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Misunderstandings over English-language teaching: what is the situation?

Hold on, will all Bachelor’s programmes soon have to be taught mainly in Dutch? A debate in the Dutch House of Representatives has led to a host of misunderstandings in the national press.

“With effect from the academic year 2025-2026 it will not be possible to teach more than one third of the courses in Bachelor’s degree programmes in another language”, wrote de Volkskrant. “Exceptions are allowed only if their usefulness has been demonstrated.”

Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf reportedly said that during a debate with the House of Representatives on the internationalisation of higher education. Other media, including daily papers Trouw and NRC, followed suit. But what exactly is the minister proposing?

Starting point

The number of study programmes taught in languages other than Dutch was never supposed to be this high, Dijkgraaf wrote earlier in a letter. So he wants to see what can be done about it. He discussed the matter with the House of Representatives on Thursday.

“My starting point is that the language of instruction is Dutch”, he said in the debate. But some courses on a Dutch-taught programme may be taught in another language. “I propose that this should apply to no more than one third of all courses. In other words, most of the programme will be taught in Dutch but if you want to teach a few specialised courses in English, then that will be allowed.”

An important note is that this is about the definition of a Dutch-language study programme: at least two of the three courses have to be taught in Dutch. Study programmes fully taught in other languages will still exist, however.

Just like they do now. The law currently already requires the language of instruction of study programmes in the Netherlands to be Dutch, with a few exceptions. But those exceptions are so broadly formulated that in practice there are hardly any barriers to stop study programmes from being taught in English. As Dijkgraaf says: “An enormous hole has been cut in that net and everyone can swim through it.”

Test for Bachelor’s programmes

So what does he want to change? For new study programmes, Dijkgraaf wants to introduce a ‘test for instruction in another language’ to assess the effectiveness of teaching in that other language. The labour market could provide a good argument, as could the nature of the programme. “If you want to attract the world’s best violinists, teaching such a programme in English might be of help.” Additionally, issues such as regional needs and the availability of personnel play a part.

“Can we justify funding a foreign-language programme with public money?”, Dijkgraaf concluded. “That’s the most important question. And there are a plethora of reasons for asking it.”

Moreover, he only wants to introduce the test for Bachelor’s programmes, not for Master’s programmes. Master’s programmes are shorter and more specialised, and sometimes more science-oriented. That is why he does not want to restrict them. “The real problem lies in the Bachelor’s programmes”, he told the House of Representatives.

How strict?

The test will be geared towards new Bachelor’s programmes, but in the long run, existing study programmes will have to be tested once as well. The main question is how ‘strict’ that test is going to be.

Minister Dijkgraaf is certainly not an opponent of internationalisation. He names many reasons for teaching in a foreign language. The geographical location of a study programme in a border region could be a decisive factor: he gave the example of a German-language physiotherapy programme. “I think that institutions are very capable of weighing up that argument”, said the minister.

That does not sound particularly strict. In any event, Dijkgraaf wants to entrust his ‘central control’ in the field of internationalisation to the institutions themselves. These should work together, within the government’s guidelines, to steer internationalisation in the right direction. Only if things go seriously wrong, the minister wants to be able to intervene.


“That control relates to the big issues, such as the connection to the labour market”, says Dijkgraaf. “What is the added value? How are things going with regard to accessibility? There are so many questions you can ask.”

The language of instruction should be part of the discussion as well. “Is it a good idea for institution X to teach study programme Y in English? This is something that should be debated between the institutions.” He is therefore happy to leave the major decisions to the institutions themselves. And it is unlikely that he will thwart those decisions with a rigid test related to the language of instruction.

So will many English-language study programmes disappear? No, Dijkgraaf does not appear to be planning a massive about-turn. A couple of programmes may have to change their language of instruction. “We have seen examples of study programmes where everyone is well aware that they can no longer fully justify doing it that way.” But his main aim is to get people to reflect on the situation.

In the meantime, media reports are creating their own reality. A variety of people and institutions are reacting – either critically or with relief – to a plan that does not yet exist. Some even fear a wave of dismissals among international lecturers.


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