English in Flemish universities

The number of English taught bachelors has skyrocketed in Europe in the past few years, from close to zero to almost 3,000 in 2017, in countries where English isn’t an official language. This enormous leap can be seen in almost every modern European country and also at the VUB, which has a second English bachelor on the way: Business Economics, starting in September, after the first English bachelor proved to be very successful.

The Second English taught bachelor

The faculty ES (Economics and Social Sciences) is adding an English variation to the existing Dutch bachelor of Toegepaste Economische Wetenschappen (applied economic sciences) with two courses to major in: International Business and Business & Technology. “This doesn’t mean that it is an exact copy, but that the learning outcomes are the same”, explains the program director Luc Hens. This doesn’t imply that many courses will be held together, the Flemish students will have to take a maximum of 18 credits (3 courses) in English in the second and third bachelor year. However, it shouldn’t be the case that the two bachelors will become two very different worlds, it’s therefore the goal to have joint guest lectures to integrate both groups. Joël Branson, dean of ES, doesn’t see English as a limitation, but rather as an advantage to the Dutch program as Flemish students can familiarize themselves with this important international language outside of the school books.

“The goal in the strategic policy plan of ES has been for many years to offer a total package of studies, both in Dutch and in English”, explains Branson further. ES was the first faculty with English taught programs at the VUB. “This is because the economic and social sciences lends itself more to the English language, not because we had more wisdom”, says Branson. There are already more than 80 applications for Business Economics, most of these are still being processed but about 15 students are already officially accepted, but “the big wave of applications will come this summer, just like we see with all other programs, as students can still apply until September”, explains Jonas Loos (international marketing ES). “It’s a worldwide audience, not only European, derived from the applications we have already received”, he continues. Half a dozen new staff members and assistants will be appointed for Business Economics to prepare the bachelor for about 100 students. If there are significantly more, extra assistants will be hired last minute. “That is the way to deal flexibly with an uncertain amount of inscriptions”, according to Branson. 70 students is the financial break even point and is therefore also the goal of the program director. It is difficult to estimate how many applications we will have in September, explains Luc Hens, “because when someone has been admitted, they might not take the offer and there will be many last minute students.” Because ES has grown a lot over the past few years, not only by sheer number of students, but also in research output, the faculty has gained extra resources, describes Branson, “but we never make a profit, all the money we make is immediately invested.”

“Because we are a Flemish university in Brussels it would be wrong to lose the Dutch language out of principle”

Joël Branson, decaan ES

A complete educational offer

At the start of the 2019-20 academic year, the two masters International & European Governance and Sociology will begin, with which the desired goal has been accomplished for ES, according to the dean, with an English program for every Dutch bachelor and master. There will then be a complete educational offer. This doesn’t mean that the faculty will be complete, there are still short term programs, MaNaMas (master after masters) and post-graduate studies where they can expand. Even though the guidelines have been set in stone for years, “the success of Social Sciences encouraged us to launch Business Economics faster”, says Branson. “The success of the English taught bachelor came a little unexpected and created a lot of momentum within the faculty.”

Right now the master International Business welcomes two types of students, the ones who come from a bachelor taught in Dutch at the VUB and international students from abroad. Business Economics is creating a third type. “We don’t expect a lot of people to stay in Brussels, to a certain extent we hope that they’ll search for new opportunities elsewhere”, says Branson, “because by creating something new, you also support what already exists.” Luc Hens also visualizes the ideal Business Economics student as “someone without blinkers, we are looking for world citizens in the making.”

Joël Branson, Decaan ES    © VUB

English in Flemish universities

Flemish universities have been battling for and against the right to English taught programs for a while, with two very strong and opinionated sides. In Flanders a maximum of 6% of all of the bachelor programs is currently allowed to be taught in a different language than Dutch, most of these are in English, this limit lies a lot higher for masters at 35%. According to the Flemish Education Council (Vlaamse Onderwijsraad), a bachelor is considered to be in a foreign language when more than 18% of the courses are not given in Dutch, for masters the limit is once again higher at 50%. These courses are seen as an opportunity for Luc Hens: “You should be able to do a bachelor almost entirely in Dutch, but it is useful to have some English courses in there.” Many people see this as progress, a way to gain better chances. Many universities are also starting to compare themselves more and more with famous universities in the United States and Britain, mostly to create a more serious reputation in the international world, that keeps coming closer to home.

Because of very strict rules in Flanders towards foreign professors, relatively few come here. Since June 2017, professors have five years to learn a basic level of Dutch and pass a test (A2), before this the academics only had three years to achieve an intermediary level of B2. This policy changed because the Flemish universities wanted to be more appealing to foreigners. Thanks to more time to arrive at a more realistic level of Dutch, Flanders became more attractive to professors even though they are still obliged to integrate into the Belgian way of life. Because of this, people stay more permanently and it gives the Flemings more security against the new dominant language: English. The dean sees this the same way, “because we are a Flemish university in Brussels it would be wrong to lose the Dutch language out of principle. If students would only want to study in English in the future, we will have to change our vision, but I don’t think that that will happen very soon.” This has already been taken a lot further in the Netherlands, where more than half of the higher education is already taught in English, the highest percentage out of countries where English is not an official language.

Preparation for a globalized world

Every time you are waiting in line at the cafeteria, getting a coffee at Opinio or want to ask something at the Infopunt, more and more foreign languages are heard at the campus, especially English. This internationalizing is something a lot of people look for, but could this cause our education’s quality to go down? Or is the VUB preparing us better for a globalized world? The intention of a university degree is to emerge yourself in a specific knowledge area, which is the easiest in the language you feel most comfortable in and for a lot of Flemings this is still Dutch. The quality of the courses could decrease because both the students and the professor don’t feel comfortable in English. It does however, also give the perfect opportunity to improve your language skills, in which case everyone also profits. Just like foreign professors have to do a Dutch language test, Flemish professors need to show their English level before being allowed to teach in English. Before this test they need to acquire an academic level of English (C1). “This exam is not easy, I spend an entire Saturday on this test in Ghent”, says Hens. The dean explains further that there are institutions that handle this in a very flexible way, but the VUB does this objectively, so all of our professors go to Ghent for a day to do the test. Throughout the General Strategic Plan 2018-20 for the VUB, the international policy stresses how the VUB wants to balance the local and international influence. This is clearly shown through the efforts of faculty ES in all of their new English possibilities.

Globalization is a fact we can’t deny anymore. The world is becoming more English every day, which benefits everyone, we can share beautiful experiences and reach more people than ever before. English just is an important language and that never hindered anyone from learning an extra language. Like everyone spoke French a century ago, English has transformed into the modern ‘lingua franca’, this is modernizing, a chance with good and bad sides. Learning a language trains your brain and forces you to think creatively about situations. Thanks to this, people can get a better grasp of their mother tongue, to see the their own grammar through an English lens. It is needed, in the world of today, to speak English and the VUB wouldn’t do its job if it wouldn’t give its students a fair chance at the job market. We shouldn’t be putting our energy in keeping English out of our lives, but we have to learn how to cope with it without losing our own language and identity.

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