English-taught bachelor degrees proliferate in Europe

The past decade has seen an impressive proliferation in English-taught bachelor degrees or ETBs in Europe as they have become an increasingly common feature of international higher education, according to a joint study across 19 countries.

The countries with the highest reported number of ETBs are Turkey, the Netherlands and Spain, whereas Switzerland and the Netherlands have the highest percentage of higher education institutions offering ETBs, followed by Denmark, Finland and Sweden, says the report by the European Association for International Education and the global education search platform StudyPortals.

The Netherlands is leading both in the number of ETBs and the spread of such programmes across its higher education institutions. Romania, France, Poland, Italy, Turkey and Germany, by contrast, have the lowest percentage of higher education institutions with ETBs.

Often beginning just as translations of local-language programmes, ETBs have grown into distinct programmes catering to the needs of a diversified student population, says the report, English-taught Bachelor’s Programmes: Internationalising European higher education, written by Anna-Malin Sandström and Carmen Neghina.

The introduction of English-taught degrees at continental European universities has been part of a larger internationalisation trend that took place after the completion of the Bologna Process.

The development started at the graduate level with the introduction of English-taught masters programmes. In 2001, findings from a study identified 725 English-taught masters programmes in Europe, a number that soon rose to 2,389 in 2007 and 8,089 in 2014, the report says.

The report describes itself as the first study to investigate whether ETBs are undergoing a similar trajectory and are enhancing internationalisation. Using quantitative data from StudyPortals and qualitative interviews conducted by the European Association for International Education or EAIE, it sets out to provide a first overview of the emergence and growth of ETBs in Europe.

A total of 2,900 English-taught bachelor programmes were identified in the StudyPortals database in the 19 European countries studied. The number of ETBs per country varied from 32 ETBs in Romania to 545 ETBs in Turkey.

Benefits, challenges and impact

The report also explores the benefits, challenges and impact of these programmes on the institutional and national level.

Not all ETB programmes at every institution are catering well for their students, as “many struggle with English language and international pedagogical skills of staff, illuminating a need for additional training in this area,” the report says.

Many classrooms also “still lack in diversity, thus limiting the international environment and learning potential of ETBs”.

The respondents who were interviewed claimed that the main reasons for offering ETBs were to internationalise the institution, become more competitive, attract talent, prepare students for a global world and respond to a demographic shift.

“Progress appears to have been made towards some of these goals with the institutions now being seemingly more international, and hosting more international students and faculty, which in turn internationalises the learning environment,” the authors say.

Three of the five most common reasons given for offering ETBs – in response to growing competition, to attract international talent and to prepare local students for a global world – resonate with the most important reasons for European institutions to internationalise.

According to the EAIE Barometer: Internationalisation in Europe, the main reasons to pursue internationalisation include preparing students for a global world (second most important reason), attracting more international students (third), and increasing competitiveness (sixth).

“ETBs hence have a potential to become an instrumental part of internationalisation, allowing for institutions to achieve their goals,” the authors say.

Yet the main reason to internationalise, which according to the EAIE Barometer is to improve the overall quality of education provided, featured as a driving force only in some of the interviews.

Some respondents reported that the quality of education had increased as a result of ETBs whereas others questioned the quality of the education the programmes provide. This indicates a need for future research in this area, the authors say.

Another area needing further attention is the intentional integration of international students on campus and in the classroom. Several respondents explained how having international students at their higher education institution does not automatically result in an international experience, on campus or in the classroom.

The future of ETBs

Two developments stood out when enquiring about the future of ETBs. First, respondents predicted a higher demand for ETBs and, as a result, a larger, more varied offer of such programmes. Second, they recognised the need to identify (niche) programmes that the institution can excel in to respond to growing competition.

Other trends mentioned were an increased offering of joint and double degree programmes at the bachelor level, bilingual education and more diverse student mobility flows, with a potential shift away from the focus on the Anglo-Saxon world, particularly in the light of current political developments.

“It hence seems as though the future is likely to bring both quantitative and qualitative changes to ETBs. At the same time, as shown by ongoing debates on the use of English as a medium of instruction and its implications on the national language and the quality of education, an increased discussion about the value of ETBs can be expected when they reach a critical mass,” the report says.