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New policy: foreign staff with permanent contract must learn Dutch

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News items, policy papers, official university e-mails, classes, small talk. Communication at Utrecht University is becoming more and more bilingual. For the past two years, the university has been formulating a new language policy to define when Dutch should be the standard, and when English should be used. According to this policy, study programmes must express their position on this topic and international staff with a permanent contract must learn Dutch.

Read in Dutch

Although the new language policy is in line with the current state of UU's education, it does give each study programme some work to do, as they need to justify why their language of instruction is English, Dutch, or a combination of the two. After all, soon UU is not only going to have programmes taught in Dutch and programmes taught in English, but also programmes in Dutch with up to a third of the content ministered in English and programmes in English with up to a third of the content ministered in Dutch. 

This push toward a new language policy basically stems from a parliamentary request. Dutch universities have been teaching more and more programmes in English, leading some politicians to fear that Dutch might one day disappear as an academic language. In addition, members of parliament suspect that universities are planning to increase the number of English-taught programmes to attract more international students. The more students a university has, the more money they receive from the government. But the Dutch parliament would also like to prevent international students from crowding certain programmes at the expense of Dutch students. Following a parliamentary request, the Dutch Minister of Education, Culture & Science, Ingrid van Engelshoven, introduced a draft bill titled Language & Accessibility to regulate the influx of international students (you can read the draft bill in Dutch here).

The bill was ratified in December 2019 and is now awaiting to be examined by the Senate. In the meantime, UU decided to go ahead and start renewing its language policy, for which it appointed a commission chaired by Professor Peter Schrijver. The commission continued working even after the spring of 2021, when senators decided to wait for the formation of a new government to verify the draft bill. That's why UU already has a draft for its language policy plan.

Criteria
Peter Schrijver, a professor of Historical Linguistics and, until 2020, Dean of Education at the Faculty of Humanities, recently presented the draft plan to the University Council. The version presented will be expanded and then discussed again next spring. In the current document, which Schrijver says “isn’t particularly revolutionary”, the university anticipates the new law – a decision that comes with its risks, as UU assumes that the departments themselves will be allowed to choose their own criteria for the language of instruction used by each educational programme. If lawmakers decide to define those criteria instead, the commission will have to go back to the drawing board.

The draft version does not propose any criteria, but Schrijver says the next version will incorporate a few suggestions. At the end of day, when programmes are due to be evaluated, independent accreditation commission NVAO is the one who is going to specify the criteria, making sure they comply with the law. Merely saying ‘because there are international students’ is not going to suffice.

Although the draft bill postulates that programmes must have a good reason to minister their classes in English, UU is committed to its prior decision that all Master’s programs should be taught in that language (link in Dutch), as international research is more important at that level. However, Dutch-taught Master’s programmes are permitted as well, as long as it presents sound arguments to justify the choice to the Executive Board.

Most Bachelor’s programmes are taught in Dutch, but, once again, English is possible too provided that the programme comes up with good reasons to do so. A sound argument could be that students are being prepared for an international profession. The NVAO must also agree with this reasoning.

The language used in the lecture hall
For students and staff, this language policy does not really alter daily practice. Since UU positions itself as a bilingual institution, everyone is expected to get by in Dutch as well as English, although fluency in both is not necessary.

UU assumes that Dutch students are able to speak English on a pre-university level, and that their language skills shall improve throughout their Bachelor’s, making it possible for them to follow an English-taught Master’s. As for those following a Dutch-taught Bachelor’s programme, they are expected to master the Dutch at an academic level. The Dutch skills of a student enrolled in an English-taught programme do not have to comply with this demand. International students studying in English-taught programmes are not required to learn Dutch.

A permanent contract means you have to learn Dutch
Demands for teachers and support staff are more stringent. Dutch teachers must be fluent in English for their field in order to teach in this language. International colleagues who teach in Dutch must have full language proficiency in their field as well. These lecturers must pass an assessment to verify whether their skills are at the right level. If not, they must work on improving them. That shouldn't be much of a problem, however, as UU students have recently rated the English skills of the average UU lecturer with a four out of five.

Each international employee with a permanent contract (that excludes PhD candidates and postdocs) must learn Dutch. Dutch employees must master the English skills necessary for their work. How well they must speak English depends on the work they do, but the bottom line is that  UU employees should be able to understand and read both English and Dutch, enabling overall communication.

Luistertaal and courses
The official language of the meetings of service councils, faculty councils and the University Council will be Dutch, but everyone involved in co-determination bodies is expected to be able to understand and speak both Dutch and English. Switching to English altogether, like some University Council members have proposed, is off the table. “We assume that anyone actively participating in co-determination bodies has been here for a few years and speaks Dutch at a certain level”, says the draft plan. Councils will be allowed to speak English in their meetings when they have specific reasons for it, like an educational committee comprising international students and researchers.

The university will stimulate all employees and students to improve their language skills by offering them a series of Dutch and English courses. International students should have access to a free Dutch course until they are able to socialise in that language. Study programmes are expected to point students in the right direction. Dutch students looking to improve their skills in their mother tongue in order to reach an academic level will also have access to courses, though these may not be free.

Comments and concerns
The University Council has some comments and concerns about the execution of the language policy plan. Most of them were about the English skills of Dutch students. The council was doubtful about the level Dutch students start with, which may cause problems during discussions in an English-taught course within a Dutch-taught programme. Besides, some Dutch students might have such poor English skills that they might not be able to understand the lecturers.

Another comment concerned the willingness of international colleagues to learn Dutch “if their courses are taught in English anyway”. Council members also remarked that the ever-increasing use of English in the workplace might cause colleagues who don't speak English to feel excluded. Regarding co-determination bodies, the question was whether the use of interpreters would continue to be an option.

These questions will be certainly addressed once again, in the next meeting about the language policy.

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