Public Institutions Fear Ramifications of Dutch Language Policy

Public Institutions Fear Ramifications of Dutch Language Policy
Pictured: The Tweede Kamer in The Hague, Netherlands.

Wittenborg's competition will be largely decimated

Dutch state schools are struggling to prepare for the anticipated language policy of Dutch Minister of Educatie, Cultuur en Wetenschaap (Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, OCW) Robbert Dijkgraaf by various members of the Tweede Kamer (House of Representatives). While the policy has not been fully elaborated and no binding measures have been passed, some schools fear an unnuanced policy could have unintended consequences for higher education in the Netherlands. From risking their places on international higher education rankings to jeopardising the education and development of foreign students, the umbrella organisation Universiteiten van Nederland (Universities of the Netherlands, UNL) is voicing opposition to legally binding language standards for Dutch schools. Following a more-than-700-page Wet Open Overheid (Open Government Law, WOO) information request, UNL calls for schools to be able to implement strategies to their particular discretion and to avoid difficulties such as having to change their entire programmes into Dutch, prepare students for such a transition and figuring out how to fill teaching positions with Dutch speakers who possess suitable qualifications. Certain universities would like to select students based on "nationality or quality” rather than convert their programmes to Dutch, but what this means has yet to be elaborated. The Vereniging Hogescholen (Association of Universities of Applied Sciences, VH) has not expressed a strong position on anglicisation; the organisation simply wants room for schools to customise their approach. Schools appear to prefer having both Dutch and English programmes, rather than using Dutch as a sole or primary language of instruction, for reasons of accessibility and quality assurance.

Currently, Dutch students often choose English-taught programmes to improve their English, which is used as a lingua franca in many global industries and fields. Despite this, they don't actually show much interest in connecting with their non-Dutch peers, indicating more is needed beyond language to bridge the gap for Dutch people and internationals who want to integrate into society and help protect local culture. The interest of Dutch students in English-language programmes combined with the influx of international students has led to a decline in Dutch-language programmes and has made Dutch fall out of favour as a language of science in the Netherlands. Further, programmes specialising in Dutch language and literature have begun to disappear, and fewer scientific books and journal articles are being published in Dutch. The language policy is also meant to address overcrowding at Dutch institutions.

The Tweede Kamer would prefer a policy which allows schools to offer bachelor's programmes in English in exceptional cases. Through the WOO request, it has been revealed that schools fear a limit on the number of English-taught programmes might negatively affect the accessibility of higher education for native Dutch students. If this occurs, Dutch students may have to study abroad more often in order to pursue their study of choice as the range of programmes offered at Dutch public schools would likely become narrower due to an essential slashing of the number of teaching staff trained in a field who also speak Dutch at university level. As the cost-of-living crisis continues amid inflation, studying abroad is not necessarily economically feasible for every young Dutch person to do without any structural programme in place to facilitate it. This could mean that some students may not get to follow their programmes of choice or forgo studying at all, and certain niche sectors or industries which draw upon foreign talent in the Netherlands would encounter an even greater shortage of skilled personnel. Additionally, there are questions regarding the legality of introducing more programmes taught in Dutch, which, if done to limit the capacity for internationals, could contradict European law. This could only be done if it can be demonstrably used to protect Dutch as a language of science. For example, such a change is permissible if it encourages researchers to publish more articles and books in Dutch, or to hold scientific debates in Dutch more often to forge stronger ties between the academic or scientific world and Dutch society at large. Otherwise, it could be interpreted as discrimination if such changes are simply meant to keep internationals out.

On 15 June, the Tweede Kamer held a highly anticipated debate about limiting the influx of international students. During the debate, Dijkgraaf announced he is drafting legislation which will mean that, as of the academic year 2025-2026, a maximum of one third of the content of most bachelor's programmes at Dutch public schools may be taught in a language other than Dutch. There will only be exceptions where non-Dutch programmes can prove their usefulness to local society. The legislation is expected to be complete by the end of summer 2023. The Tweede Kamer largely supported Dijkgraaf's plans but is highly sceptical they will be implemented by the forestated time period. Dijkgraaf would also like to compel foreign students following a non-Dutch language programme to take Dutch courses to improve their language skills. He is, however, against forcing all programmes to be in Dutch and describes seeking balance in his policy. In the past, the OCW has implored umbrella organisations in public higher education to reach agreements themselves regarding recruitment and programme design which respond to actual labour market concerns. This has largely been to no avail. Now, amidst a nation-wide personnel shortage, schools are leveraging labour market concerns as a reason to keep teaching in English. In certain regions there is a pressing need to for skilled workers in specific industries, which some institutions argue could be helped by creating tailor-made English-language courses in the area.

Finding the root of the cause

The extent of the decline of Dutch language skills in native students has exposed itself in interviews on internationalisation conducted by the Nederlandse School voor Openbaar Bestuur (Dutch School of Public Administration, NSOB). In a series of interviews with higher education professionals and other members of the education industry, it was found that a significant portion of students arriving did not have satisfactory language skills. One participant claimed that three-quarters of the students at their institution do not meet the Dutch-language requirements, with writing skills being a specific area of concern. For example, many Dutch university students make basic grammar mistakes, the NSOB's interviews found. It is argued that anglicisation exacerbates this by not providing enough opportunities to practise writing in academic Dutch, and limits Dutch students’ access to higher education as they find it hard to compete with international talent in English-language programmes. Yet, there are questions over whether converting English-taught programmes into Dutch equivalents would drive down the quality of the programme, harming Dutch schools’ places on international ranking lists.

Dutch primary and secondary school students especially from poorer families continue to display a declining ability to pass Dutch courses – perhaps related to the ongoing teaching shortage. It may be argued that a focus on higher education might miss the root cause behind the decline of the Dutch language. According to the Dutch Education Inspectorate, many students graduate without the ability to comprehend a letter from the government or understand a standard news report. The Dutch public education system requires students to take three core courses: Dutch, English and Maths. Students who receive unsatisfactory marks in one of these core courses simply have to receive high marks in the other two. This means that, currently, a student who receives low marks in Dutch but high marks in English and Maths is permitted to graduate, meaning Dutch is not always prioritised for students. Around one fifth of secondary school students graduate with sub-par marks in Dutch.

The government has proposed imposing stricter rules on Duch language skills for primary and secondary school students. However, without fixing the teaching shortage it is not clear how this proposed policy would hinder the academic and professional trajectory of students with foreign backgrounds or students with many foreign classmates in regions seriously affected by personnel shortages. At present, 65% of Dutch primary schools located outside large cities are experiencing labour shortages. For larger cities, this number skyrockets to 90%. Therefore, there are calls within Dutch society and the public education sector for the government to make teaching at primary and secondary schools more attractive. At present, most stagiairs (interns) in the education sector work for free, which might not encourage them to stay in the job after completing their contract. This could be changed with mandatory compensation for interns in the Dutch education sector. Additionally, schools must ensure that those who already dedicate their time to educating the children who will eventually enter higher education receive fairer pay.

WUP 22/06/2023
by Olivia Nelson
©WUAS Press