Rector says internationalisation should have limits

There are limits to how far internationalisation in higher education should grow and it is right to set them, said Rector Magnificus of the University of Amsterdam, Professor Karen IJ Maex, speaking at the celebration of the university’s 368th anniversary on 8 January.

The University of Amsterdam, or UvA, is at risk of becoming a hostage to its own success in internationalisation, notably due to the rise in the number of incoming students from other European countries.

Maex said that while 15% of UvA’s students now are international, the percentage of international first-year students is close to 25% due to a “significant increase” in new English-taught bachelor programmes.

Internationalisation is producing challenges and raising some pressing questions, she said.

More widely, the debate about internationalisation and language policy has provoked questions about whether every programme will soon be taught in English, whether universities are internationalising just to make money, whether Dutch students’ interests are being pushed aside and even whether the command of the Dutch language is at stake, she said.

But she sought to take the debate beyond these questions, asking: “What is the university’s role in a society that is becoming more internationalised, and what kind of education policy and internationalisation policy is appropriate in this context?”

The right balance

She said there are limits to growth and there is a need to strike the right balance.

“With new developments it is tempting to strive for growth. The more internationalisation, the better. What we spend too little time thinking about is the optimal balance on three different levels: the balance between Dutch and international students; the balance between English and Dutch in the wider university environment; and the balance between programmes taught in Dutch and English,” Maex said.

She said with regard to the balance between courses taught in Dutch and those taught in English that UvA wants to have both: “First, Dutch programmes with a touch of English. Active use of English is important for all students. This also makes it possible for international students to come to Amsterdam for shorter periods of time.

“We also encourage these exchanges for our own students. For example, through the Global Exchange Ambassador Programme – a peer-to-peer programme that pairs up students from different countries.”

“And second, we want English-taught programmes with specific learning objectives that also pay attention to Dutch language skills for the Dutch-speaking students. This is a curriculum that includes international cognitive learning outcomes, cultural skills, student experience and language proficiency.”

For disciplines with large student numbers, offering both an English and a Dutch version is an enrichment, she said. For disciplines with smaller numbers of students, the international character might lead to a wider inflow.

Maex said it was important to continue to teach in Dutch to fulfil UvA’s social responsibility. “A university cannot become alienated from its native surroundings. That has consequences.”

Rate of inflow

Regarding the second issue of the ratio of Dutch students to international students, she said it should be possible to control the inflow of international students.

A future in which 80% of the lecture hall is filled students from Germany is “not in line with what we have in mind for an international classroom”, she said. “It would not contribute to our goals.”

She said as rector she could not cite specific ratios for each programme. That can depend on context. “We want to have mixed groups from different countries and the Netherlands. That means we must have a way to steer this process accordingly – something that is still difficult to achieve at the moment,” Maex said.

UvA’s international classroom

Maex staunchly endorses internationalisation in higher education. She is building on the ideas of Professor Dilly Fung, among others. In her publication, A Connected Curriculum for Higher Education, Fung said: “Education is not primarily about individual gain and personal benefit, but about developing a sense of collective engagement and responsibility. Education is not a set of technicalities, it embodies an intellectual and ethical position.”

It is these values she wants to promote through her model of internationalisation in “an international classroom comprising students of different nationalities, students with a variety of backgrounds and cultures”, Maex said.

In her conclusion she launched an action plan for “UvA’s international classroom concept”. By 2020 she wants a significant number of UvA programmes to include international and intercultural aspects in their curriculum, and for these to be incorporated in teaching methods, assessments and learning outcomes.

“In the process we must recognise and set the limits for growth in internationalisation, to ensure that we can go on providing quality and added value,” Maex argued.

She said the university’s policy must be adapted with requirements set for the learning objectives of Dutch as well as of English programmes, and the curricula adapted accordingly in a “balanced portfolio of Dutch and English programmes”.

This would enable UvA to be moulded over the next decade into a “bilingual, internationally oriented and culturally integrated university”.

Caroline Sundberg, vice-president of the European Students’ Union, said the ESU supports Maex’s international classroom concept. “For enhanced quality in education we need students with different backgrounds and culture in order to not reproduce the values, research and society of today but to draft ones of tomorrow to combat the challenges our world will face,” she said.

But she said the ESU does not fully accept the need to set and recognise limits of internationalisation. “Quality is mainly compromised by the lack of funding, not the diversity of the student population,” she said.