Interview with Bob Wilkinson: ‘There is no need for Dutch universities to go down the road of English-medium instruction’

In this series I interview people about their views on and experiences with language(s) in Dutch higher education. Click here for more

Bob Wilkinson worked at Maastricht University for over 30 years. He has been involved in setting up English-medium study programmes since their inception in the Netherlands in the 1980s. He has published widely on issues surrounding bilingual higher education in the Netherlands.

‘When it comes to the effects of English-medium instruction in Dutch universities, we know that it tends to lead to equivalent achievement results in the content compared with students who are studying in Dutch. A recent study in Spain has shown similar outcomes in business disciplines.

‘However, there are a lot of caveats. It is almost impossible to have two equivalent student groups to make the comparison, thus you end up comparing apples and pears. And English-medium programmes attract students from other countries to an extent that programmes in Dutch do not. Further, research has consistently shown that in Dutch-medium programmes where a few courses are in English, the content achievement in the courses in English is less that it would have been if the course had been in Dutch.

‘The students usually perceive improvements in their own English, as one would expect. However, again there are caveats. In my experience, some students say they do not improve and that their English was better when they were at school. This may reflect a comparison between what they hoped for and what they have achieved. Small improvements, like discipline-specific vocabulary, can often go unnoticed.

‘I’d say the level of English used in these programmes is quite variable, depending on the quality of all participants. Students can become fiercely critical if a lecturer’s pronunciation contains some “oddities”. But the criticism tends to decrease once students have got used to it. Particularly newcomers to English-medium instruction (first-year students, etc.) can be very critical if they believe their own pronunciation, and their English generally, to be good. Sometimes the criticism masks their own insecurity. Again, the criticism declines with time.

‘Where there are more participants with a wide range of first languages, then criticism tends to be muted. Participants are willing to accept a diversity of accents and pronunciations, even to the extent that native speakers of English (especially British) are perceived as more difficult to understand. This is caused by idiomatic language use, regional pronunciation and speed of speaking.

‘Under current policy, universities conceive of themselves as actors in a global market for higher education. Intrinsically, however, there is no need for Dutch universities to go down the road of English-medium instruction in order to cope with the pressures of globalization. Universities could be international through the medium of any language, including Dutch. Offering programmes in English is just a relatively easy and quick way of demonstrating internationalization.

‘‘It might make for a more interesting scenario in Dutch higher education if universities opted to engage in radically different strategic policies. At present the perception is one of relative similarity. However, radical change might require a different kind of funding system and a different accreditation system. Rankings should be abolished as they stimulate similarity.

‘How do I envisage the language situation at Dutch universities in fifty years? No idea! Fifty years is a long time to speculate. Fifty years ago, in 1968, not many people would have predicted the current university landscape. However, I don’t think Dutch as an academic and scholarly language is totally threatened. Dutch will survive in all domains that have direct relevance to social life, including business and technology.

‘Moreover, I expect technology will actually promote the use of one’s preferred language for learning much more easily than at present. I expect students will be able to access academic literature from a wide range of languages and read it immediately in relatively good real-time translations in their own language. Language technologies will almost certainly allow students to function relatively effectively in multilingual groups even if there is no single common language. The current tendency to use, in Philippe Van Parijs’s terms, “the least worst common language”, i.e. English, could well be history.

‘On the whole, English-medium instruction probably assists the Dutch economy, but that said, Dutch business has always been ready to use whatever language is required. I don’t think much has changed in this respect, except for a decline in the knowledge of other languages than English. This is a great pity. But redressing that issue will take decades.

‘Whether English-medium instruction benefits Dutch society as a whole is more debatable. Frequently I encounter people who are concerned at the gulf between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. I have friends among the have-nots who do not perceive any benefit personally from the local university teaching mainly in English and thus attracting many foreign students. They complain they can’t even use Dutch in some of the shops in the city centre because the staff are foreign students. This kind of encounter creates a negative feeling towards the university.

‘There is a risk in offering more in English that universities appeal to an even more selective group of students, many from outside the Netherlands, thus engendering a new elite. Of course it is certainly not wrong for a university to attract foreign students. Au contraire! Universities should be doing this, otherwise they may not be worthy of the name “university”. But they would do well to pay more attention to the social impact of such policies and not just the economic and labour market effects. Making sure all members of the academy are aware of the social impact would be a good step. Ensuring that all members acquire at least a fundamental knowledge of Dutch would help too.

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