Europe challenges US for foreign students by adding more English courses

An interesting dimension in the battle between Europe and the US for foreign students in higher education programs is the rapid increase in the use of English as the medium of instruction in European universities. Journalist Aisha Labi, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education (28th September), argues that Europe is waking up to the fact that there is a global education market out there, and that this in turn is driving a preference for instruction in English in order to be competitive. The extent of the penetration is quite staggering, though it does provide an explanation, too, of the early successful exporters of education services among the Member States (particularly the Netherlands and Germany). As Labi reports:

In the 1950s, the Netherlands became the first non-Anglophone country in Europe to teach courses in English and today offers 1,300 programs in the language. Germany offers more than 500 degrees in English, catering to its 250,000 international students. In Denmark, one fourth of all university courses are now offered in English.

Even France, with its deep seated scorn for the creeping Anglicization of its national language, assures foreign students in its marketing brochures that “they no longer need to be fluent in French to study in France”.

Labi goes on to argue that even in places like Finland, there is a real commitment to developing an international student body and that this has been largely made possible because Finland has embraced teaching in English.

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Europe is now becoming a viable alternative destination to the US for international students. This is driven in part because of a number of universities choosing to teach in English in Europe and also because of the continuing fall-out in the USA from the events surrounding September 11, 2001.

However, the tendency to ‘Anglicize’ higher education instruction in order to globalize is generating new tensions within the academy. Reports Labi:

The Danish Language Council, an official organization that monitors linguistic developments, sent a strongly worded statement to the government of Denmark warning that the country’s growing reliance on English would eventually lead to social fragmentation by creating an elite class that uses English as its lingua franca.

Others argue that important knowledges are in danger of becoming lost, along with cultural knowledges that are linguistically encoded.

In order to head off such problems, some universities across Europe are considering using English at the graduate level and mother tongue at undergraduate levels. However faculty complain that students’ language competence in English is then not sufficient to help them advance to graduate studies.

Whatever decisions are taken by European ministries and universities over the next decade, it is clear that this issue, if anything, is going to hot up.

Note: also see our 15 September entry (‘Europe’ looks to the Asian (China?) higher education market) on this issue in GlobalHigherEd.

Susan Robertson

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