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The Netherlands: Spreek je Nederlands?

ACA has a track record in researching English-medium instruction. In the publications, from 2002, 2008 and 2014 (see ACA Newsletter-Education Europe, 2014), it charted the map of English-speaking programmes across the non-English-speaking  countries of Europe. Together with the Nordic countries, the Netherlands were always amongst the leaders of the pack, offering the biggest share of all programmes in English. Like elsewhere, the offer of English-taught programmes was highly controversial in the Netherlands. There were voices which found this inappropriate, fearing that Dutch would disappear as a lingua academica. Many observers, amongst them our own organisation, felt that after a decade or more of such offers, the teething problems had been overcome, foreign and Dutch students spoke and wrote decent English and teaching staff were competent in the language as well. The age of controversy and ideological confrontation appeared to be over. The second of the three ACA publications (2008) earlier mentioned therefore ended with the observation “normalcy, at last”. Perhaps this was premature. 

Like in other countries with a language not widely spoken on a global scale, the Netherlands ‘went English’ because this seemed to be the only way to attract non-Dutch-speaking students into the country. Until recently, countries fought with each other about the highest share of foreign students, which was seen as an indicator of the academic attractiveness – and thus quality – of a country. ‘Internationalisation’ was an (almost) uncontested value. Some Dutch universities, such as Maastricht, Twente and Groningen, taught almost exclusively in English at Master’s level, and increasingly at Bachelor level, too. Interestingly, the students that were thus attracted did not always come from the populous regions of the world, such as Asia, but from neighbouring Germany. A Bachelor in Psychology that Groningen started to offer in the 2000s, attracted 98 students in the first year, 97 of whom were German. 
In 2015, an association called Beter Onderwijs Nederland (Better Education Netherlands, or BON) asked in a declaration universities and colleges to comply with article 7.2 of the Dutch higher education act, which, in their view, demanded Dutch to be the language of instruction, with few well-justified exceptions. It also insisted that the Dutch taxpayer supported the education of foreigners, which was not its purpose. In 2017, a report of KNAW (The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences) also was skeptical about the drift to English. VSNU, the Association of Dutch Universities, issued a paper advocating to limit the number of English-taught courses in May 2018, amongst others in order to reduce the very high share of foreign students in the Netherlands. 

That much for the intellectual debate. Things culminated and became more palpable with a lawsuit of BON against the universities of Maastricht and Twente in July 2017, in order to enforce their interpretation of article 7.2. The court rejected the case of BON, but not because it found their case wholly unjustified. It just found that there was not enough evidence yet. So the saga is likely to continue.