Trouble brewing for English-taught programmes

Lingua franca Geneva 2018

Is teaching in English the main internationalisation strategy in your university? If it is, you’re certainly in good company. The role of English-taught programmes in cultivating outward-facing universities is due for a critical glance.

All around Europe, degree programmes taught in English are on the rise, particularly in Scandinavian countries and the Baltics. Programmes in English create a new form of international competition between universities and higher education systems, allowing students to choose between countries, and not just institutions, to study the same subjects. Recently, however, opposition to this strategy is making itself felt, both inside individual institutions and within national bodies. Objections concerning access to education for local students, the intellectual and international status of the national language, and the rights of faculty are being voiced, forcing the debate into national arenas.

Threats to academic freedom

The decision to target new markets of international students normally comes from the university administration. What is the reaction from faculty members when asked to teach in a second language? In some countries and in some disciplines, it is second nature for academics to write, present and teach in English. But not always.

English-taught programmes can be introduced as top-down decisions, and this can be very risky. There are top engineering faculties, such as the Polytechnic in Milan, where serious objections by faculty were raised when teaching through English replaced Italian at the Master’s level, and their protests reached the international press, as well as the national courts. The professors complained that their academic freedom was being threatened. Besides, teaching through English doesn’t always provide students – let alone faculty – with the best deal. After much wrangling, the professors won their case, and the university is now obliged to offer parallel programmes, in English and Italian.

Downsides of teaching in a lingua franca

But apart from academic faculty teaching less comfortably, and perhaps less effectively, in English, what are the downsides of teaching through a lingua franca? One is the impoverishment of the richness of a national language, because its use becomes restricted. International academic conferences are frequently held only in English, so academics don’t need to write in their own language about their subject of specialisation. And what about the international students who live in a country without learning the local language? Do they actually get to know and understand the culture of that country? Some countries with a strong tradition of teaching in English, such as the Netherlands, are beginning to suspect detrimental long-term effects on society. Do international students who come to study then pour their talents back into society? Or are they cut off from society because they can never actually communicate with the local population, for example, due to not having learned Dutch?

How popular is multilingualism?

Having the language of instruction as a given for incoming students is extremely convenient. But courses in the native language could become a European requirement, rather than an option. The European Union sets a good example by promoting multilingual policies within its institutions, and encouraging member states to do the same. And in fact, except among native English speakers, multilingualism is actually more normal than monolingualism. But how many national governments understand the value of multilingualism? If tertiary education in English continues to proliferate, forming the leadership of many countries, in which linguistic direction are we heading?

English alone is not enough

One country that seems to be taking decisive steps away from the dominance of English is Finland. Its ministry of education is seriously advocating the learning of other languages from a very early age, before the obligatory learning of English. This makes sense. In our restless era, when people are constantly on the move, our contemporary skillset should include more than one language, more than one culture.

Who else will follow their lead?

Face outward

Do you want to learn more about how HEIs and educators can ‘face outward’ in these challenging times? Download the 2018 Conference Conversation Starter to read the full version of this article and more.

Amanda Clare Murphy
Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, ItalyProfessor of English Language and Translation and Director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Italy.