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To teach or  not to teach  in English?

The debate over whether to teach in English or Dutch is not new. With more programmes transitioning to English, arguments both for and against anglicising continue at TU Delft as well as around the Netherlands.

And although to some it may seem black and white, a closer look reveals a complicated story on both sides of the issue.

There is no question that TU Delft is becoming more international each year. About a third of the master‘s students in the 2015-16 academic year were non-Dutch while less than 7% of bachelor's students were. That is mostly attributed to the fact that at TU Delft, all master's level courses are taught in English. However, out of 16 bachelor’s programmes, only two, Aerospace Engineering and Applied Earth Sciences, are currently offered in English. A third, Nanobiology, offers most classes in English and will make the full transition beginning in the 2016-17 academic year.

That number is low when compared to other Dutch technical universities. For example, eight out of 13 programmes at the University of Twente are in English. And at TU Eindhoven eight out of 15 bachelor's programmes are in English, with plans for nearly all to transition in 2017.

Decision makingThis trend is particularly interesting given the position of the Dutch government. Minister of Education, Culture and Science, Dr. Jet Bussemaker, has consistently held the view that English-language programmes should not be at the expense of the quality of education. In fact, she recently said in a Radio 1 interview that it is important that Dutch remains the language of higher education. And the Hoger Onderwijs en Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (Law on Higher Education and Research Act), which provides the legal framework within which TU Delft operates, states in article 7.2 that all education should be in Dutch, except for three specific reasons: when it is a study in a foreign language; when guest lectures are given by foreigners; or when the nature or the quality of the education or the origin of the students makes another language necessary. The university and furthermore, each faculty, has the right to decide whether or not they fall under one of these exceptions and can offer programmes in English. But why should a Dutch university teach in English?

From the university‘s perspective, there are advantages to internationalisation. The TU Delft mission includes being recognised as "world class" and the vision includes "attracting the world’s best scientists and most gifted students". In order to achieve that, offering more English medium programmes seems inevitable as English is the lingua franca in most parts of the world, especially in the field of science.

And global competition for the best students is on the rise, so in order to maintain rankings and reputation it is more important than ever to ensure that TU Delft graduates receive a high quality education that prepares them for an increasingly international job market.

Proficiency challengesDespite the advantages, transitioning to English-language teaching offers some significant challenges. One of the most difficult issues is ensuring the quality of education through language proficiency.

According to a survey conducted in 2015 by the Landelijke Studentenvakbond (LSVb), the Dutch national student union, 57% of Dutch students find the level of English-language teaching to be substandard, even to the point of impeding their studies. In February 2015, TU Delft student association ORAS polled over 1,500 Dutch bachelor‘s students at TU Delft about English. They found that 32.5% of respondents said they have trouble following lectures because of the low quality of English skills of the teacher. But it’s not just a matter of the teachers. In the ORAS survey, 21% of the students surveyed also admitted that they struggle with assignments or writing papers because of a lack in their own English skills, while nearly 12% struggle with lectures.

There are ongoing efforts to address language proficiency at TU Delft. The current policy requires all staff teaching in English to have a minimum level of C1 as gauged by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. But it seems that implementing such a policy is much more difficult than writing it. New staff are assessed upon appointment and if they don‘t qualify, have three years to reach the C1 level. "It's the responsibility of the deans to motivate teachers to follow up with improving," said Julia van der Ven, Chair of Lijst Beta and Secretary of the Student Council. "But it seems not everyone is following through." Van der Ven, who is studying applied physics, pointed out that in discussions with the Ondernemingsraad, the body that represents TU Delft staff members, it was mentioned that often lecturers may want to improve their English skills, but don’t have the time. The work load for professors can be heavy and language may not be a priority.

UnderstandingIn relation to proficiency, comprehension of spoken English also seems to be an issue. Last year, in a meeting with the Studentenraad (SR), or Student Council, TU Delft‘s Vice President for Education and Operations Anka Mulder went on the record as saying steenkolengels (charcoal English, a slang term for poor English) from lecturers is acceptable. In response, the SR wrote an advisory letter to the Executive Board asking for some minimum requirements for faculties wanting to transition to English. "Our motivation is to help improve teaching and there hasn't been enough focus on the issue," said Loulou Zaat, Vice President for ORAS and a member of the Student Council. When asked about her statement, Dr. Mulder replied, "Of course it’s important that people understand teachers. We recognize that we have to work on improving the level of English, coaching, training, giving people time to improve their English. But everyone who is not a native speaker has an accent, no matter where you come from and we should allow for that."

And there may be more than just the language proficiency of lecturers at the root of the issue. Dr. Renate Klaassen, a consultant with Educational Centre Focus (OC Focus) at TU Delft, said that in 2007, in response to complaints about language, TU Delft undertook the major task of assessing 1,300 lecturers. This process led to some surprising discoveries.

"The assumption is that younger people would be better at speaking English, but we found the opposite," said Dr. Klaassen. "The higher up the ladder the better your English is likely to be." She also said that students may often ascribe a lack of quality to language proficiency skills, but their assessments revealed that being proficient in English is not a ticket to good teaching. "If your teaching skills are not good enough, then language doesn't really matter," said Dr. Klaassen. In relation to this, Dr. Mulder said the administration will focus more on ensuring teaching qualifications, stating, "We agreed with the SR and the deans that this will be a priority this year."

There are also arguments that all-English academic programmes may lead to a sort of cultural loss. MaartenJan Hoekstra, researcher and teacher in the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environmnet (BK), argues that not all faculties should abandon Dutch. "While I am in favour of specific bachelor courses taught in English, based on content or later in the curriculum, I indeed am having some strong doubts on bachelors completely taught in English," he said. Hoekstra explained that the majority of BK graduates work within Dutch society with other contributors to the built environment that all speak Dutch, and therefore it is the responsibility of the faculty to protect this Dutch communication for pragmatic societal reasons. In addition, he said, "Architecture and the Built Environment as a field of study in Delft and as a practice in the Netherlands both have a long and famous tradition and a specific Dutch cultural dimension which will cease to develop if the bachelor will be completely taught in English." In relation to this notion, Dr. Klaassen noted, "I think Dutch people feel that they are selling out a body of knowledge and longstanding traditions. But it's important to remember you may lose something, but you may also gain something."

Road AheadIn contrast, Dr. Mulder pointed out that although some faculties won't likely change soon, with some programmes there is a greater need to teach in English. For example, she noted that in fields like computer engineering or electrical engineering, the area of work that students enter after graduation is highly international. And despite the challenges of switching to English, the path ahead for TU Delft most certainly leads that direction. "I think it is the case that say 10 to 15 years from now perhaps not all, but most of our programmes will be in English," said Dr. Mulder. "English is the new Latin."

Amidst all of the arguments, one thing is clear: the conversation about more English language programmes at TU Delft is far from over. And in the end it seems that the parties involved may not be so far apart. "We all want the same thing," said Zaat, "but how do we get there? The focus has to be stronger on this topic." In agreement, Van der Ven stated, "From a Student Council perspective, we see the benefits of internationalisation, but you need a roadmap. Think about what's needed to make the transition to English so you can make a well-educated decision."

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