In December, the Dutch Inspectorate of Education published the results of an investigation which suggest that in May last year the association ‘Beter Onderwijs Nederland’ (BON or Better Education Netherlands) had perfectly good reasons for filing a lawsuit against two Dutch universities and the inspectorate of education itself in an attempt to stop the unbridled anglicisation of higher education in the Netherlands.
Had the results of the inspectorate’s investigation been available at that point, BON might perhaps have won the case by framing the arguments in their legal brief somewhat differently.
Beyond any doubt, the investigation shows that many institutions of higher education in the Netherlands violate the Dutch Higher Education Law. In addition, it suggests that the inspectorate has failed in its task of monitoring whether these institutions comply with the relevant articles in the law (WHW 1.3 and 7.2).
If it had indeed followed developments regarding internationalisation, as it says in the very first sentence of the investigation report’s summary, shouldn’t it – or the minister responsible – have acted accordingly years ago when all the official figures about degree programmes taught entirely in English indicated that the law was being massively ignored?
So what does the law, issued in 1992, state with respect to the language of instruction in Dutch higher education and how does the incidence of English-only degree programmes fare against this legislation?
Article 1.3 of the WHW dictates that institutions of higher education should advance the Dutch language proficiency of all Dutch students. The related article 7.2 states that instruction and examinations should be in Dutch, except if (a) the degree programme in question specifically aims to help them acquire another language; (b) a lecture is given by a visiting lecturer who doesn’t speak Dutch, or (c) the specific nature, organisation or quality of teaching or the origin of the students necessitates the use of a language other than Dutch.
If 7.2c applies, the necessity of using another language should be explained in a code of conduct that is adopted by the institution’s executive board. Beyond all doubt, the law supports the idea that the default language in Dutch higher education is Dutch.
Reaching a tipping point
In view of the unmistakable intent of the WHW to safeguard the position of Dutch, the figures concerning the number of degree programmes completely taught in English in Dutch universities are downright stunning, and higher than anywhere else in Europe.
In the academic year 2017-18, 23% of all bachelor degree programmes and 74% of all masters degree programmes offered by Dutch universities were entirely in English.
Nevertheless, the anglicisation process continues. The latest numbers, issued in December 2018, show that this academic year there has been an increase of 5% for bachelor degree programmes and 2% for the masters programmes that are conducted entirely in English.
Tipping point reached
With these new figures, the tipping point has been reached of more programmes being taught in English than in Dutch. At the University of Twente and Maastricht University, the two universities that BON summoned to court in 2018, English saturation is nearly complete, including in bachelor degree programmes.
The percentages of all-English programmes show that universities clearly do not act in the spirit of WHW articles 1.3 and 7.2. But do they actually violate the law?
The inspectorate’s investigation points out that many Dutch institutions of higher education, including a couple of universities, are indeed breaking the law.
The inquiry focused on the code of conduct mentioned in article 7.2c, such a code being obligatory in all cases where English (or any other language) instead of Dutch is used as the language of instruction. It is even required if English is the language of instruction in only part of a programme and it should always explain the need to use a language other than Dutch.
Two of the main questions addressed in the investigation therefore were whether institutions of higher education that offer at least one programme entirely or largely in English actually have a code of conduct and, if so, whether its content complies with legal requirements.
Seventy-seven of the 125 Dutch higher education institutions fulfilled the criteria for inclusion in the investigation, among them publicly funded research universities, universities of applied science (‘hogescholen’) and non-publicly funded institutions. Remarkably, only 43 of these 77 actually had a code of conduct so the other 34 thus clearly violated the law.
Equally noteworthy is the fact that the need for instruction in English was not substantiated by weighty arguments in any of the 43 codes of conduct as article 7.2c requires.
It is extremely puzzling that in about one-third of the codes of conduct a different principle than the clear ‘Dutch unless’ standard is adopted, including its opposite, the ‘English unless’ principle – and the reasons for deviating from Dutch as the default language are often not explained.
In view of the fact that the law was issued in 1992, a final noteworthy outcome of the inspectorate’s inquiry is that half of the codes of conduct date from 2017 and 2018. One cannot help suspecting that the institutions in question may have drawn them up to retroactively legitimise their language policy, possibly responding to growing public concern about English rapidly replacing Dutch in Dutch higher education.
Impact on internationalisation
The main motive for providing all-English programmes is that these are strong magnets for foreign students, who, in an increasing number of programmes, outnumber their Dutch peers.
For example, the percentage of international students among first-year psychology students at the University of Twente, Maastricht University and the University of Amsterdam rose, respectively, from 50% to 80%, from 52% to 86% and from 3% to 57% the year entire programmes were first offered in English.
Dutch (research) universities have seen their student numbers expand substantially over the last couple of years, mainly due to the increasing influx of international students. Just this academic year the student population increased by 5%. Since 2000 universities have seen their student population grow by 68% without any proportional rise in funding.
They have now reached a point at which they can no longer cope with the influx – there are more than 1,000 first-year students bursting out of the lecture halls in some fields of study.
Ironically, in an attempt to gain control over the inflow of international students, the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) is trying to get the minister’s approval for a cap on enrolment on all-English programmes in order to secure the educational quality that is jeopardised by universities’ uncontrollable growth.
Another reason why educational quality is at risk on all-English programmes is that proficiency in a second language is generally lower than in a native language. This also applies to the Dutch, who tend to greatly overestimate their fluency in English. This lower proficiency in English impedes students’ knowledge acquisition and academic development and hampers the transfer of knowledge and skills by lecturers.
In view of the fact that WHW article 1.3 clearly aims to foster students’ Dutch language proficiency and protect the position of Dutch in general, all-English instruction also adversely affects educational quality because it results in the opposite: a declining Dutch language proficiency in students enrolled on such programmes and the gradual disappearance of Dutch as a scientific and cultural language.
Let there be no mistake. The opponents of anglicisation of higher education in the Netherlands do not object to the prominent presence of English in education next to Dutch. Many would even welcome the balanced presence of Dutch and English on truly bilingual programmes.
What they instead oppose is the complete replacement of Dutch by English, as happens on all-English programmes. It is by offering these programmes on such a large scale that Dutch universities have built a Trojan horse that is now defeating them within their own walls.