Research summary: English-medium instruction at a Dutch university

Wilkinson, R. (2013). English-medium instruction at a Dutch university: Challenges and pitfalls. In Doiz, A., Lasagabaster, D. & Sierra, J.M.  English-Medium Instruction at Universities: Global Challenges. Multilingual Matters, pp. 3-26.

Aim: Is the trend toward English-medium instruction (EMI) programmes at universities good, and if so, who benefits? Are there ‘losers’ of this trend, and if so, what are they losing? What are the advantages and disadvantages of EMI?

Data & methods: Historical narrative and analysis of the introduction of EMI at Maastricht University; author as eyewitness and ‘key player in the events’.

Results:

  • EMI was first introduced at Maastricht University in the mid-1980s in the form of an International Management track within the Economics curriculum; today the School of Business and Economics teaches entirely in EMI, and other faculties have partly followed suit.
  • The motives for introducing EMI at Maastricht fall into five phases of development. In the initial phase from 1987 the motives were mainly practical (to profit from Maastricht’s location at the border with Belgium and Germany) and idealist (to promote multilingualism: the early programmes included French and German as well as English components). Another idealist motive in the 90s was to promote internationalisation-at-home (where local students learn alongside international ones). Since then idealist motives have been replaced by more practical/financial/survival motives: to recruit international students (first from elsewhere in Europe, later from non-EU countries, as they bring in more money), to profile the university as international and bilingual, to save money (as parallel language programmes are too expensive, English-only variants are chosen) and to improve the university’s position on ranking lists.
  • Individual universities are not likely to be particularly attentive to domain loss, an issue of national concern, if EMI programmes bring in revenue. ‘It is doubtful if domain loss played any role’ in Maastricht’s decision-making processes. Its EMI programmes ‘are deemed successful in that they have led to increased recruitment’.
  • Student-centred approaches like Problem-Based Learning may facilitate learning in ENI because students need to use a lot of metalanguage, problems can be formulated such that they focus on both knowledge and language development, and ‘there is limited reliance on staff language ability’. That said, students’ language competences may fossilise ‘if everyone around them is using the same variety’.

Conclusions: ‘Even if the EMI curricula are well designed, even if there is good collaboration between content staff and language staff, resulting in generally good quality of the programmes, issues still arise concerning the economic, social and political desirability of EMI in higher education’. Specifically, institutions need to be aware of divisions that can arise due to EMI. For example, graduates will be part of an elite group in society; also, there may be divisions between international and Dutch students. (In Maastricht, cars with German number plates have been vandalised for taking locals’ parking spots.) Institutions should take steps to counterbalance any divisions they are contributing to. They need to take account of national issues and sentiments regarding immigration and culture. It is national governments that have created a context that incentivises EMI, but at the same time institutions have to ‘adapt to the ebb and flow of politics’ and ‘cannot afford to become too divorced from their national base’.

Reader tips: Which paper on English in Dutch higher education should I summarise next? Leave a comment!

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