European universities ‘hobbled’ by language laws

Rector at Maastricht University fears that curbs on using English are preventing some institutions from innovating and internationalising

May 7, 2015

Source: Nicola Leddy

Tongue tied?: ‘top universities’ in Leuven, Ghent, Antwerp pay the price for Dutch-medium courses, said Maastricht’s Luc Soete

European universities are being stifled by laws that force them to teach courses in their country’s native language rather than in English, the rector of Maastricht University has claimed.

Luc Soete said laws based on international conventions stressing that undergraduates have a human right to be educated in the native language of their country mean that institutions can offer courses with English as the medium of instruction only if the same courses are also available in the native language.

Professor Soete told Times Higher Education’s Young Universities Summit in Dublin last week that he negotiated with the Dutch government to allow English-only courses to be “tolerated” at Maastricht. He has since introduced a system called “English unless”, outlining that the default language for classes will be English, as part of a strategy to create a world-class high-ranking university.

However, he said that he is concerned that universities elsewhere are being held back by the legal framework that prevents them from internationalising and from being “novel and innovative”. He said that this is particularly a problem for institutions in countries such as Belgium and those in Scandinavia, with “relatively small” languages.

Speaking to THE after his speech, he said: “In the Flemish region of Belgium, if universities want to provide English courses it comes at a huge cost. There the political support for the use of English as the academic language is relatively small, despite the fact that Dutch is not a useful language internationally for graduates.”

“This prevents top universities, such as Leuven, Ghent or even Antwerp, from scoring high on the international side in world rankings.”

Diversity and debate

Professor Soete said that young universities “must be allowed to be agile and have innovative features like an emphasis on multicultural learning. Among small groups of students it is essential to have a diversity of nationalities to debate issues.”

Almost half of the students and a third of academic staff at Maastricht are from outside the Netherlands, he said, including Professor Soete, who is Belgian. He said the international outlook is in part due to the uncertainty among students about their job prospects – a concern he believes institutions should be “morally obliged” to respond to.

Professor Soete added that English has become the common language for research. However, all foreign students at Maastricht can also take an optional Dutch language course, alongside their main subject, as part of a target to encourage 22 per cent of them to stay in the Netherlands region after graduating. About 85 per cent of all foreign students now take basic Dutch lessons.

“If a French-speaking student studies in Belgium, they will leave their degree unilingual which means it will be difficult for them to get a job in Belgium itself,” he said.

“But if they go to Maastricht they can become a perfect English speaker, still hold on to their native language and learn Dutch by integrating with the community. That’s why we’re seeing a significant increase in the number of French-speaking students. Other Dutch universities are moving in the same direction.”

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