Internationalization involves more than changing the language

Erasmus School of Economics

Now and again, commentators complain about the unstoppable advance of the English language in Dutch higher education. They claim that this development has an adverse effect on the quality of education and call upon Dutch scientists to uphold their mother tongue.

It is easy to caricature the increased use of the English language at Dutch universities. It is indeed odd when Dutch students and instructors communicate with each other in Dunglish. And it goes without saying that the switch from the native language to English leads to a loss of information. Attending English lectures will also do little to increase the proficiency of Dutch students in their mother tongue. This is all true. Yet critics of internationalization forget that switching to English may also bring about real quality improvements. These are more likely to occur when a program succeeds in creating an international learning environment, in which the presence of international students and professors adds value to the program. The debate should therefore focus on the circumstances in which internationalization will bring about an improvement in the quality of education. In other words, when do the benefits of switching to English outweigh the costs?

Any answer to this question starts from the observation that English is the lingua franca of science. A straightforward implication is that for most branches of sciences, with few exceptions such as Dutch law, most literature is available in English only. Required readings at universities have internationalized long ago. The benefits clearly outweigh the potential loss of information that occurs when a Dutch student needs to read an English paper.

A second implication is that every ambitious young scientist will invest in reading and writing in the English language. These are essential skills if you want to participate in the scientific discourse. Colorful Dutch will not get you very far. Scientists also prefer to be part of a strong research group, members of which preferably are recruited in the international job market. Recruiting academic staff from the larger international talent pool makes sense if a university wants to increase the quality of its research, but this policy also has implications for education. Foreign scientists cannot easily teach in Dutch-language programs. As the composition of the academic staff gets more international, the internationalization of the educational programmes becomes more obvious.

Let me now turn to the demand for higher education in the English language. One of the reasons why foreign students choose to study in the Netherlands is that Dutch universities offer value for money. Tuition fees for Dutch programs are much cheaper than for top universities in Anglo-Saxon countries, while the quality of Dutch education in general is higher than in the rest of continental Europe. Foreign students can have a strong positive effect on the quality of education. By coming to the Netherlands, foreign students make a huge investment which they do not want to turn sour. In general, foreign students work harder, are more motivated and more demanding than their Dutch fellow-students. When bachelor programs are offered in both an international and a Dutch stream, as at Erasmus School of Economics, the international group scores higher grades. Professors like to teach an international class and many ambitious Dutch student prefer to study in an international learning environment. Not just because of the superior study atmosphere, but also because the cultural diversity of an international classroom enriches the student. In short, the quality of education can thrive on the presence of international students.

Changing the language of instruction is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for successful internationalization in higher education. The latter also requires the presence of international staff and students. In that case, the benefits clearly outweigh the drawback that teachers and students cannot communicate in their native language.


Ivo Arnold  is Vice Dean and also a professor of Economic Education at Erasmus School of Economics. This chair focuses on strengthening the educational services offered by Erasmus School of Economics with regard to content, processes and teaching skills, which ties in with Erasmus University Rotterdam’s continual effort to develop and optimize educational leadership. Ivo Arnold is also a professor of Monetary Economics at Nyenrode Business University.

This EconomieOpinie resently appeared in the Backbone, the corporate magazine of Erasmus School of Economics. 

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