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Stricter language policy

MAASTRICHT. As of next September, lecturers will have to pass a test to prove that they are highly fluent (level C1) in the foreign language in which they teach. In addition, Dutch students can do a course in academic writing, in Dutch. These are a few elements that catch the eye in the new language policy. If this policy doesn't get off the ground, there are fears about “the [UM's] position in the national debate”. This is mainly about the ‘anglicisation’ of higher education.

A high level of language proficiency is expected of lecturers, but not the very highest. Besides C1, there is also C2, which is approximately equal to that of a native speaker at an academic level. Nonetheless, C1 is also classed as ‘highly advanced’. The levels are part of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. With its C1 requirement, the UM complies with a national guideline. A recent language memorandum – which is passing through all kinds of bodies these months and will most likely get some detailed adaptations – states that the UM already introduced this requirement back in 2013, but without ever checking compliance.

This is going to change now. All those who teach in another UM language (English or Dutch) than their native language, will have to prove their level of proficiency by passing a test. If the level is too low, they are given three years to improve.

In a discussion, the University Council concluded that this period of time was found to be rather long. UM President Martin Paul made a subtle distinction: “Three years applies mainly to new lecturers. Staff who already work here, will be expected to do it faster.” Nevertheless, this is not stated explicitly in the memorandum.

Why was the level C1 not simply set as an entry requirement, student member Jurgen van Heertum (Novum) subsequently wanted to know? Paul: “There have to be exceptional reasons to deviate from it. But you do have to give people time. If such an entry requirement had applied in 2008, when I came from Berlin to become dean at FHML, I would never have been appointed.”

There is one sanction: those who fail to reach C1level within three years, will only be allowed to teach in his or her native language, provided this is either English or Dutch. This can become difficult in those faculties where that choice hardly exists, such as the almost completely English SBE.

Support staff who come in contact with students, in principle need to comply with the lower level of B1. At that level, one must be able to understand texts that are not too complicated. A higher level can be required for certain positions. It is unclear whether there is a formal obligation, but the Gedragscode Voertaal van de UM (UM Code of Conduct concerning the Official Language Used), attached to the language memorandum, states that an employee “should have a language proficiency suited to the tasks”. So, it is compulsory after all.

Students are expected to have a language proficiency at pre-university level (VWO). That can be a problem sometimes, certainly also when it comes to Dutch. There have been complaints about this at the national political level and also within the VSNU framework. From now on, the UM will provide courses in Dutch academic writing. A trial will start in the next academic year for first-year bachelor's and master's students, who will pay 190 euro for the course.

Another striking fact in the memorandum is the paragraph that is now compulsory for all policy proposals, outlining the risk that would be incurred if the policy were introduced or rejected. The paragraph says: If the following measures to guarantee the C1 language requirement for teaching staff and for the improvement of the Dutch language skills of Dutch students were not introduced, this could pose a risk for the position in the national debate.

This debate is mainly about the question whether or not ‘anglicisation’ is advancing too much in the academic world. The UM, as a university with a majority of programmes in English and a majority of foreign students, is regularly in the spotlights. There are Members of Parliament who feel that the UM has gone too far with this. 

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