Letschert: “Damage for UM and region if language plans go ahead”

Letschert: “Damage for UM and region if language plans go ahead”

President UM is very worried that the government will introduce a general language measure while not every university needs this

08-03-2023 · News

MAASTRICHT. Politicians in The Hague are burdening Maastricht University with a huge problem if Dutch is to be given a (too) dominant position in (most) bachelor’s programmes. This would jeopardise the role of the university – founded at the time to provide the province with a new impulse and a new future after the closure of the mines – as an economic driving force, says President of the Executive Board, Rianne Letschert.

Letschert is very worried that the government will introduce a general language measure while not every university needs this, and that this can cause the entire higher education system to falter. Or, if the University of Amsterdam cannot cope with the foreign students any longer, it is important that UvA is provided with instruments to solve that problem. But UM can handle that influx, Letschert argues. What is more, “Internationalisation is in our DNA, 60 per cent of our students and 30 per cent of our staff is from abroad, most faculties have a European or international profile. I can justify for all Maastricht bachelor’s programmes (24 in total, 18 in English, 3 in Dutch, 3 in both languages) why they have English as their official language. That is either because of the international labour market, as is the case for International Business or European Law, or because of their content, for example all the literature being in English.” Aside from that, but no less important: “We are part of the European Union, the EU wants to break down borders, but we would be building them up again.”

Parliament

Then, in a reaction to remarks in Parliament that universities were only out for more students in their anglicisation of education: “Our aim is not to attract as many students as possible. We do not have an aggressive ambition to grow. We especially want targeted growth in our partner cities Venlo and Heerlen, and we are doing that also upon request from those municipalities. We certainly don’t have ambitious plans to grow in Maastricht.”

But in the nineteen-nineties, when internationalisation started, student recruitment was indeed an important motive. Letschert: “That was logical at the time in the development of UM, which was and is international 'by nature’, if only because of our geographical position.”

Explosive growth

What have the discussions in The Hague been all about so far? Lecture halls bursting at the seams, sky-high work pressure, shortage of (affordable) student accommodation and the displacement of Dutch students. But, Letschert says, “Until now, I have not seen any scientific evidence of this displacement”.

The explosive growth of the number of foreign students in higher education needs to be curtailed, is Parliament’s opinion. The limit has been reached and that is why the Ministry of Education is considering measures to ensure a controlled influx. Regional differences are possible, minister Dijkgraaf said earlier. Whether that will provide solace for UM is still unclear. Letschert feels that if it comes down to language measures, then specifically that ‘driving force function’ in combination with the geographical position of UM, should be a reason to give ‘Maastricht’ more leeway.

The minister also refers to the importance of the Dutch language in academic education and research. At the moment, English is often the dominant language and it appears that Dutch as a language in science is disappearing.

Aside from that, he wants to improve the foreign students’ integration and ‘chance of remaining here’. This is in view of the increasing ageing of the Dutch population and the tremendous shortage on the labour market in sectors such as engineering, IT and health care. The minister is going to submit a letter on the issue of internationalisation by mid-March. One thing is sure: he wants a more centralised control.

Single dial

Letschert is very understanding of the concerns that some political parties have, but she says: “The politicians seem to only want to turn a single dial, the language dial, but don’t forget that reducing the number of foreign students will affect the entire chain.” In Maastricht, this would deliver a heavy blow not just to the university (which would inevitably shrink if the foreign student numbers dwindle), but in its slipstream, Letschert emphasises, it will be damaging for the university hospital, the Brightlands campuses, the cities of Venlo and Maastricht and the region. “Such a measure has consequences for research, innovation, and the labour market. We are one of the largest employers in South Limburg. I miss the view for the system as a whole in this discussion, I miss the awareness that a university is not an island, but is embedded in society.”

Two worlds

She sometimes feels as if she lives in two worlds, she sighs. Where the Ministry of Education wants to curb the influx of foreign students, the Ministry of Economic Affairs – whose Growth Fund (for which Letschert is on the advisory committee) is spending billions to stimulate certain sectors – doesn’t want that at all. “Our main concern within the Growth Fund is human capital. How do we find sufficient qualified personnel? We need that international talent.”

Language courses

Then of course it is important to keep those graduates in the Netherlands. Dijkgraaf wants to increase the ‘chance of remaining here’. Letschert: “Knowledge of the Dutch language and culture is important. We offer free Social Dutch courses to our international students, about half of them make use of these at the moment. That is good for integration. One could make the courses compulsory and expand them, I would like to contribute my ideas on this.”

She also points out that UM already has a language policy for staff: every foreign employee with a tenured position is compelled to learn Dutch. Staff members who do not teach in Dutch, must for example, pass level B1. “They are given three years to do so, UM pays.” She knows there is internal resistance against this. “You have to listen to this, some refer to the high work pressure, others don’t have a head for languages and need more time. That is possible, we seek solutions where necessary. But I am less understanding of staff members who say that learning Dutch is nonsense.”

Author: Riki Janssen

Photo: Joey Roberts

Categories: News, news_top
Tags: language policy,english,dutch,internationalisation

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