Why one academic went Dutch

November 11, 1994

Radical reform is imminent for Dutch higher education. Jon Henley weighs up the pros and cons and talks to Roderick Lyall, who has just taken up a chair of English literature at Amsterdam's Free University.

Australian-born Roderick Lyall moved to Amsterdam this summer to take up the chair of English literature at Amsterdam's Free University, after 19 years teaching Scottish literature at the University of Glasgow.

He heads a department of around 15 staff, of which five are fellow expatriates.

"One of my reasons for leaving Britain was just how oppressive the administrative load was becoming," he said. "It was getting increasingly difficult to do your job.

"My position may be coloured by despair at what's going on in Britain -- but my impression so far is that the Dutch system is certainly less bureaucratic than the British system is now."

Dutch university contracts include a clause stipulating time allocated for teaching, and time for research.

"That is a major benefit, a very sensible arrangement," Professor Lyall says -- although he points out that the Free University earmarks 10 per cent of teaching time for administration.

Pay and conditions in the Netherlands are, he believes, generally comparable to those in the UK. Dutch salaries are marginally higher, but the extra income is swallowed up by higher tax and social security premiums: "At the end of the day, you're not really any better off."

Academically, he sees the Free University's organisational structure as a distinct benefit. Rather than running an English department with twin language and literature sections, the university has two multi-disciplinary language and literature departments.

"That means Eng Lit is part of the literature department, along with French, German and Spanish literature," says Professor Lyall. "That's potentially a very rich structure indeed, with plenty of scope for cross-fertilisation."

Professor Lyall's courses are among the many taught in English in Dutch universities.

Following a major controversy five years ago, when wild rumours circulated that the education ministry planned to scrap Dutch as the principal language of instruction at universities, the government instigated regular inspections of the extent to which foreign languages are used in university teaching.

The government's aim now is twofold: to ensure Dutch is not under threat as the main language of instruction, but also that students' foreign-language abilities are developed adequately throughout their course.

In practice, this means that components of many courses -- particularly in technical subjects where much of the international vocabulary is English -- are now taught in English.

Like all non-Dutch university teachers, Professor Lyall has a contractual requirement to become competent in Dutch within two years. "That's perfectly understandable," he says. "My teaching will be in English, but the admin is all in Dutch. If you have to fight your department's corner, you have to be able to communicate in the language of the country you're in."

But, despite the Netherlands' concern to improve students' foreign-language abilities, non-Dutch academics will not necessarily find it any easier to land more than a visiting post here.

"Money is as tight as it is anywhere else," says Professor Lyall, "and there's a perfectly reasonable desire to ensure jobs for good Dutch graduates and not have the whole system taken over by expats. Dutch language and culture are being sufficiently eroded as it is." Professor Lyall's arrival in the Netherlands coincided almost precisely with the government's announcement of its planned reforms to the higher education system, a subject about which he has mixed feelings.

"I wouldn't suggest no change is desirable," he says. "It is clear to me that many people are concerned about the pace at which students complete their degrees.

"Changes are already being introduced to help students complete their degrees on time, and the notion of a finite course length is obviously very important. But while that effort is being made, talk of a sudden definitive reduction of course length from four to three years doesn't seem very helpful."

One of the problems of introducing a three-year degree in the Netherlands, Lyall stresses, is that the shorter English course is based on a very highly specialised secondary school system.

"Dutch students do eight or nine different subjects in their final years at secondary school. Clearly, if you only do two or three as in England, your starting-point at university is much higher," he said.

"And if you're talking about harmonising the European system, moving to a three-year degree from a broad secondary base looks very questionable."

Professor Lyall shares many academics' fears that the government's concerns are more about saving money than improving the quality of education on offer at Dutch universities.

"The notion that there is no conflict between the twin aims of improving quality and saving money seems pretty absurd to me," he says.

"Most improvements have a price tag attached. There is obviously concern about possible budget cuts since the universities here have already taken serious cuts. It does seem unreasonable for everything to fall on the higher education sector."

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