tuition fees of between £1,400 and £2,500 a year, and there will be a vote on the issue of fees in the Swedish parliament this autumn. From this year, for the first time, foreign students must pay fees to study in Switzerland.
Waechter's report recommended an "attitudinal change" by institutions to cope with the fact that courses delivered in English cannot be provided on the cheap. "It is simply not possible to invite the youth of the world and to come out of the process unchanged," it said.
Meanwhile, many of those from the UK involved in international education stress the need for an attitudinal change here, too. All regret the fact that it seems to be harder and harder to persuade UK students to study elsewhere in Europe, even though the increase in the use of English means they can often study abroad in their own language. In 2002-03, of nearly 8,000 UK students who studied in another country on an Erasmus exchange, 19 per cent were not taught in the language of the host country.
The 16th annual conference of the European Association for International Education is held this week (September 15-18) in Turin, Italy.