No action possible yet against English-language teaching, minister says

It was never the intention that so much teaching in higher education would be done in English, says Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf. But there is little he can do to change it right now, he explains to his critics.

Archive U-Today: Minister Dijkgraaf on a work visit at the UT.

By law, study programmes in higher education have to be given in Dutch, with a few exceptions. Those exceptions, however, seem ‘to be increasingly becoming the norm’, Minister Dijkgraaf writes in a letter to the House of Representatives.

There is disquiet in political circles over the internationalisation of higher education, partly because of the shortage of accommodation in the big cities: where are all those foreign students supposed to live and will there then be any room left for Dutch students? Many parties also fear that students’ command of the Dutch language is deteriorating.

The Minister is working on plans to better manage the influx of international students, but the House of Representatives is losing patience and wants him to do something now – about the excessive amount of English-taught study programmes, for instance. But what exactly?

MP Pieter Omtzigt tabled a motion asking for stricter enforcement of the law by the Inspectorate of Education. The motion got a lot of support in the House. Of the major parties, only Dijkgraaf’s party D66 voted against it.


But what is there to enforce? The Inspectorate is currently powerless, according to Dijkgraaf’s letter. The institutions are all complying with the prevailing law, he says. Even the Dutch-Flemish accreditation association NVAO can do nothing more than clarify the ‘rules’.

At most, the Minister can be stricter on new study programmes, which need to be ‘efficient’, otherwise they will not be allowed to start. And maybe they are not efficient if they are taught needlessly in English, Dijkgraaf reasons.

But he has no real desire to hastily change such rules now, in advance of the new laws and rules he is currently working on. He would prefer to make interim arrangements with administrators from the higher education institutions this summer about the language of instruction.


To stimulate meaningful deliberation by administrators, he outlines in five pages the background and intentions of the current law. The most eye-catching passage relates to fostering ‘communication skills in Dutch’.

The present law says that study programmes must foster the Dutch language skills of their Dutch students. But it is up to them to decide how they do this. They are not held accountable for it. There is no ‘obligation of result’.

It is important, however, Dijkgraaf stresses. ‘Good communication skills are not a by-product but an essential part of every study programme in higher education’, he explains. It can at any time be included in the quality assessment in higher education, he believes.


Previously, he shared his own plans for getting a grip on internationalisation. If it were up to him, foreign students would have to learn some Dutch. But there are more changes he has in mind, such as introducing a maximum number of students for English-language tracks in a study programme. The advantage of that is that programmes remain accessible to Dutch students and can no longer be overrun by students from other countries.

At the same time, he does not want to close the borders. Higher education institutions close to the German and Belgian border have, in his opinion, a ‘different position’. And he would also prefer not to throw up any obstacles for study programmes in the sectors experiencing a labour market shortage. Ultimately, he aspires to a form of ‘central control’ to manage the influx of international students.


But that is not what this letter is about. This letter seems to be mainly aimed at curbing the impatience of the House of Representatives. Omtzigt’s motion about enforcement of the law was adopted on 7 February; the Minister had to respond to it officially at some point. His letter strikes a balance between an update (this is what we are working on), a reflection (this was the intention) and a plea to administrators (be thorough).

He said in an address at Maastricht University last September that it has become a tradition to sound the alarm regarding internationalisation at the start of the academic year. However, he didn’t want to be rushed, ‘because clearly there are huge benefits for the labour market and for the quality of education’.

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