Ideas on Europe

(De)internationalisation in the European Higher Education Area ?

(De)internationalisation in the European Higher Education Area ?

For our weekly “Ideas on Europe” editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome Patrick Bijsmans, from Maastricht University.

The European Higher Education Area is a child of the famous “Bologna Process” launched in 1999, which achieved an unprecedented internationalisation of university studies across the continent.

That’s correct. Data from the OECD, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development from 2021 show that the number of international students enrolled in European higher education has tripled since 1998 !

Of course, in the Middle Ages, Latin already acted as a shared language, but only for an elite caste of academics and students who travelled across the continent. In the 21st century, however, the Bologna Process and the European Higher Education Area have stimulated cross-border movement of academic staff and students from all parts of society.

And there is research about the outcomes of this internationalisation: a large part of the literature suggests that international classrooms can stimulate student learning. This does not mean that an increasingly international student body is without challenges. For instance, I have seen some of my students in Maastricht getting “lost in translation” while encountering cultural and linguistic diversity. Yet, my experience has predominantly been positive: through engaging with peers from a variety of backgrounds, my students develop important competences.

In fact, I am currently carrying out a large international classroom study together with my colleague Carla Haelermans, and our first results suggest that students perceive each other as individuals with multi-layered identities, rather than representatives of a specific country, culture or language group.

Many of your colleagues across Europe would no doubt share your perception.

Unfortunately, in recent years we have also seen a backlash against the internationalisation of higher education. In countries such as Denmark or the Netherlands, politicians and other voices have called for limiting the influx of international students, raising questions about the increased number of programmes in English.

A leading scholar like John Aubrey Douglass argues that it’s the resurgence of nationalism that explains this kind of opposition. Some critics in the Netherlands have stated that the internationalisation of Dutch higher education is detrimental for Dutch society, and others have even gone as far as to argue that the advance of English in higher education is a form of colonialism.

How do you respond to such criticism ?

Well, I point out that, in my experience, Dutch and international staff and students do contribute to Dutch society. My colleagues take part in national debates and contribute to news discussions, in print and other media. Also, while many of us work in highly internationalised fields, no less than 21% of research published at our faculty between 2017 and 2022 was in Dutch ! Meanwhile, our students have set up organisations for the support of homeless people and refugees in Maastricht. Some of them have just won an award for an initiative called “Are you Okay ?”, which consists of a QR code that provides more accessible information about support structures in- and outside the university for students who have had troubling or negative experiences.

Fortunately, some of the issues raised and solutions proposed in the debate are not that outlandish.

For instance, many of our international students have indicated that they would actually like to learn more about Dutch language, culture, and society. Recent government proposals to make Dutch language training a compulsory part of the curriculum of undergraduate programmes taught in English are therefore certainly timely.

We are also considering how to highlight multilingualism to reflect the international composition of our community of students and staff. Additionally, to function effectively in Dutch academia, colleagues need to demonstrate a decent passive knowledge of the Dutch language.

It seems that internationalisation and respect for the local culture are not incompatible.

Indeed ! And it would be a shame if questionable arguments against internationalisation resulted in real challenges and opportunities being overlooked, and at the same time, led to the implementation of restrictions that may undermine the willingness and ability of both Dutch and international students to engage with peers in the international classroom. More than ever, our job is to prepare them for a future in today’s – and tomorrow’s ! – globalised world.

Interview conducted Laurence Aubron.