The Politecnico di Milano, one of Italy's most prestigious universities, will teach and assess most of its degree and all of its postgraduate courses in English from 2014. While the move proved controversial in Italy, it is far from unusual – universities worldwide have been switching wholly or partly to teaching in English for a number of reasons.
This became clear during interviews with academics and higher education officials in a selection of countries around the world.
Chief among the reasons for the marked shift towards teaching in English, especially at postgraduate level, were improved graduate employment and mobility prospects and the need for graduates who can speak English for international trade.
But there are also challenges, including a shortage of lecturers who are proficient in English, the costs involved and local resistance.
One particularly illuminating example is in Africa. Former Belgian colony Rwanda once taught mainly in French or the indigenous Kinyarwanda dialect, but switched to English as the primary language of educational instruction in 2008.
It changed partly in order to integrate better with nations that cooperate as the East African Community – Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi – the majority of them English-speaking in official circles.
The switch has also helped to distance Rwanda from France, which the Rwandan government has accused of arming the 1994 Hutu genocide against the minority Tutsi population.
The Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) in the capital city was one of the first to convert fully. Focusing first on English-taught technical classes, it is now expanding English usage across the arts and humanities.
However, four years on, students and instructors still struggle with English, said Professor John Severin Mshana, KIST’s vice-rector for academics. “It's a problem for students to understand what lecturers are saying,” he said.
This stemmed from not having enough primary and secondary school teachers with English fluency, he added. So KIST offers remedial English classes to students.
Despite the challenge, Mshana said he has never heard anyone question the transition. Quite the opposite, because “to be bilingual is a benefit”.
Meanwhile, Chinese universities have been adding bilingual lectures to curricula to comply with a 2007 government requirement for more lectures in English and Chinese to improve the overall quality of Chinese students, as the Ministry of Education put it.
Ningbo University in the key east China trading port of Ningbo, Zhejiang province, started trialling bilingual teaching then, and has a small number of English lectures, including some taught partly in English.
Around half of these are finance-related, including international clearance, international finance and accounting.
“English-teaching makes our students more competitive if they want to seek jobs in foreign companies or banks. It will also benefit our students planning to study abroad,” said Zhang Ying, a curriculum specialist at Ningbo.
Other lectures, such as liberal arts and scientific engineering, use just Chinese. "For one thing, the English level of Chinese students is not good enough. For another, we lack English-speaking teachers,” Zhang told University World News.
Limited budgets are another constraint. Ningbo usually seeks teachers among overseas returnees, or sends its own teachers abroad for short-term language training. "It costs a lot more if we hire returnees, let alone foreign teachers.”
However, Zhang added, a “foreign language cannot be quickly improved in just six months. That's why we are still trialling the English-teaching programme."
In the Middle East, English is the official language of long-established American universities in Lebanon, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and is rapidly becoming the language of choice at new universities in the region.
In Lebanon, for instance, students over the past decade have increasingly opted for English over French at university despite being schooled in French. Again, job opportunities are typically cited as the major reason.
This has not generally caused problems, but there has been some resistance in the more conservative Gulf countries – and there have recently been moves towards a greater role for Arabic in higher education.
In Qatar, English has been gradually imposed on schools as well as at the state-owned Qatar University, where most subjects are now taught in English. Also, Qatar Foundation's Education City has six branch-campuses of leading American universities.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one academic based in Qatar told University World News: "Some Qataris are not happy about English being the dominant language, as they feel it is at the expense of Arabic and a further blow to their culture.
“This is a pressing issue at Qatar University as English is the course language at the Education City universities.”
In Latin American universities too, teaching in English is increasingly common. It is driven largely by job opportunities opening up at overseas companies investing in Latin America, and as more students look to work overseas.
Ecuador is typical, and Universidad San Francisco de Quito in the capital city Quito leads the way.
Students must reach an advanced level of English before they can graduate. A growing number of courses, including psychology, sociology and education, are now taught mostly in English, with each specifying a number of credits that students must take in the language.
“The use of English here has been growing over the past five years,” said Rhys Davies, English coordinator at Universidad San Francisco de Quito. “We are always looking for teachers to teach in English, and lots are now from the US and the UK.
“Students know how important it could be for their professions and embrace any opportunity to improve language skills.” Another factor is the growing number of students becoming postgraduates in the US, Davies added.
In Europe, professors in The Netherlands have complained of Dutch becoming a second-class language and students have not been generally happy about the spread of English.
Competition for foreign students has seen English gain ground since 2009 depending on subject and degree level. Dutch prevails for bachelor degrees, and English at masters level. International programmes are largely in English.
At the University of Amsterdam, two bachelor of arts programmes – economics; and business, liberal arts and sciences – are in English, as are 87 masters and research masters programmes.
Since 1996, almost all courses at Maastricht University have switched to, or started up in, English. Some staff and students worried about their English proficiency, so the university has student admission requirements based on TOEFL and IELTS English language exams.
"For teaching and support staff, courses are offered to improve their level of English," a spokesperson said.
Using English has attracted students from Anglophone countries. The Netherlands is seen as an option by students from the UK, where tuition fees have tripled of late. Within a broader strategy, teaching in English has seen a doubling over 10 years in the proportion of foreign students registered at Maastricht.
The Dutch approach to English usage in universities is echoed in some other European countries, including Germany and Scandinavian nations.
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