Italian court pushes back on the race towards English

After six years of winding through the Italian courts, the case challenging the Polytechnic Institute of Milan’s decision to offer all graduate programmes in English reached a final legal conclusion on 29 January. The question now is whether the controversy fades from sight or the implications push to the boiling point a simmering debate over the proper place of English in academia.

Backlash and trade-offs

Last Monday the Consiglio di Stato, Italy’s high administrative court, struck down the Polytechnic plan on constitutional grounds. While a triumph for the 98 professors who challenged it back in 2012, it raises a number of questions on the trade-offs that universities in Italy and beyond make as they race towards English in the name of internationalisation and global competition.

Those trade-offs have become ever more salient in recent years in light of rising nationalism and a growing backlash against the progressive spread of English taught courses.

In striking down the plan, the Consiglio di Stato applied principles laid down by the Constitutional Court last year to affirm an earlier decision of the regional administrative court. In the interim the court had asked for the university to provide documentation on the number of programmes offered in English, Italian or in both languages.

The opinion, largely a compilation of quotes from the Constitutional Court with little additional rationale, affirms three principles that the goal of internationalisation cannot jeopardise: the primacy of the Italian language, the freedom of students to learn and the freedom of professors to teach.

The Italian language, the court says, is a “fundamental element of cultural identity”, not only essential to transmitting the country’s heritage but a cultural asset in itself.

Teaching courses solely in a foreign language would remove Italian from “complete branches of knowledge”. Moreover, it would deny students, without adequate language support, the freedom to choose their own training and future and prevent them from reaching “the highest grades in their studies”.

Finally, it would affect how professors communicate with students and would discriminate against them in the assignment of courses based on criteria that have nothing to do with their competence in the subject matter they have been hired to teach.

The university must now find a solution that maintains the institution’s competitiveness in both retaining Italian students and attracting foreign students who understand the value of an English-based degree in the global job market.

Though the university never fully realised the 2012 plan, today all PhD courses are in English while out of 45 masters courses, 15 are offered in both languages and three solely in Italian. The remaining 27 are only in English. Since 2014-15 to the present, the enrollment on degree programmes in English has progressively jumped from 3,200 to 8,400.

Of the 17,000 masters students, 6,000 are foreigners. Ironically these numbers have helped the university climb the international rankings to first place in Italy in nine research areas and to 10th place among European universities in six areas.

A ‘beautiful victory’

As the university mulls over its next steps, others have found cause to celebrate. The president of the Accademia della Crusca, the Florentine society dedicated to preserving the Italian language, has called the decision a “beautiful victory”.

A petition posted on the internet following the Constitutional Court decision last year and directed to the president of the Italian Republic and others has now gathered more than 4,000 signatures. Entitled L’italiano siamo noi (We are Italian), it makes a plea for a “new and diverse Italian language policy”.

To what extent the court decision will affect internationalisation at the Polytechnic Institute or at other Italian universities depends in part on implementing guidelines the ministry of education, universities and research presumably will issue.

Those guidelines could have a wide impact on universities across Italy. The Polytechnic Institute is not alone in moving progressively towards English. At the University of Trento, for example, almost all doctoral programmes and about half the masters programmes are in English.

In the meantime much has happened since this controversy began six years ago. Rising nationalism and global scepticism, combined with Brexit and Trumpism, signal that English may be losing some of its appeal or legitimacy.

This confluence of forces has spurred France’s President Emmanuel Macron to fill the void in world leadership, repeatedly forecasting that French will take its place as the number one language in the world. Notwithstanding the French bravado, English as the dominant lingua franca is not about to retreat in the near future. The global economy is far too dependent on it.

Challenging the move towards English

The broader and perhaps more interesting question is whether the court decision will give momentum to a backlash that slowly has been taking shape, especially in Northern European countries where English courses have been prominent.

In the Netherlands, where 20% of bachelor programmes and 60% of masters programmes are taught in English, the organisation Better Education Netherlands (BON) has gathered close to 6,000 signatures on a ‘manifesto’ and has threatened to sue the Dutch government for failure to enforce a law requiring that education and examinations must be taken in Dutch, with few exceptions.

A 2015 poll of Dutch university students found that 60% complained of lecturers whose English was incomprehensible. A report commissioned by the Dutch ministry of education and published in 2017 by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences raised concerns about the quality of English language programmes.

It advised universities to pay closer attention to the language skills of students and professors and to exercise more thought in selecting courses offered in English based on subject and learning objectives. More recently the rector of the University of Amsterdam called for a balance to be struck between Dutch and English courses.

In Germany academics have launched a campaign, ADAWIS, against the predominance of English in scientific publications.

The Language Council of Norway has raised concerns that many students whose entire programme is in English may not have sufficient mastery of the language to succeed and that the vast majority of graduates enter the Norwegian labour market where English proficiency is not essential.

A Manifesto in Defence of Scientific Multilingualism, originating in Spain and published in seven languages, has now gathered close to 8,000 signatures of well-known scholars throughout Europe. Aimed at the European Union, the manifesto challenges requirements from European scientific committees that funding proposals be written in English.

Whether the Polytechnic decision will inspire any of these movements to seek a legal resolution remains to be seen. At the very least the several opinions that have emerged from the Italian courts in the course of the litigation provide a well-developed rationale and framework for moving forward the discussion on what is gained, what is lost and how the dangers can be mitigated when using English as a vehicle for ‘internationalising’ universities.

Rosemary Salomone is the Kenneth Wang Professor of Law at St John’s University School of Law, United States. She is the author of True American: Language, identity, and the education of immigrant children (Harvard University Press) and is currently writing a book on global English, identity and linguistic justice for Oxford University Press.