Silence after the storm

Will we all be speaking English at the university soon?

10 min
Text Lisa Hilte
Image Davien Dierickx

In short

  • English programmes support internationalisation and diversity in education.
  • More students want to improve their English.
  • Are there enough programmes in English, or perhaps too few?

English-language study programmes in higher education in Flanders are a hot topic. Flemish Minister of Education Ben Weyts (N-VA) is not on the same line as universities: English bachelor programmes are allowed, but only if there is also a Dutch equivalent. And due to a lack of Dutch equivalents, the minister rejected several study programmes. So are we really at risk of dangerous anglicisation in higher education? Or does Flanders just risk losing out on talent by sticking to Dutch? Stroom asked various stakeholders for their opinions.

‘No question of anglicisation’

Professor Ann De Schepper is the Vice-Rector for Education at UAntwerp. She vehemently denies that Flemish higher education is anglicising: of the study programmes offered by the University of Antwerp, the proportion of English-language programmes is limited. There is only one English-language bachelor, while there are thirty-three Dutch-language ones. Above bachelor level, the balance shifts slightly: about one in four master programmes is offered in English, for advanced master programmes this is one in two. And in Dutch-language study programmes courses are also offered in English, but Dutch always remains the main language.

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The current picture will not change: a vast array of Dutch-language programmes with a limited number of options in English.

Ann De Schepper

Internationalisation and diversity 

But why are there those English study programmes and courses? ‘English plays a crucial role in the international competences of our alumni, who need to be familiar with the language of their field’, De Schepper says. ‘In addition, we want to attract a wide audience, including international and foreign language students, who now make up half of the students in the English master programmes. A diverse student population is enriching for the programmes and for the students themselves.’ 



The English programmes and courses at UAntwerp take into account the needs and wishes of both study programmes and students: ‘A bachelor’s degree is a basic academic programme in which Dutch is the standard language of instruction. The focus of a master or advanced master is on specialisation and research expertise, which legitimises the use of English and puts our research on the international map. But students retain control over their study programme and the language in which they take it, because there is usually an English and Dutch option. The only exceptions apply to some specific specialisations.’  


Moreover, switching to an English study programme does not result in a leap into the unknown. ‘In the Dutch programmes, students can already take courses in English, with Dutch support if necessary. This familiarises them with English in their field and they sometimes have classes from big international names.’ 


The future  

UAntwerp’s plans to expand its English-language study programmes are limited, especially for bachelor programmes, where an English option always remains as an alternative alongside the Dutch version. When asked whether Dutch will disappear from our higher education system, De Schepper shakes her head with conviction: ‘Small shifts may happen. But the current picture – a vast array of Dutch-language programmes with a limited number of options in English, especially from master programmes onwards – that will not change.’

‘Many more languages needed than just English and Dutch’ 

quite different opinion is voiced by Professor Franc Schuerewegen, professor of French literature and media at UAntwerp. A Romanist and native of Antwerp, he is critical of the ever-increasing importance of English at university. 


That our higher education is anglicising cannot be denied, according to Schuerewegen. And he finds this evolution detrimental for many reasons, particularly for Flemish-historical and European-geopolitical reasons. But his most fundamental objection has to do with his own field: ‘In a field where languages and cultures are the object of study, is it not completely illogical to favour one language as being the language of science? Surely it would also be bizarre to require biologists to express their research in the jargon of, say, nuclear physics.’ Moreover, according to Schuerewegen, the pressure to publish and apply for project funds in English creates inequality between language groups at literature faculties.  

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True multilingualism is an asset. Not collectively and potentially half-heartedly speaking a lingua franca.

Franc Schuerewegen

An impoverishment for education 

Schuerewegen is also critical when it comes to education. According to him, the growing number of English study programmes mainly serves a financial purpose: to attract more students. ‘In terms of educational quality, I fear impoverishment rather than enrichment.’ But he doesnt believe that anglicisation at Flemish universities would become irreversible.  


Babel as utopia 

Schuerewegen has a different vision of the future. He believes there should be many more languages at university than just Dutch or English: ‘True multilingualism, that’s an asset. Not collectively and potentially half-heartedly speaking a lingua franca.’ He quotes philosopher Jacques Derrida: ‘Il faut plus d’une langue’we need more than one language. A mosaic of languages to enrich higher education. Babel as utopia. And UAntwerp can certainly take the lead in this for Schuerewegen: ‘Diversity and inclusiveness are two of the university’s core values, which are expressed mainly in the social sphere. Now let languages follow!’


‘Ideal for students with international ambitions’ 

How do students experience taking an English-language study programme in Flanders? Ines Massart is in her second year of social-economic sciences at UAntwerp. As a Dutch speaker, she very consciously chose an English bachelor, rather than the Dutch counterpart.

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After my experience abroad, I definitely wanted to study in an international setting and in English.

Ines Massart

Learning to speak English better 

‘I wanted to study socio-economic sciences anyway, but was torn between the Dutch and English options. My English wasn’t particularly good.’ An experience abroad won her over: ‘After secondary school, I went to London for six months to brush up on my English. After that, I definitely wanted to study in an international setting and in English!’ 


Massart is happy with the study programme she chose. She loves the mix of Flemish and international students. And her English has improved enormously, ‘in a very natural way’. Moreover, she says, an English programme offers an advantage on the labour market: ‘Especially for international companies or in international politics. So it is ideal for students with international ambitions. I dream of taking a master abroad, and then having a job at the European Union.’  


Not denying globalisation 

For Massart, making her bachelor programme exclusively available in English would suffice. ‘We can’t deny globalisation, can we? Moreover, the courses transcend the Flemish context, so English suffices. Although I do find it illogical to learn German from English, for example.’


‘The main language depends on the company and customer’

Finally, we spoke to Pedro Matthynssens, CEO of insurance company Vanbreda Risks & Benefits. According to him, the preference for English or Dutch in the Flemish labour market varies from company to company.


A country of SMEs

Vanbreda Risks & Benefits is a distinctly Flemish firm where the main language is Dutch. ‘We consciously choose the language of the customer’, Matthynssens says. ‘Because trust is important in the insurance sector, and because a large part of our customer base is made up of local SMEs.’ That picture, according to him, is also typically Belgian: ‘We are a country of SMEs. Too far-reaching anglicisation would be an injustice to an important part of our economy.’

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It is difficult to recruit enough talent. International students can help. 

Pedro Matthynssens

Labour market shortage

Of course, English is needed for international contacts. And for a lot of Flemish companies, it is the main language. Matthynssens therefore doesn’t consider it a disadvantage to, for example, teach engineers in English, as long as it doesn’t affect their native language. Moreover, more English-language study programmes in Flanders could solve the current labour market shortage: ‘It is difficult to recruit enough talent. International students can help. Although the key question is whether, once they graduate, they will actually find their way into the Belgian labour market.’

Language skills as an asset

Which languages are currently the most useful in the Flemish business world? ‘At Vanbreda Risks & Benefits, applicants must first and foremost be proficient in Dutch. But that really varies from company to company. It depends on the nature and vision of the firm, the type of employees and the type of customers. And of course, every language has advantages and disadvantages. Anyway, strong language skills are an asset, as communication is becoming increasingly important for companies. Just think about social media presence, managers needing to be able to express themselves well in the media, etc.’


Matthynssens concludes with a comment on AI. ‘What new opportunities will language-generating tools like ChatGPT bring to business communications in the future? I am very curious to see that.’

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