The Minister for Education of the Netherlands, Ingrid van Engelshoven, plans to curb internationalisation in Dutch higher education. This concerns both efforts to attract students from abroad and the use of English as a language of instruction. Young Academy Leiden (YAL) is alarmed by this development, seen also in the wider context of the government’s plans to carry out substantial funding cuts from the humanities and social sciences. We fail to see how a ‘Dutch first’ approach to higher education could be a solution to any of the pressing problems the sector is facing.
Nobody intends to abolish Dutch as an official language of Dutch universities. At the same time, no one can deny that Dutch academics have thrived in internationalised environments for centuries. This includes some of the most famous Dutch scholars and alumni of Leiden University. For example, Grotius’ Mare Liberum and Spinoza’s Ethica, ordine geometrico demonstrata were published in Latin. Huygens published mostly in French and Latin. They thrived because of internationalisation, not in spite of it.
Rather than framing language policy as an ‘either/or’ choice between Dutch and English, YAL strongly believes in a more balanced and better calibrated approach along the following lines:
- YAL experiences Leiden University as an international study and research environment. This is something to be preserved and cherished. So is the principle of academic freedom, which we see increasingly under attack by attempts of government to interfere, including in financial, thematic, and linguistic terms.
- Attracting foreign students to the Netherlands should not be seen as a matter of quantity, i.e. as a way of maintaining a university’s ‘market share’. Instead, internationalisation should be seen first and foremost as a matter of quality. The Dutch higher education sector is a magnet for the best and brightest from around the world looking for cutting-edge, yet affordable education. This is a key asset of the Dutch knowledge economy. The integration of international staff and students improves our university research and education, also for Dutch students.
- The right balance between Dutch and English in higher education needs further adjustment. There should be a choice for students to follow a (majority) Dutch language Bachelor program in their chosen field where appropriate. It is important that Dutch students learn to communicate in both Dutch and English at a professional level. However, these skills should already be acquired in school as much as possible. Therefore, also from the point of view of higher education, it is crucial that the government invest in primary and secondary level education and provide better working conditions for teachers.
- A knee jerk reaction which pivots to a ‘Dutch first’ approach comes with considerable downsides. It will inhibit efforts to attract top foreign students as well as researchers and instructors. This will also deprive Dutch students from the benefits of learning from leading international scholars in their own country. Moreover, lack of exposure to English as an academic working language will hamper the ability of Dutch students to go abroad to pursue successful international careers, to communicate their findings at conferences, to interact and collaborate with colleagues from abroad, and to write fluently in English, a language in which their results can be read by a broader audience and can spread and be used by other colleagues. A ‘Dutch first academia’ threatens to create an isolated environment, holding back scientific progress.
- Rather than an ‘either/or approach’, novel ways of optimizing language policy need to be explored. For instance, it makes sense to have some themes, modules or tracks in Dutch, especially when these cater specifically to the Dutch labour market, but to have others, in particular research-oriented, graduate courses in English. This would allow students – both foreign and Dutch-speaking – to have the best of both worlds.
- We welcome plans to facilitate and financially support Dutch language courses for international students to help them integrate into Dutch society. However, this should be on a voluntary basis and attuned to the particular circumstances of students. For example, it is important to differentiate between foreign students who pursue their studies in the Netherlands for several years with the intention of entering the Dutch labor market and those who come to this country to complete a highly reputed, internationally oriented one-year Master’s program.
The Young Academy Leiden is greatly concerned about the recommendation in the Van Rijn report to reduce funding for the social sciences, humanities and medical sciences.
The Van Rijn report correctly identifies many of the concerning tendencies facing higher education, such as the increase in workload and a funding model that is excessively competitive. But the recommended reallocation of funding from the social sciences, humanities and medical sciences to the natural and technical sciences will have a devastating effect on the former fields, which are struggling themselves with excessive workload and increasing student numbers.
While the recommendation rightly responds to the problems that the natural and technical sciences currently face, the social sciences, humanities and medical sciences are dealing with similar issues. The work pressure is especially high in the humanities whereas the social sciences have the highest student to staff ratio (see figure 5 of the Van Rijn Report). The shortage of graduates from the medical sciences and social sciences is the second highest after the shortage from the natural and technical sciences (figure 6 of the Van Rijn Report). The recommended reallocation of funding can only worsen existing problems in these fields.
The Young Academy Leiden stands squarely behind the value of interdisciplinary research. The proposed reallocation of funds pits the different sciences against each other and runs counter to the spirit of interdisciplinary and collaborative research. We welcome increased investment in the natural and technical sciences, which is indeed much needed, but reject doing so at the expense of other fields. The solutions to the most pressing challenges facing humanity are beyond the reach of any one particular discipline.
We fear that the reallocation of funds will especially affect young scholars by increasing job insecurity in a pivotal phase of their careers. As Young Academy Leiden we are therefore very disappointed by the response of the Minister of Education and the coalition parties in parliament. We call on them to revise their position before the cuts take effect. We will campaign against these cuts and will ask other parties, colleagues and alumni to join us in this effort.