Universities struggle with internationals in co-determination

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The discussion on whether Utrecht University’s University Council should hold its meetings in English or not, has officially started, now there’s an employee running for a seat who doesn’t speak Dutch. Other universities already have some experience with international council members, DUB’s own research shows. It’s often a tricky discussion.

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In the upcoming elections for the University Council, Federico d’Ambrosio from Italy is number two on the list of the Utrecht PhD Party. There are several Chinese PhD candidates on the list as well. Reason enough for the University Council to ask the Executive Board what this could mean for the future. Meetings are currently held in Dutch, and almost all documents are only provided in Dutch.

The president is pragmatic about the situation: “Tell me what you want, and we’ll take a look at it.”

Co-determination struggles with internationalisation. The universities are Dutch institutions, but the community is becoming more and more international. The university wants to be inclusive, but truly joining in is rather tricky. It would cost a lot of money, it would cause delays in the process, and bilingual discussions don’t always contribute to the quality of said discussion.

What solutions could there be? DUB studied how other universities deal with co-determination members who don’t speak Dutch. The twelve other universities we called, already have some experience with international employees or students in their councils. Nearly everywhere, satisfactory solutions were found, even if it caused some discussion in some places.

Meetings in English, or translating
The solution isn’t necessarily to hold all meetings in English. Only the university councils of Maastricht, Rotterdam, and Tilburg speak English during their meetings. But even at those universities, language is handled practically: if there’s a committee without internationals present, they debate in Dutch. In these councils, it’s a recurring topic to talk about in how far the English-spoken meetings are detrimental to the quality of the debate. Last year, a number of Tilburg council members voiced this worry explicitly.

At eight universities, the councils work with a translator. This can be an interpreter, a language buddy, or a language whisperer. The international can then follow the content of the meeting, and say their piece in English. The chairperson then summarises it. The international usually receives a response in English, but in Leiden, they stick to a board that communicates in Dutch. You can ask your questions in English, but the response will be in Dutch.

Experiences with translation services aren’t always positive. At several universities, internationals have stated they felt like they’re always a step behind, and aren’t full-fledged members of the council. At one university, the international student said they don’t need a translator: she knew just enough passive Dutch and preferred to listen to that instead of having a translator sit next to her. At the VU, the rector is the Indian scientist Vinod Subramaniam who learned Dutch to be able to follow the Dutch-spoken meetings. Still, in meetings, he sometimes switches to English.

Two languages in one meeting
At several universities, co-determination is handled differently. When the Law of modernisation of university governance (mub) was introduced, universities could choose to have either a university council, or a model with a works council and a student council. Wageningen and the University of Amsterdam chose this model. At these universities, the student councils are entirely in English, but the works council isn’t. The joint meetings of both councils aren’t fully held in English either. In Wageningen, the language used can change per meeting. It depends on the subject whether it’s discussed in Dutch or English. “The mixture of languages and when to speak which language, can be very confusing,” says Joost van Opheusden of the Wageningen University Council.

Several university councils provided language courses for their members – both for Dutch people to learn English and for internationals to understand Dutch. The experience in some councils is that there aren’t many who are interested in this, due to the time investment it requires.

Mandatory Dutch in regulations
Another question is whether all documents for the University Council meetings should be provided in English. If you want to be an international university, all the documents should really be accessible to international employees and students who don’t speak Dutch as well. On the other hand, the law states that ‘governing bodies should employ the Dutch language.’ There is a possible exception to the law, when another language is ‘more efficient and the interests of third parties aren’t disproportionately affected’. This means that no one at the university should be negatively affected if the documents are provided in English. It’s also mandatory to have all regulations (such as the student statutes, or the education and exam regulations) are at the very least available in Dutch as well.

Delay due to translations
This, too, varied between the universities we called. In Tilburg, Rotterdam, and Maastricht, all documents are, in principle, provided in English. In Enschede and Groningen, they’re all in two languages. The other universities call it a ‘tricky issue’. Translations can cause delays, and not all employees are capable of providing their documents in English. In practice, the universities vary by providing some pieces in English, and other documents in Dutch. The Dutch documents are usually accompanied by an English summary.

University

Language

Translators

Language documents

Maastricht

English

No

English

Tilburg

English

No

English

Rotterdam

English

No

English

Wageningen

Dutch/English

Simultan

Dutch/English

Delft

Dutch/ English

Language whisperer

Dutch

UvA

Dutch/English

Simultan

Dutch

Enschede

Dutch

Simultan

Bilingual

Eindhoven

Dutch

Simultan

English/Dutch

Nijmegen

Dutch

Simultan

Dutch

VU/Amsterdam

Dutch

Simultan

Dutch

Groningen

Dutch

Simultan

Bilingual

Leiden

Dutch

Language Buddy

Dutch

Utrecht

Dutch

No

Dutch

Dutch
In Utrecht, the question of ‘what to do when there’s an international candidate?’ was first pondered (in Dutch ed.) in 2017. Then, all elected candidates were Dutch speakers, so the discussion was put on hold.

Now, the discussion is once again relevant. University council president Fred Toppen says it’s a difficult issue. “If you were to hold your meetings entirely in English, it would be at the cost of the quality. But at the same time, you don’t want to exclude anyone.” He’s now asked all parties for their opinions, to see if they can work out a proposal.

Only experience in faculty councils
In the UU faculty councils, the language discussion has gone on for a little longer, and some measures have already been taken in some places. The most prominent example is the council of the Faculty of Science. Since this year, the meetings are held in English if there’s a member present who doesn’t have a high proficiency in Dutch. Dutch council members who struggle with English can say their piece in Dutch. The president then summarises what’s been said. The documents are in Dutch, because they presume the council members can all read Dutch. There’s budget available for language courses if necessary.

Italian PhD candidate Federico d’Ambrosio is the first non-Dutch-speaking council member at the Faculty of Science. He’s done a language course paid for by the faculty to at least be able to read the Dutch documents. He does feel like he could function well, and he felt welcome. Still, he’d like to see more faculty documents written in English, or that documents written in Dutch are at least accompanied by English summaries. The board struggles with this because of the additional costs this would imply. D’Ambrosio is now a council candidate for the Utrecht PhD Party.

There are also a few international council members at the faculty of Law, who only understand some written Dutch. The meetings are held in Dutch, but their input is allowed to be in English. You see that board members regularly respond in English to their question. The faculty of Humanities had one international student last year, who understood some Dutch. She made her remarks in English, but was answered in Dutch.

Passive understanding of Dutch
Other faculties don’t have any council members yet who don’t speak Dutch. Last year, Geosciences actively tried to recruit members who at the very least understand some Dutch. The discussion is a recurring one in the council, partially because the faculty does offer study programmes in English and almost half of the employees are international. “To what extent are we excluding people if all documents are in Dutch?” Another council member’s response: “We’re not excluding them, we’re inviting them to learn Dutch.”

Social Sciences doesn’t have an international member of its council, but says it’ll take it seriously if it does happen. In the recruitment process for assessor, one of the requirements did say that the student has to have at least some level of proficiency in Dutch. Veterinary Medicine has the same requirement, and for now sticks to its meetings in Dutch. The same holds true for Medicine. At UCU, the main language is English, and all documents are also in English.

The universities choose a practical approach in which the gist is: English if necessary, Dutch when possible. Some universities focus more on English, while others choose to employ translators. Everywhere, however, the topic keeps coming back in discussions on what the best way to deal with this might be.

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