Will English or Mandarin dominate in international HE?

The role of English has, for decades, been a topic of intense debate in higher education. The recent report by the British Council and Studyportals on the further expansion of the use of English beyond the ‘Big Four’ (Australia, Canada, United Kingdom and the United States) garnered widespread attention, as did the discussion in the Netherlands about the impact of 23% of the total student body comprising international students on the quality of teaching (in English) and services.

At the same time, efforts by the Chinese government to stimulate the learning and use of Mandarin in education (with limited success in the developed world through its Confucius Institutes, but more successfully in the Global South) are also in the news as is recent competition in this area from Taiwan.

Global South

Africa, as Rosemary Salomone’s recent article states, appears to have become the battleground for Chinese attempts to challenge the dominance of English.

This is interesting, given that English seems to have gained substantive ground recently on the continent compared to French, for instance, in Rwanda and also in Northern Africa.

The question emerging from these developments and the discussions around them seem to be: will English continue and even expand to be the dominant language in higher education (HE) in the Global South, as the British Council-Studyportals report suggests, or will Mandarin become the lingua franca in the Global South in the future?

A related question is: what will happen with the language used in higher education in the non-anglophone Global North? Will English continue to grow there also, or will Chinese become a factor there as well?

The British Council-Studyportal study is based on an analysis of data on English Teaching Programmes (ETPs) and comes to the conclusion that “in the past five years, ETPs outside of the Big Four anglophone countries grew by 77%”, with the fastest-growing locations being the Chinese region and Sub-Saharan Africa.

In itself, this is not surprising, even though it is a little strange to see countries where English is the main language of instruction (Ireland, India, Malaysia, South Africa, in particular, but also smaller players such as Hong Kong and Malta and English-speaking African and Caribbean countries) included in the analysis.

The European Higher Education Area

More debatable are the study’s predictions for the future. It states: “Although we cannot predict that all changes are here to stay, we estimate that ETP growth will continue and contribute to the diversification of the HE landscape.”

Given the discussions about the role of English and about the challenges that the increases in the number of international students bring to the quality of education and services, one can only speculate whether the growth in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) will continue, stabilise or decline.

As the report correctly states: “Monitoring trends and changes in ETPs will require more than an overview of the supply of programmes globally.”

Indeed, it requires more attention to (geo)political, cultural, social and academic trends and changes. For the EHEA, such changes suggest a likely stabilisation or decline in English, certainly at bachelor level. The decline in ETPs in Denmark and Norway and limited growth in Sweden is one indication of this.

At the same time, it is unlikely that an alternative other language, such as Mandarin, will emerge. For instance, recent attempts in Hungary to establish a branch campus of Fudan University encountered serious opposition and seem to have failed, and many Confucius Institutes have been closed.

National and local languages will stay strongly dominant, with English remaining a distant second.

Africa as a battleground

The situation in the Global South is different and more complex. In Asia, the growth of ETPs is likely to continue for a while, but the leading country, China, might go in a different direction for national and soft power reasons. It is advocating Mandarin as a future language in (higher) education through the Confucius Institutes but also through other geopolitical and economic operations in the region.

Africa seems to be the main region where it is investing its efforts currently. South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania are examples of countries that, over the past few years, have made Mandarin a language choice in education, as both Rosemary Salomone’s article and Ifeanyi Eke’s recent blog for the London School of Economics highlight.

The growth of Mandarin in Africa will likely continue, but it does not seem realistic to say that “in 50 years, the lingua franca of Africa may well be Chinese”.

For the moment it is more likely that the role of English in Africa will increase at the cost of other colonial languages, in particular French, and not only in Sub-Saharan Africa. Rwanda has moved from French to English and Algeria is debating a similar move, as are other countries.

In summary, it is likely that, in non-anglophone EHEA, the role of ETPs will stabilise and even decline in the coming years. In Asia and Africa, it will continue to grow.

Mandarin will not gain a foothold in the Global North and will also face challenges to become more dominant elsewhere. In other regions, in particular Latin America and the Caribbean, both Mandarin and English will continue to be minor players.

Fears about the complete dominance of English or Mandarin are not necessary: national and local languages will prevail and linguistic innovations may even make the whole debate on which language is used and which is dominant obsolete in the coming decades.

Hans de Wit is professor emeritus and distinguished fellow of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education, United States. On 10 December, he received the North Star Medal of Lifetime Achievement of the Noam Chomsky Global Connections Awards, StarScholars. E-mail: