“It is not true that internationalisation is part of the UM’s DNA”

“It is not true that internationalisation is part of the UM’s DNA”

Three UM employees who do support the plans for a return of the Dutch language in universities

15-03-2023 · Background

The language of a study programme is more than just a vehicle to convey information. A language brings with it a culture, provides nuances, humour, depth. It is therefore good that the government is thinking about a more dominant role for the Dutch language in the bachelor’s programmes, argue three members of staff of Maastricht University. 

Should Minister Dijkgraaf – in his long-awaited internationalisation letter – decide that the Dutch language must play a more dominant role in most bachelor’s programmes, then Maastricht University has a big problem, said president Rianne Letschert in Observant last week. The intake of foreign students will inevitably decrease, with all its consequences for UM, the city of Maastricht, the region and the province of Limburg. Letschert hopes that there will be room for exceptions, for example for the shrinking region South Limburg. As far as the choice of language is concerned: “I can justify for all Maastricht bachelor’s programmes (18 in English, 3 in Dutch, 3 in both languages) why they use English as the medium of instruction.”


Lies Wesseling, affiliated to the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences as an associate professor of Cultural History, Gender and Diversity, and colleagues (including a member of the board and the chairman of Beter Onderwijs Nederland (Better Education Netherlands) recently wrote an opinion piece in ScienceGuide, in which they stood up for enforcement of the existing language law: “This obliges institutes of higher education to promote the ability of students to express themselves in Dutch and requires that education should be provided in Dutch, apart from a few exceptions.” This would immediately solve the problem of the “unmanageable” intake of foreign students, the Dutch language would regain the status of academic language, Dutch language skills of students would improve, and the pressure on the student accommodation market would be reduced.

In a reaction to the article with president Letschert in last week’s Observant, she writes to Observant: “Rianne Letschert states that she can justify for all Maastricht bachelor’s programmes why these are offered in English. This is not true for the bachelor’s of Cultural Sciences (FASoS). The Dutch language version was abolished as a result of the increasing workload. This also meant the disappearance of the marvellous subjects that focused on Dutch culture, such as Maakbaar Nederland (Makeable Netherlands) of Seksualiteit in de Nederlandse welvaartsstaat (Sexuality in the Dutch Welfare State). UM students are thus prevented from developing their knowledge of the Dutch language and culture at an academic level. In addition, French and German are important academic languages for Cultural and Social Sciences. At the beginning of the nineteen-nineties, we still prescribed publications in four modern languages. This has now been narrowed down to English, which impoverishes rather than enriches the internationalisation of education and research.”

Lastly, Wesseling adds, “it is striking that our president puts her money on Fairytales of Growth, to cite the title of a recent documentary. Again, Limburg is to be developed top-down and from the outside. This has happened to the region more often! With a view to the ecological disasters such as the toxification of soil/air/water, floodings, extreme heat, droughts and zoonoses, degrowth offers a more future-oriented perspective. In De antistad: Pionier van kleiner groeien (The Anticity: Pioneer of Growing Smaller), Maurice Hermans convincingly argues that the city of Heerlen has good cards for becoming a champion of transition, in spite of its shrinking population.”

TINA: There is no alternative

Let’s get one thing straight before we start, says Rob Houtepen, philosopher and lecturer of Medical Philosophy and Technology at the Faculty of Health Medicine and Life Sciences: “I am absolutely not against the use of English in education. I can see the importance of having many foreign students for the existence and character of UM, for the city of Maastricht as one of the European capitals, for the region and for the province. But it can be taken too far. UM should be a ‘one-and-a-half-language university’: completely Dutch and half English. At the moment, it is the other way around. English dominates and that leads to language deprivation: in tutorial groups, during meetings, at the coffee machines. This subject affects me deeply, more so because nobody around me appears to see this problem. And because everybody (TINA, “there is no alternative”) slavishly continues on the path of globalisation."

“Lekker weertje weer, hè”

“Language is considered too much as a vehicle at UM. That fits well into how science students and unfortunately also social sciences students in Randwyck, look at language: as a means to transfer knowledge, instead of a house in which we live. Houses must often be considered in a utilitarian way too, but a unique style, a good feeling, and something beautiful also matter. The same goes for language. If – as it does at the moment – it is raining ‘cats and dogs’, I like to present myself to a Dutch-speaking tutorial group saying “Lekker weertje weer, hè”. In the English used in Randwyck, the nuance, irony, and informality of expressions like this have disappeared.

“At the same time, these not only support the atmosphere, but also set the tone. In the critical reflection on the ‘wicked problems that my teaching is all about, informal expressions are invaluable.

“You need to have fun using language, feel at home in it. That is not elitist, because it also applies, and perhaps even more so to the most common dialect. The overly praised international classroom’ lacks the deep, shared linguistic context to have both rich and light conversations. English between non-native speakers is always an impoverishment of the tutorial group and amicable contact.”

The full picture

René Gabriëls, affiliated as a Philosopher to the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, is not against the use of English in higher education either, but “he is – as are many – against Englishisation that goes too far. According to Letschert, we – the critics – seem to miss ‘an overview of the system as a whole’. But does she herself see the full picture? After all, it is not true that internationalisation is part of UM’s DNA, at least if the Englishisation serves as an indicator. It was not long ago that the Dutch programmes gradually started to disappear. By the way, putting internationalisation on a par with Englishisation is nonsense, because the one can do without the other.


“That UM contributes to the regional economy is undeniably true, but to suggest that it is its driving force, appears to me to be a sign of megalomania. It is remarkable that Letschert does not go into the advantages of a general language measure for universities: greater accessibility of higher education, a smaller gap between science and society, a revaluation of Dutch as an academic language.” And why should UM be an exception to the language rule? “Letschert’s argument is the importance of UM for the region. But that is not valid, because in that case Aachen, Liège and Hasselt, where Englishisation has not been taken to these extremes, would be of no value to the region. It would not be out of place, by the way, if UM were to adhere to its own language rules. Most of the staff members whose native language is not Dutch, have not reached the obligatory level B1."

Cultural value

According to Gabriëls, Letschert only thinks about language in economic terms. “She denies that language is of cultural value, which needs to be maintained. And why should the Dutch taxpayer foot the bill for the education of foreign students while accessibility for Dutch students is not getting any better and the mother tongue is no longer being cultivated? Even though the opposite is being claimed, UM has created a linguistic bubble that mainly benefits a transnational elite and not the average citizen.”

Author: Riki Janssen

Photo: Shutterstock

Tags: anguage policy, english, dutch, internationalisation,instagram


Roel Twen Karstenberg

A great read with which I am in full agreement. The right course of action for a sustainable cultural and socio-economic South Limburg is found in localised "degrowth." I would however add the caveat that if Maastricht University is to teach in our "mother tongue" as the article implores, than the Limburgish language ought to obtain a prominent place in the education it offers, especially in the realm of the social sciences. Limburgish, after all, is the true mother tongue of the province.

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