Chris Aalberts, teacher and researcher in political communication, and René Karens, chairman of the University Council, in debate on internationalization and the movement towards a bilingual university.

The University Council has held their meetings by way of experiment in English since October. Chris Aalberts, teacher and researcher in political communication, and René Karens, chairman of the University Council, debated ferociously on EM Online and Twitter last December about bilingualism. Early January, EM met up with the two of them to talk things out. It didn’t work out, but it did produce an interesting conversation about bilingualism.

Aalberts: “I don’t understand why you hold meetings in English. After all, we are a Dutch institution and we will always remain so.”

Karens: “But we are a Dutch university with ever increasing numbers of international students and faculty. Already, we are talking about approximately 20 per cent.”

Aalberts: “The question is whether the subjects discussed by the University Council are relevant for internationals. How strong is their bond with this academic institution?”

Karens: “The University Council has influence on a wide array of subjects from study spots to long term budgets. I don’t see why that wouldn’t be relevant for international students and employees.”

Aalberts: “Foreign students are here for a maximum of three years. They come here to finish their education as fast as possible. International employees are divisible into two groups. On the one hand there are people who stay and wish to make serious contributions to this university – most of them learn Dutch. On the other hand there are employees who leave after two years and only work here because they want to have worked on the continent. They make a pure individual calculation for the short term. Should you represent them at all?”

Karens: “I don’t agree with that distinction. That would imply that internationals are here only for their personal interest and I think that it is also in the interest of the university. It is necessary to increase your income and, for example, compete for European research grants. Also employees who are here for no more than two years certainly contribute with their research and education.”

Aalberts: “I have a different conception of contributing. To show up and dutifully fulfilling your task is not enough, for then working would equal contributing. I am talking about structurally investing in the academic community.”

Karens: “That is impossible to ascertain objectively. In addition, the University Council exists to represent all students and employees, as is its legal obligation. And we are looking for the best way of actualising that.”

Aalberts: “Why don’t you ask the people to learn Dutch? A country and a culture can only be really gotten to know if you can speak the language. Why do we expect all the old timers, Turks, guest workers from the Rif mountains, to learn Dutch? The real problem is of course that people refuse to learn Dutch, including the intellectuals. Someone who is going to study in France for half a year will receive classes in French. The response in Holland is always: ‘We will adapt to you.’ Ultimately, it boils down to the fact that I as a Dutch toilet lady need to learn English, but as a foreign professor I don’t have to learn Dutch.”

Karens: “That may be, but if you look at this university, you will see a trend towards bilingualism. That fact has been neglected by policy makers for a long time, while the group of internationals has steadily increased. We have to be there for that group as well. And I don’t think its realistic to ask people who are here only for a short time to speak Dutch in two years.”

Aalberts: “Another problem is that complex discussions can hardly be done in English. Mastery of English is simply not good enough, so you can’t talk about important technical details. I think that real debates won’t be held any more and that important problems will not be put on the agenda any more.”

Karens: “It will indeed become more difficult, but in the past months too we have held complex policy discussions in the University Council. If someone has a difficulty, he can without problem switch to Dutch.”

Aalberts: “That does not solve anything, then internationals still cannot follow it?”

Karens: “A fellow council member can translate for the internationals.”

Aalberts: “But the norm should be that everybody can equally and without delay participate in the discussions?”

Karens: “That is true, and that we should think about in evaluating our pilot.”

Aalberts: “Why do you not create a separate advisory committee with international students and employees? I think the problem will be solved then.”

Karens: “In that case, before you know, I will have an incoming piece by you on my hands complaining we have all kinds of unnecessary little participation clubs.”

EM-editor Tim Ficheroux made the report on the dispute. This article will be available in Dutch in EM #10, which appears tomorrow. The University Council will evaluate the pilot with English meetings end of January.