The complex politics of teaching in English in HE

Over the past 25 years, increasing numbers of higher education institutions in continental Europe have started teaching classes, courses and complete programmes in English. Surveys show that, at the masters level in particular, English has become the main language of instruction.

The Netherlands is leading other countries with 70% of all masters courses and 20% of bachelor courses at its research universities offered in English. (Although at Dutch universities of applied sciences, which are larger than the research universities in both number of institutions and students, the percentages are smaller, with 20% of masters and 6% of bachelor courses offered in English.) 

Other countries where English is an important language of instruction in higher education include Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. We see an increasing use of English in teaching and learning outside of Europe too; for instance, in South Korea.

Teaching in English has always been contested. First from a political point of view, with the argument that shifting from teaching in the local language to teaching in English may endanger the survival of the local language and culture.

It is not students who are the most critical about the decision to teach in English; in general, students are fairly happy with this option. Nor does the opposition come from rectors and presidents of universities, who in general advocate the importance of English for the internationalisation process, rankings, competition and for their research reputation.

The main opposition comes rather from faculty and organisations dealing with language policy, whose main argument is that universities internationalise to the detriment of teaching and learning quality.

The labour market argument is also used as in the Norwegian case: “The vast majority of people will be working in the Norwegian labour market afterwards,” says Ole Kristian Våge of the Language Council of Norway. This argument is rather strange as it disregards the fact that competence in English or in other foreign languages and the ability to interact with other cultures are assets in local labour markets too.

The argument concerning quality of teaching and learning is also questionable. Most international students and faculty at universities in non-English-speaking countries do not have English as their mother tongue and, as such, are at as much of a disadvantage as local students and faculty. Higher education is becoming increasingly international and intercultural, and a common language of communication makes that interaction possible.

It would be too easy, though, to downplay the challenges of the increasing use of English as a language of scholarship at continental European universities. A recent study by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences addresses some of these issues.

The report ends with some points for consideration:

  • The language of instruction must be a conscious choice and not one that is simply made on autopilot. Differentiation is essential. For every department, language (policy) choices should be made with regard to the specific objectives of the study programme in question and to the following issues: international mobility; subject matter and quality of education; progress of students; academic training; and preparation for a (diverse) labour market (including work in academia).
  • Although institutions set the overall language policy, the language of instruction is best decided at department or programme level, with consideration for the nature of the study programme, the educational resources to be used, the specific profession for which students are being trained and so on.
  • In choosing to provide instruction in English, institutions must be well aware of the associated costs and benefits, opportunities and risks and advantages and disadvantages.
  • The decision to use a particular language of instruction should be firmly anchored in a supportive language and internationalisation policy.

This study was well received by the higher education community in the Netherlands since it provides a balanced and nuanced approach to teaching in English, compared to the polarised debate taking place in the media. In particular, it is a good guide to the use of English in the social sciences and humanities, which have seen the most heated debates about the issue. The study may also be a useful reference for policies in other countries dealing with this issue.