Eclectic Grounds

conflicts and conversation

The Anglicisation of Dutch universities: inhibiting intercultural exchange?

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A recent NRC article warned that “English takes over at Dutch universities“. I, a German citizen who completed his undergraduate studies in an English-speaking programme in the Netherlands, of course found this very interesting.

The article describes the internationalisation of the Dutch university system. Today, more than half of the graduate programmes at Dutch universities are taught in English.

Internationalisation is the magic word everywhere. Education has become an export product and a university’s competitiveness is measured, particularly by the executive boards, by the number of foreign students it hosts. At many faculties, deans are charged with tasks like organising partnerships and student and faculty exchange programmes with universities around the world.

“It is part of globalisation,” says Gerry Wakker, deputy dean of education and internationalisation in Groningen. “More and more people are working abroad for a long or short time or they are studying there for a year. We prepare them for that by creating groups of students that are as mixed as possible.” 

The focus of the article is on the growing discontent that this internationalisation created. One professor is quoted lamenting that Dutch becomes a “second-class language”, another professor sees the quality of education in decline: 

In his inaugural lecture in 2005, [Groningen professor] Draaisma already argued that the switch to English hinders rather than helps the cosmopolitan academic. “You can travel where you like, but if all universities teach in English and prescribe English literature, then everywhere is going to start to look the same,” he says. A great deal of science can also be lost, he says. Prominent figures from history who wrote in German or French could disappear from the curriculum just like that. “Moreover, the Dutch were always an intermediary between English, German and French. We are now losing this role.”

I studied at Maastricht University (the official name changed recently from the Dutch “Universiteit Maastricht” to the English version), depicted by the author as the “leader of the pack” when it comes to internationalisation. It always felt a little odd living and studying there. All my tuition was in English and, naturally, we would also speak English, not Dutch, on campus. Hardly any foreigner made the effort to gain fluency in Dutch (I didn’t either, I must shamefully admit).

This led to quite some problems, especially since the university – located at the Germany border – recruited a high number of German students. The university newspapar last year had a focus on the conflicts between Dutch and international German students allegedly living in different worlds and even reported on a task force to be set up because Dutch students feel increasingly uncomfortable at the university. 

The whole problem with English tuition / internationalisation points to a general problem with intercultural exchange. If it merely means speaking English and taking over anglo-saxon systems (such as literature, education system), one could argue with Prof. Draaisma in that it indeed means the opposite of intercultural exchange. Instead, a global uniformity takes place by which cultural particularities tend to get lost.

It’s a tricky question. A universal language like English helps people to communicate who otherwise could not (I decided, as a German speaker, to run this blog in English so I could extend my audience and get feedback from people in different countries). Anglicisation also doesn’t necessarily mean taking over local cultures – in every culture at any given time there have been outside influences that these cultures adapt to. Yet, there seems to be a tendency for English to become globally accepted as “bridging culture” for elites and therefore becoming a hindrance for cultural exchange outside the anglo-saxon world.


One Response

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  1. Quite frankly I think that the anglicisation of Dutch Universities is disgusting.

    I live in London and if anyone says to me “everyone speaks English” my answer is “Listen and look around you”. If people in London do not speak English then the whole question of a global language is completely open.

    The promulgation of English as the World’s “lingua franca” is unethical and linguistically undemocratic. I say this as a native English speaker!

    Unethical because communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is how English is used internationally at the moment.

    Undemocratic because minority languages are under attack worldwide due to the encroachment of majority ethnic languages. Even Mandarin Chinese is attempting to dominate as well. The long-term solution must be found and a non-national language, which places all ethnic languages on an equal footing is long overdue, An interesting video can be seen at Professor Piron was a former translator with the United Nations

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

    Brian Barker

    March 26, 2009 at 3:33 pm

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