My Disenchanting Experience as an Advisory Board Member on Internationalisation at the University of Groningen’s Faculty of Arts
Sometimes when people invite you to go for a coffee you feel that there is more behind the invitation than a friendly chat. This was also the case when someone I knew from my studies invited me for a coffee in the fall of 2016. While we sat down at the Starbucks in the University Library – which was the first and last time I set foot there – the conversation was quickly directed to the phrase: ‘so, Dániel, how would you feel about taking over someone’s position in the International Classroom advisory board for the Faculty of Arts as a student member?’. Now I did not spit out my coffee in a movie-like way when my acquaintance uttered this sentence, but I was certainly surprised. First of all, because I had no clue what he was talking about, and secondly because he suggested it to me as if he was asking me to run for president. After some inquiries with regard to the mission of the International Classroom and my expected position within the advisory board, I happened to say ‘yes’. Little did I know that it would lead me on a journey into the world of crippling bureaucracy, underfunded programmes, overworked policymakers, and a lot of overpriced university catering.
Before we start with my journey, perhaps it would be best if I introduce myself, or at least who I was at the time this story is set. In 2016 I had just finished my BA in history at the University of Groningen, and the subsequent academic year 2016-17 was reserved to finish my second BA in philosophy. It was not a busy year. In fact, it was perhaps one of the most relaxed periods of my time as a student. I used this as an opportunity for some extracurricular activities, primarily within the student association for history students, GHD Ubbo Emmius. The latter was, at the time, opening up itself for the arrival of the first international students within the newly created international track for history. It would take at least another two years for the first actual internationals to arrive, but this did not prevent the backlash over whether the coming of internationals would only change things for the worse. I still remember the heated discussion evening, where many senior members protested vividly against the idea to make the association bilingual, which would be the first step – in a very long list of steps – that would open up the association to students from the international track as well. It was argued that bilingualism would destroy the association’s identity, that it would lead to a long list of impracticalities with regard to translating documents and messages in English, and it was even suggested that it would make Dutch-speaking members feel uncomfortable within the association.
Now that I am writing this blog post, the smoke of the discussions back in 2016 and 2017 cleared and GHD Ubbo Emmius has become a more or less bilingual and ‘international-friendly’ association. I write ‘international friendly’ because the general impression I get from many student associations like Ubbo is that they welcome international students as members, but the association itself is largely run and governed by and for Dutch students. No international students have so far taken up important positions on the association’s board, advisory council or audit committee. Now, you may wonder what this has to do with my position and experiences on the International Classroom advisory board. The main answer to that question is that I had the feeling that, by joining the advisory board for the Faculty of Arts as a student advisor, I could help to make the faculty a more international-friendly environment, and, hopefully, this would pass over to associations like Ubbo. However, this was nothing but blind optimism. As soon as I joined the advisory board, it became apparent to me that the backlash and discussions within my study association were more or less the same, or perhaps even worse, at the faculty level.
But why am I, a Dutchy, so engaged with internationalisation, you might wonder? First of all, I am not fully Dutch. Yes, I was born here, I have Dutch nationality, speak Dutch like a native speaker, and, if you really want to know, yes I like most typical things only a real Dutchy would love, such as black liquorice, a big load of mayonnaise on my fries, and poking fun of our royal house, in particular our king, Willy. However, I am half-Hungarian, or Hungarian-Romanian if you want to be correct because my mother is from a Hungarian minority in the currently Romanian region of Transylvania – where Dracula is supposedly from. As such, I was raised within two cultures during my childhood in the Netherlands. On the one hand, my mother, with whom I spoke Hungarian during the day and who taught me all Hungarian traditions, or those specifically part of the Transylvanian Hungarians. When my dad came home from work, we usually switched to Dutch and usually lived in a world where two cultures intermingled, and we could, for example, have a traditional Dutch ‘stamppot’ for dinner one evening, and Hungarian ‘Gulyás’ the next day. As a young child, it was completely normal for me to feel at ease in a bilingual environment and to enjoy two cultures at the same time. Only when I got older I started to realise that for many of my Dutch friends and classmates, this was less self-evident.
Fast-forwarding to early 2017, I am about to meet the senior policy advisor for internationalisation at the Faculty of Arts. In the hallway of the faculty building, I am greeted by a friendly woman, whose southern-Dutch Limburg accent strikes me as welcoming, but at the same time, I see the dark edges under her eyes suggesting many sleepless nights and freight-loads of stress. Should I get worried? She leads me to her small office, which is crammed with bookcases full of binders and books on language policy and whatnot. After removing a stack of binders from the only second chair in her office, she starts to explain the mission and my role on the International Classroom advisory board. The International Classroom was basically part of the university’s long-term strategic planning from 2015 all the way to 2020, which primary purpose was to adapt teaching across faculties to a more international approach that would value multilingualism and a multicultural environment. This is, of course, a prime example of hollow-phrase policymaker’s language, in which all obstacles and complex concepts like multicultural are considered mere instrumental tools. By the time I joined, the project was already nearing its final stages, and the current stage – International Classroom II – had two primary aims: 1) to advise the faculty on a language policy, and 2) to discuss how aspects outside of formal teaching, such as student and faculty meetings could be made more accessible to international students and staff.
During the first official meeting in March 2017, I was greeted by the director of education of the faculty and the other members of the advisory board, consisting of professors from various departments. It struck me that I joined them at the point when the final draft of their initial policy plan for a bilingual faculty, where both Dutch and English would be regarded as the main languages of instruction and communication. Compared to the other, more scientific faculties, which had started receiving international students in earlier stages, the Faculty of Arts was seeing a relatively recent surge in international programmes and tracks within existing programmes, like history. While other faculties had opted for a rather monolingual policy, making English the main language of instruction and communication, the advisory board for the Faculty of Arts advised against this. The main argument was that the Faculty of Arts would benefit from a bilingual approach because of the cultural importance of keeping the Dutch part of the teaching culture in various studies, such as Dutch language and culture, history, and linguistics. Apart from that, this advice was meant to send a clear message that neither of the two languages was to be preferred over the other, given that both a Dutch and international student and staff population had to be served. The bilingual policy was also regarded as a unique selling point for the faculty, attracting both Dutch and international students and staff members. This was meant as a clear message to those who believe that the Dutch language is being ‘cleansed’ from Dutch universities as part of some ‘evil plot of globalisation’ to overthrow Dutch culture. This myth is sadly also propagated by certain academics – mostly professors of the Dutch language. The sad truth, however, is that the only programmes ‘eradicated’ from university curricula across do not concern any studies focusing on the Dutch language and culture, but other European and non-European languages and cultures. Fin-Ugric studies – gone! – Sanskrit – gone! – Slavic languages – gone! – now all replaced with the overarching ‘European Languages and Cultures’ programme, which includes only major European languages of choice like French, German, Spanish, and Italian. Thus far, no major Dutch university has abandoned its Dutch language and culture programmes.
While everybody on the advisory board, including me, was optimistic about the feasibility of the plan, given the fact that studies like history actively opted for having both Dutch and international – i.e. English – tracks running simultaneously. The faculty board, however, thought less so. They returned our advice with the blunt comment that the plan was unfeasible both in practical and, more importantly, financial terms. Maintaining a bilingual faculty where all documents have to be set up in two languages was considered too tedious and costly, given that the university’s policy is that this has to be done by professional translators. Again, money was the primary issue, as is often the case within the arts and humanities. However, it was also stressed that the university-wide policy favoured a more monolingual approach, meaning that study programmes have to be either in English or Dutch, which caters to both pragmatic and financial incentives. A perhaps even more hidden part of the bilingual policy, however, was that certain study programmes that were hitherto only in English, such as International Relations and European Languages and Cultures, had to offer Dutch as an active language of instruction. This was only a recommendation, but there was a wider tendency in the policy plan that favoured the active promotion of Dutch amongst international students and staff. It was argued that, instead of only promoting more activities in English, non-Dutch students and staff members should be incentivised to gain a basic command of Dutch by offering free language courses. This, according to the plan, would have favoured a truly inclusive and bilingual faculty. Writing this blogpost now, a few years later, I cannot help but wonder how this was supposed to promote inclusion. In fact, it seems that, in the end, the policy was more favourable towards keeping the Dutch alive, serving Dutch students and staff, rather than actively promoting bilingualism. The latter was only specified as having two official languages, with no further ideas on how this would actively work out to promote inclusion, apart from the rather overhasty conclusion that it will, somehow.
My input in the matters regarding the language policy remained rather limited, especially because I joined around the time when the plan was already drafted and reviewed by the faculty board. As a student member, I had more to say when it came to the student side of things. One aspect I brought forward during meetings quite often was the rather hesitant attitude from many Dutch students and student organizations about opening up to internationals. This brought the policy advisor to the idea to organise an open lunch debate session, where both students and staff members would be invited to participate. The aim of this session was to provide an open debate about the different attitudes toward internationalisation, and also to give us as the advisory board a better view of the variety of opinions. Invitations to both students and staff were sent out, with the promise of a free lunch and the opportunity to win free vouchers for the faculty’s coffee bar.
Eventually, only a fraction of the people who signed up, both staff and students, arrived at the scene. This was evidenced by the remaining name tags that were never collected, and the large number of overpriced sandwiches provided by the university catering that was left untouched. The few remaining students and staff members were divided into three groups to engage in separate discussions. I still remember how my group was joined, rather last-minute, by a Bulgarian arts, culture and media student, who had not signed up but felt that she needed to empty her mind on a few issues. As soon as she sat at our table, which was comprised of me and a few Dutch students and staff members, the discussion became more lively and interesting. The arts, culture and media students started to spit out one negative comment after the other. About how she felt the professors did not take her seriously as an international student, how she was scolded by professors for not speaking Dutch – although she had been in the country for less than three years, but besides that – and that she suffered from the general struggles most international students have to cope with, such being unable to find proper housing and opportunities for internships – a requirement for certain study programmes. I saw from the corner of my eye the shocked faces of the Dutch staff members – who were from more administrative positions, not teaching staff – followed by the rather blunt and unhelpful remark from a Dutch student at our table: ‘but why don’t you talk to the study advisor’, as if this was magically going to solve all the greater underlying issues. If this meeting made me realise one thing better than before, it was that there lies a deep rift between many Dutch students and internationals.
This became even more clear during the plenary discussion. After the policy advisor gave a brief presentation about the plans and benefits of a more international faculty, the Dutch students seemed only concerned about one issue: the fact that in the long run they would all be required to study and speak in English – not taking into account that the majority of study materials and tools used in most courses are already in English. For them, internationalisation came across as a nuisance, or necessary vice to keep certain programmes alive. They seemed blind to all our presentations about the value of culturally mixed classrooms, and of learning from different cultures while studying at a university. This was followed by the eternal remark: ‘but why does everything have to be in English?’, or ‘we want to be able to speak Dutch to each other during class', although nowhere it was said that Dutch would disappear from the faculty at any point. In the end, this was the whole idea behind a bilingual faculty. What I heard was primarily the widespread idea that resonates still in many media and across the internet: that universities are neglecting Dutch students in favour of the large influx of international students, leading to a decay in the quality of education. This is a complaint often voiced by staff members. Still, it is often not mentioned that this is largely due to a lack of funds to hire more staff, not because teaching international programmes automatically increases the workload. When the international track for the history programme was set up, some of the lecturers involved were working late hours and even taught courses for free in order to keep the programme alive. One of these lecturers was also a member of our advisory board, and she frequently voiced her complaint that the history department was very willing to open an international track, but was unwilling to hire more, especially international staff members for that purpose.
By the time of the plenary discussion, the Bulgarian student had already left the room – she had to go to the third viewing of a new student room that day, as she had been denied all other options. Perhaps it was better that she did because would probably have exploded in anger upon hearing the Dutch students complain about non-existing fears that they would be banned from speaking Dutch. Of course, I do not claim that the students present at the meeting were representative of the manner in which all Dutch students and staff think about internationals and internationalisation, but it did represent the widespread non-problems that were propagated in the discussions within Dutch academia about these topics. ‘What has internationalisation ever done for us?’, a paraphrase from ‘what have the Romans ever done for us?’ featured in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, is perhaps an apt way of perceiving this matter from a Dutch perspective. Internationalisation has brought Dutch universities, like Groningen, back into the ranks of some of the world’s leading universities since the early 2000s. Apart from that, the influx of international students and staff members has allowed universities to expand their curricula, and diversify their programmes – although this development is still undergoing. It should also be mentioned that international students, especially those from outside of the EU, provide large amounts of money to the coffers of universities. So, ‘What has internationalisation ever done for us?’. Well, a whole lot apparently if you look properly into the history of how Dutch universities over the last two decades.
Fast-forwarding to 2019, the final meeting of all people who contributed to the International Classroom advisory board. I sat at the long table listening to the presentation by the faculty’s director of education and the policy maker on what had been ‘achieved’. However, the primary conclusion of the entire meeting was that we were only at the start of creating a more internationally-minded faculty. New innovative ideas were suggested: an American Studies track taught in Spanish that focuses exclusively on Latin America? Sure, great idea, but no idea how far that has been solidified until now. Thinking back now on my time during this turbulent period, with my current knowledge of how things are going, I think back primarily on how the overemphasis on language from a Dutch perspective has led us away from focusing on who actually suffers: the international students and staff members. They are the ones suffering the most from housing shortages – as many student houses prefer to keep a ‘Dutch only’ policy – and the fact that international students and staff members are still facing indirect discrimination in the classrooms and the workplace. For that reason, organizations like SCDAI exist, sadly enough.
Worse still, many problems are being pinned, even indirectly, on international students. When I was watching a video on the protests for more and better housing for internationals on YouTube, I could not help but read the many hateful comments, primarily from your typical ‘middle-aged white angry man’, claiming that ‘they should not have come here in the first place’, and ‘first let Dutch people find affordable housing before allowing all kinds of foreign riff-raff’. So besides being a threat to the Dutch language and culture, international students are now also blamed for the housing crisis, which, of course, has more to do with the failure of building adequate student accommodation over the years than the arrival of more international students. Additionally, Dutch universities invest large chunks of their budget in marketing their programmes to international students via headhunting agencies and study fairs abroad. International students are not to blame for their mere existence in Dutch society - it is largely a consequence of long periods of attracting international students’ tuition fees.
But these comments are part of a more concerning tendency within Dutch society and politics that has only increased in recent years. Right-wing populist parties, such as the FvD – ironically meaning ‘Forum for Democracy’ – now even propose in their official party plan to actively exclude international students from newly constructed student housing, providing more room to Dutch students in what can only be referred to as a politicized ‘Dutch only’ policy. And what to think about the current idea of limiting the influx of international students to prevent the housing crisis from spiralling out of control. This would be what Frank Zappa famously called ‘treating dandruff by decapitation’, opting for an extreme measure that is highly out of proportion to the problem. Furthermore, it only adds up to the stigmatisation of international students, instead of recognizing the real problem: discrimination and failing politics.
I could continue pointing out many more issues that I have come across since my time as an advisory board member, but these would be enough for other blog posts to come. What I have learned over the years, however, is that we need to provide an honest message about internationalisation, one that goes beyond the negative narratives on language ‘degradation’ and blaming internationals for their own misery. Only then can we start thinking about making Dutch universities truly international.
About the Author
Dániel Moerman (he/him) was born in the Netherlands to a Hungarian mother and a Dutch father. He was raised bilingually and considers Dutch and Hungarian as his native languages. He studied history and philosophy in Groningen, with an interest in the history of science and universities, and currently works at the VU University of Amsterdam as a Ph.D. candidate in a project on the history of drought as a climatic hazard. Aside from writing about environmental and climate topics, he is also interested in issues regarding higher education and diversity.
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