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Foto: Maartje Strijbis (UvA)

Opinion | ‘UvA should offer more studies in English’

Dominique Wiedeman,
10 januari 2020 - 12:53

English is the language of science and the language of the future, student Dominique Wiedeman writes. This is why UvA should offer more English studies, at the expense of Dutch. ‘Going back to Dutch as the language of instruction at university is just as likely as going back from digital to analogue.’

In the recently published book Against English: Pleidooi voor het Nederlands multiple authors criticize the Anglicization of higher education. Criticism or not, it’s highly likely that Dutch language will be replaced by the English language from next academic year onwards. Recalcitrance won't pay off. As a consequence of globalisation, this development is taking place at universities worldwide; therefore, it seems to be inevitable. The Netherlands is simply leading the way in this development in higher education. Therefore we must ask ourselves what should be changed in the present higher education system in order to minimalize the language barrier between the native language and the English language for university students (to be).


Students as world citizens

Just like other universities, the UvA Anglicizes in order to internationalize. According to the institution, its higher education should contribute to students becoming world citizens. There is sufficient reason to Anglicize even further at universities. Science in particular is a field in which English is the lingua franca. The more English contributions the university produces, the bigger the scope and the broader the dissemination of knowledge. Dutch students who aspire to pursue an academic career are better prepared to publish in leading international academic journals if they are educated in English.

‘An English study programme is a better preparation for an international career than a Dutch one’

Students who want to work outside academia and step into the labour market, will more likely than before end up working in organisations where English is the working language. Just as Dutch universities seek to enrol more foreign students, Dutch organisations - also as a consequence of globalisation - are hiring more (highly educated) foreign employees and operate across the Dutch borders. As such, an English study programme is a better preparation for an international career than a Dutch one. It’s not naïve to think that’s why Dutch students more often choose the English language version of the degree they want to study, even if a Dutch track of the same degree exists.


At university international classrooms positively influence critical debates because of the diversity in cultural and social backgrounds. Domestic students who follow an English language track and want to broaden their view at a foreign university, less frequently experience a language barrier when they get into a student exchange program than those who follow a Dutch track. Moreover, as a student of an English track you'll get a broader sense of the research possibilities worldwide. Research on Dutch phenomena can also be done in English.


'Hodgepodge' of language

Different programmes have different methods for implementing (further) Anglicization. For instance, the Bachelor's programme Communication Science nowadays requires students to attend almost all lectures in English and allows them to choose between an English or a Dutch seminar for each course. In the last years, the language of instruction of courses in the Dutch track repeatedly changed from English to Dutch and back from Dutch to English.

‘We should ask ourselves to what extent bilingual structures really contribute to a successful and efficient study progress’

Within the Bachelor's programme Future Planet Studies, Dutch is the language of instruction in the propaedeutic year, after which students are prepared for a second and third year in English by means of (only) one course in English academic writing. The Bachelor's programme Psychology completely Anglicized passive language use (reading and listening) and leaves students the choice to switch from English to Dutch when it comes to active language use (writing and speaking). Likewise, there are endless variations, including exam questions that are stated in English but may also be answered in Dutch. Many students experience the constant alternation between English and Dutch as a messy 'hodgepodge': confusing, obstructive for getting a grip on theories and concepts, and directionless.


'Dutch' programmes

A programme that is labelled as Dutch has Dutch as the main language of instruction. However, either Dutch or English can be chosen as the language of instruction for the single courses that form the curriculum. This freedom has led to the fact that many ‘Dutch’ Bachelor's programmes are almost completely taught in English now. Students can consider themselves lucky that they are still allowed the possibility of writing their thesis in Dutch.


For Master's students this is almost an impossibility, due to the fact that Dutch Master's programmes hardy exist. At the UvA, 80 percent of the regular Master's programmes has become (fully) English now. If you choose to apply for a Master's programme, what most students do to distinguish themselves from students with a degree at a higher education at universities of applied sciences (Hoger Beroepsonderwijs, hbo), then you nonetheless have to switch to English. Among students who chose to do their Bachelor's programmes in Dutch, English being the only language of instruction of Master's programmes is not an unheard-of reason for students not to apply - in some sense against their own will - for a Master's programme.

‘We should strongly ask ourselves if Dutch still has the right to exist in the present and future higher education at university’

In other words: a foreseen language barrier obstructs further development. If Bachelor's programmes are also taught in English, this barrier disappears. If you then choose to study at university, you are aware that you are choosing to study in English. Attempts to create (an equal) balance between Dutch and English education, the likes of which have already been attempted, do not offer a long-term solution for the neglect of academic English on an undergraduate level, which results in students having problems coping with postgraduate academic English. Therefore, we should ask ourselves to what degree bilingual structures really contribute to a successful and efficient study progress, and if, perhaps, complete Anglicization would be a better idea.


Bilingual VWO

Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven (Education, Culture and Science; D66) recently submitted the legislative proposal Language & Accessibility (Taal & Toegankelijkheid) in the House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer), because she thinks that the current Higher Education and Research Act (Wet op Hoger Onderwijs en Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek) does not fit the internationalization of higher education. This law states that study programmes at universities have to be taught in Dutch, unless 'the specific nature, the arrangement or the quality of education, or the origin of students makes it necessary to depart from Dutch'.


She believes that universities should have the possibility to offer education in another language than Dutch if that language 'adds value' compared to the Dutch language. The start signal for even more, easier and quicker Anglicization. Therefore, this amendment should go together with an amendment that obliges secondary schools to bilingually educate pupils from the second phase of pre-university education (Voorbereidend Wetenschappelijk Onderwijs, VWO). Only by doing this, VWO pupils are well and fairly prepared for the English-taught research-oriented education (Wetenschappelijk Onderwijs, WO) at university. With respect to the current situation of far-reaching Anglicization at Dutch universities, this could be considered already necessary.


Going back to Dutch as the language of instruction at university is just as likely as going back from digital to analogue, not likely at all. The Dutch language will and must always continue to exist. However, we should strongly ask ourselves if Dutch still has the right to exist in the present and future higher education at university.


Dominique Wiedeman is a student of the dual Master's programme Communication and Information Studies, and the student member of the Council of the Graduate School of Humanities.