For years, the Dutch government has stimulated the exchange of international staff and students and supported universities’ efforts to broaden their scope. This has put higher education in the Netherlands one step ahead of the Bologna Process; by now, nobody questions the concept of the international classroom, or the status of English as the dominant language of science.
Yet in recent months, English-medium instruction has become a topic of hot debate. Are universities in the Netherlands trendsetters or simply out of control, having forgotten the quintessence of education in the national context?
The Dutch Language Union was among the first to publish a critical report, in 2016. A year later, former minister of education Jet Bussemaker asked the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences to look into the matter. The academy’s report concludes that the language of instruction must be a matter of conscious choice at programme level. The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) followed up by stating that that decision should be taken in consultation with staff and students.
Most recently, the non-profit organisation Better Education Netherlands has launched legal action against the Inspectorate of Higher Education and two universities, claiming that anglicising higher education is in violation of the Education Act, which states that all education be in Dutch unless there is a good reason for another language.
Debating the pros and cons of English-taught programmes inevitably leads to a discussion of the growth of the international student population in the Netherlands. This is seen as a direct result of the easy accessibility of higher education to non-Dutch students; not many European countries offer so many high-quality and affordable programmes in English.
This expansion means that every university in the Netherlands experiences challenges around overcrowding and the erosion of student-centred learning. The latter jeopardises the Bologna aspiration of small-scale teaching with flexible learning paths, individual guidance and timely and adequate feedback.
On several occasions, students have expressed their concern about the English proficiency of both university staff and their fellow students. Staff members have made similar complaints about their students and colleagues. However, statistics do not necessarily support these grievances. Student surveys do not show a significant difference in appreciation of programmes taught in Dutch and English, and a 2017 study by the European Association for International Education was inconclusive about the quality of English-taught bachelor’s programmes in the European Higher Education Area.
The peer review reports that are the basis for the programme accreditation decisions made by NVAO, the accreditation organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders, occasionally mention quality issues related to English-language proficiency and growing student numbers. In general, however, peers are impressed by the international teaching and learning environment. At institutional level, some NVAO audit reports mention international student growth as problematic in terms of maintaining a balanced student population, sufficient staff and adequate facilities.
The present minister of education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, has asked NVAO to advise her on the quality issue. In a letter to parliament earlier this month, she emphasised the importance of a balanced approach towards internationalisation, and underlined the full autonomy of universities regarding both language choice and quality assurance. She is not the first to argue that the debate should focus not on internationalisation but on maintaining quality.
NVAO could facilitate discussion with relevant stakeholders on quality criteria and include them in its assessment frameworks. First, language policies could become part of institutional audits: to what extent does the policy support a balanced international classroom? How does the university cope with the growing numbers of students in terms of quality? Second, in the external assessment of programmes, peers could examine the impact of the choice of language of instruction on curriculum quality and student achievement; of special interest would be the proficiency of graduates and staff in both English and Dutch. And, third, the approval of representative bodies of students and staff could be required in matters of internationalisation in general and language of instruction in particular.
Such moves would offer universities terms of reference for reviewing their international goals and action plans, and put them in the lead on identifying and responding to quality issues related to internationalisation.
Michèle Wera is a policy adviser for NVAO in The Hague.