How Englishisation is changing higher education

By René Gabriëls & Robert Wilkinson

The Englishisation of education and research attracts worldwide interest – not just from scholars, but also among the general public. Englishisation can be defined as the process in which the English language is increasingly gaining ground in domains where another language was previously used. Besides the academic world, concern about Englishisation also affects other domains, such as politics, economics and culture.

Our research focuses on the Englishisation of the academic world. But we need to keep an eye on the other domains too. Understanding what’s happening in all these domains helps us understand public debates about Englishisation. Part of our research comprised a discourse analysis of the recent public debate on Englishisation in the Netherlands.

The debate was triggered by the association Beter Onderwijs Nederland (BON [Better Education Netherlands]).  The association argued that the massive increase in English-medium instruction (EMI) programmes would harm the quality of education and the Dutch language proficiency of graduates. In 2018, BON took the Universities of Twente and Maastricht to court, arguing that they were breaking the law through their extensive implementation of EMI. However, the court ruled in favour of the universities, because they had good reasons to offer EMI programmes. The court added, though, that universities “must show the necessity of a language other than Dutch as the working language of study programmes”.

More interestingly, the Court obliged the state to revisit the Higher Education and Scientific Research Act (Wet op het hoger onderwijs en wetenschappelijk onderzoek, WHW). However, the debate did not end. Many feared that the amendment to the language policy would not impede further Englishisation. Indeed, in an open letter to De Volkskrant, 194 eminent professors, writers and representatives of the cultural sector voiced concern that “by not appreciating Dutch”, the universities that embrace the Englishisation “are ignoring the important role of Dutch in shaping our national identity and traditions”. They also feared that Dutch would disappear as an academic language and that the higher education budget for international students as a result of Englishisation could reduce Dutch students’ access to Dutch programmes.

Our quantitative and qualitative research into the perception of students and teachers of EMI programmes at Maastricht University suggests that while respondents agree that the quality of EMI education is good, they recognise the concerns voiced in the public debate about Englishisation on Dutch culture and identity. The concerns mirror those reported in other countries.

We have developed a questionnaire (quantitative research) through which we examined the perceptions of EMI around themes such as quality of education, cultural identity, linguistic justice and educational democracy. We amplify the findings through qualitative research comprising interviews and focus groups. The added value of the research is in its opportunity to delve deeper into the motives surrounding EMI held by different stakeholders and the challenges they face.

We investigate the Englishisation of higher education at three levels: micro (everyday research and education at faculty level), meso (university and immediate environment), macro (nation state and global context), as the levels are interrelated. One finding is that Englishisation of higher education can only be understood in the light of the impact neoliberalism has on academia. Today, universities are run like companies that compete worldwide to attract students, scholars, and research funds. Our studies are socially relevant for all those who are involved in one way or another in shaping language policy. The research raises the question whether FASoS did the right thing by giving up the Dutch Arts & Culture track. Why not, like Nordic countries, establish language policies based on parallel language use to protect the national language and minority languages?

Our research has led us to organise an online symposium on behalf of Maastricht University in collaboration with the ICLHE Association (Integration Content and Language in Higher Education) on the theme “Englishization of higher education: A phenomenon of glocalization?” on 21-22 October 2021. An onsite follow-up conference is planned for October 2022. Many well-known scholars have agreed to participate. You are also very welcome to join. You can register via this website:

Further reading

Gabriëls, R., & Wilkinson, R. (2020). Resistance to EMI in the Netherlands. In H. Bowles & A. C. Murphy (Eds.), English-medium instruction and the internationalization of universities (pp. 49-75). Palgrave Macmillan.

Wilkinson, R., & Gabriëls, R. (2020). Plurilingual students in EMI: Perceptions of educational democracy and linguistic justice. In M. Kuteeva, K. Kaufhold & N. Hynninen (Eds.), Language perceptions and practices in multilingual universities (pp. 217-244). Palgrave Macmillan.

About the authors

René Gabriëls and Robert Wilkinson are members of the Philosophy Department. Their edited book Englishization of Higher Education in Europe will be published this autumn by Amsterdam University Press, with contributions from 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.