Thursday 09 July 2020

The Anglicisation of higher education in the Netherlands is typically Dutch

The use of English in higher education in the Netherlands is typical of the Dutch outward-looking attitude, say D66 MP Jan Paternotte, and former D66 senator and University of Amsterdam professor Alexander Rinnooy Kan.

The Anglicisation of Dutch education is a hot potato that still refuses to cool down. A decade ago University of Groningen professor Auke van der Would warned the Netherlands would become a ‘second rate language’ and in 1993 Tom McArthur used the term ‘Scotlandisation’ and ‘Irlelandisation’ to describe the fate of the Dutch language as an endangered species.

When the then-education minister Jo Ritzen promoted the use of English in education in 1989 he was booed off the stage: English-language lectures would seriously harm Dutch culture, opponents claimed.

Long before this, the national bugbear was French, the preferred language of the European elite. And long before that, Spinoza was asked if instead of in Latin he could publish his Ethica in Dutch.

This ongoing discussion about the language of science is rooted in the outward-looking attitude which so typifies the Netherlands. Amsterdam developed into an international centre for science, art and culture in the 17th century where growth and innovation automatically meant multilingualism, a necessity for trade and the exchange of ideas.

Small country

That strength is still being demonstrated today. The Netherlands remains a strong trading partner and its universities are performing well above what might be expected from such a small country.

Dutch higher education has been attracting many international students, lecturers and researchers over the past few decades. Internationalisation is progressing apace. The fact that the Dutch are, in general, proficient in English makes them attractive partners.

Not everything needs to be in English, of course. To demand an essay on Dutch national poet Joost van den Vondel be written in English is ridiculous. The Dutch language and culture are more than worthy of a staunch defence but is it really such a problem if the Netherlands, thanks to its English-language education, is attracting students from across the world?

Many political parties seem to think so. The SP thinks Dutch should be the language of science in this country and that international students are a burden on the state. VVD MP Dennis Wiersma told newspaper NRC that ‘clever Asian students come here to pilfer our knowledge’ and wondered what good to us are ‘German-language psychology students’ or ‘law students from China’.


But those who are saying that internationalisation is inherently bad or only acceptable under limited circumstances are selling the Netherlands short. For starters, students from outside the EU are paying much higher university fees and that makes them profitable.

According to CBS figures from September this year, the average student from outside the European economic area brings in between €67,000 and €94,000, compared to European students who are good for between €5,000 and €17,000. So much for being a burden on the state.

The Netherlands comes second after the UK in being the most successful applicant in the Horizon European science grants programme. This means it receives much more than it puts in, thanks to the quality of its internationally-oriented research projects. The Dutch labour market, too, profits and not just because of IT and technology students.

The university of Maastricht, for instance, offers an exclusive forensic psychology Master’s degree. It has not been in existence long but has already produced a Chinese student who is now working in  Dutch addiction care. Ambitious international students are an asset to the economy and our culture.


But perhaps more importantly, it is simply worth it to tell the Dutch story. This is the country of the Peace Palace and the International Court, the first country to welcome same-sex marriages and the country in which the Maastricht Treaty cemented a unique international alliance in 1992.

Are Chinese law students of any use to us? Of course they are. Those who love Dutch values such as freedom and sustainability will benefit from a country which can share its ideas and inspire the world. Whether it’s the ‘Dutch approach’ at peace missions, sun-powered cars from Delft or the Dutch Humanities, social and behavioural sciences, it would be wonderful if lots of clever Chinese students came here to study.

The Dutch story asks for continual innovation and needs to be influenced by knowledge and ideas from other countries. At the same time, the Dutch language has to be given the ample space it deserves. But let’s keep our borders wide open to all those curious talented people who, using a common world language, engage in discovering and enriching science in this country. That is, after all, a wonderful Dutch tradition as well.

This article was published earlier in the NRC

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