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.

Objections to teaching in English

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.

This argument still prevails, for instance, in Italy and in the current anti-global and anti-Europe climate it will continue to be a factor. But in recent debates in Norway, Germany and the Netherlands, it is less dominant – at least outside the media and social media.

The main argument has become that teaching in another language impairs the quality of teaching and limits local students’ ability to participate and compete against the growing number of international students.

A recent article by David Matthews refers to a comment about German universities by Roger Geertz Gonzalez, a researcher at Walden University in the United States: “On the one hand, they know that [English] is the language of business and science, and want to attract international students.” However, on the other hand “it means that scholarship in the German language will decline”.

It is this tension between the demand for internationalisation and the need to preserve the quality of education in the local language that is driving the debate on teaching in English in countries like Germany, Norway and the Netherlands.

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.

The diversity of student and faculty composition – and concerns about language – is not unique to non-English-speaking countries either. In English-speaking countries too there is great concern about the quality of domestic students’ English.

A more nuanced and balanced approach

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 Dutch minister of education, culture and science asked the academy to conduct a study into language choice and language policy in Dutch higher education in the broad sense, focusing specifically on the choice between English and Dutch.

The study addresses in a balanced way issues of quality, labour market, participation and social aspects of language choice and policy.

The academy notes that it has been unable to find hard evidence of the impact of the increase in English-language study programmes on domestic students’ progress from secondary to tertiary education and within tertiary education (for example, from bachelor to masters degree programmes).

The only thing that is clear is that bilingual instruction at secondary level provides a significantly better preparation for English language instruction at the tertiary level than a monolingual approach, which is not surprising.

More interesting is the observation by the academy that “English-language instruction appears to have a negative impact on students with a migration background and on students from a disadvantaged background”.

The academy recommends further study of this issue. It seems to tally in part with studies showing a lack of participation in study abroad programmes by American students from immigrant and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Another interesting observation is that “the growing extent to which instruction is provided in English in higher education means that Dutch is losing traction as the language of academia. In the committee’s view, there is a risk that this will drive a wedge between academia and Dutch society in general and make it more difficult to communicate the results of scientific and scholarly research to the public.”

The academy also suggests further research is needed to explore the extent to which the rise of English-language instruction in higher education is influencing the use of Dutch in society and culture in the Netherlands. In the humanities and social sciences, this argument is related to pressure to publish research findings in international peer-reviewed journals, which are in English.

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 ‘autopilot’ approach that university leaders have taken with regard to English and the argument that teaching in English is needed because of internationalisation should be replaced by a rationale-driven policy at the level of each programme. The study may also be a useful reference for policies in other countries dealing with this issue.

Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA. Email: