Issue #026 Published: 22-10-2019 // Written by: Nic Burman

Who should pay for English?


In August, Times Higher Education reported that the government is set to discuss the idea of making Dutch language lessons for international students mandatory. While details on the proposal are still sparse, it seems like another kick in the teeth for universities whose ongoing processes of anglification is thanks to government funding decisions. The results of those decisions are that lesser populated Dutch courses are not financially viable, and so no longer readily available.

I’m a native English speaker currently enrolled in an English language programme at a Dutch university, and I actually think that Dutch language lessons for international students would be a nice idea. At the very least, it may give new arrivals more confidence to engage with Dutch peers and local media, which in turn could lead to more meaningful integration, although who and what measures “integration” is a tricky topic.

A handful of recent Amsterdam Alternative articles (#20, #22 and #23) have acted as a back-and-forth on the role of “English as a gentrifier”. Indeed, this paper embodies the friction as well as the partial success of the unofficial bilingualism of this city. It was good to see K.D., in their last article “Engels als verdringer of als voertuig van verdringing”, make a distinction between well financed native English speakers and people for whom English is a lingua franca.

The experience between these groups is very different, as a lot of international non-native English speakers do (relatively) low paying and low skilled jobs, sometimes because work is more plentiful and financially rewarding here compared to their native countries, but also often to support themselves while they study here. International, English speaking students are set to financially prop up many Dutch higher education institutes over the coming years. This is largely thanks to Dutch government policy, and eighteen to twenty five year olds from outside of the country can hardly be blamed for that.

However, there is clearly a growing problem with “internationals” quite detached from native Dutch culture and politics and a growing number of born and bred locals who are feeling increasingly disenfranchised from their home city. If increasing the rate of Dutch language acquisition would be a salve to this open wound, then I think internationals such as myself are required to respect this relatively polite request and be willing to participate. So long as I don’t have to start saluting Willem, light indoctrination programmes are ok for me. Amsterdam’s governing bodies should also stop advertising Amsterdam as an English-friendly city, as this aura of “speaking English is fine” is becoming somewhat misleading. Of course, this is unlikely to happen while Rutte and co. are off commandeering various European Union institutions such as the European Medicines Agency from the British.

What we both, internationals and natives, should reject, however, is the idea that universities should be the ones to deal with the consequences of Amsterdam’s position as an internationally-oriented economy. After all, English language students at Dutch universities is a major trend because the Dutch government doesn’t seem to care about properly funding universities. Be sure to read previous articles in this paper by and about student and staff-organised pressure group WOinactie for insights into this phenomenon.

It was striking that just a couple of days after the government’s new idea was reported on, it was revealed that US tech firm Uber was set to save up to 6.1bn by transferring the company that looks after its intellectual property rights to Holland from Bermuda (itself in turn owned by a subsidiary still based in Singapore, reported). This is exactly the sort of company that will import English-language staff to Amsterdam on high wages and promises that Amsterdam is an international town where the English language is pretty much native.

Rather than pressure cash-strapped universities to fund additional classes with non-existent budgets, why not look to the likes of Uber to fund such provisions? According to Reuters they had a turnover of $11.3 billion in 2018, so even if they don’t make a profit (and therefore don’t pay tax anyway), there’s plenty of money in the bank to hire some classrooms and pay a handful of language teachers.

It seems bizarre that a government would further jeopardize the quality of institutions which mean something to the country it governs. Universities such as the VU and the UvA are part of the history of the Netherlands and add cultural and capital value to society. Meanwhile, the same government always seems to make room for shell companies whose only relationship with the country is likely to be seeing its named stamped on their business cards.

It is up to the nation that wants to conserve its language to make a plan to secure its place in the world. But when everything costs money the question is: who should pay?