Oct 16 2003
Go English? What language for higher education in 21st century Europe?


In an ever growing number of fields, English has become the unchallenged language of scientific publication throughout the world. Teaching at all levels, including higher education, by contrast, keeps operating overwhelmingly in the various vernacular languages. But for how long? As the transnational mobility of students increases, especially within Europe, as competence in English spreads, as the improvement of one's English gains in importance, as the proportion of the teaching material in English grows, the pressure to organise more and more university courses in English builds up throughout continental Europe, whether at the postdoctoral, postgraduate or even undergraduate levels. Indeed, for some courses, conversion to English is, and will increasingly be, a matter of life or death.
The aim of this second Ethical Forum of the University Foundation was to assess the present situation and the underlying trends as regards the language regime in European higher education, and to reflect on the values at stake and how they should guide policy in this area, whether at the level of departments, universities, governments or European institutions.

In the first half of the afternoon, we first put the issue in a historical and comparative perspective, by following the process through which the academic lingua franca of the Middle Ages was gradually replaced by the national vernaculars and by looking at the most massive case of a higher education sytem in which English is used instead the vernacular: India.
Next we turned to recent trends in Europe in general and in the European country whose higher educational system has turned to English in the most resolute way, Finland: What proportion of the courses, of the programmes, of the students have turned to English? At what levels, in what subjects, in what sort of institutions? To what extent is this trend driven by the need to accommodate foreign students, or rather by the concern to equip local students for a globalised economy, or again by the dominance of English-language teaching material? Does the level of linguistic competence of the students or the teachers present a serious problem? Is there a perceived threat to the survival of the national language as a lively scientific/intellectual language?

In the second half of the afternoon, after the presentation of a survey on competence in English and attitudes towards the use of English as a medium of teaching among students and lecturers in a Belgian university, we heard some contrasting views about what needs to be done and had a general discussion on the subject.

Programme and downloadable contributions

14h-16h : First session : Looking backward and sidewise

  • Introduction by Jacques WILLEMS, former rector of the Universiteit Gent, Chairman of the University Foundation
  • Hilde SYMOENS, professor at the history department of the Universiteit Gent: "From Latin to the vernaculars. The language of higher education from 12th to 19th century Europe" (document)
  • Roland BRETON, professor emeritus at the department of human geography, Université de Paris VIII: "English above the vernaculars. The language of higher education in contemporary India" (document)
  • Bernd WÄCHTER, executive director of the Academic Cooperation Association, Brussels, co-author of English-Taught Degree Programmes in European Higher Education (2002): "Hovering English? The language of higher education in today's European Union"
  • Anita LEHIKOINEN, Counsellor for Education, Finnish Ministry of Education, Helsinki: "Ubiquitous English? The extreme case of Finland" (document)
  • Questions

16h30-18h30 : Second session : Looking ahead

  • Lies SERCU, professor at the linguistics department of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Departement Linguïstiek: "English as the medium of instruction in Master's programmes: aptitudes and attitudes" (document)
  • Marc WILMET, professor at the linguistics department of the Université libre de Bruxelles, chairman of the Conseil supérieur de la langue française: "Unification linguistique ou uniformisation de la pensée ?" (document)
  • Herman DEROO, chairman of the working group "Taal in onderwijs en wetenschap" of the Comité van de Academie voor Wetenschappen en Techniek, past president of the Koninklijke Vlaamse Ingenieursvereniging: "Mother tongue and lingua franca: necessity and limits" (document)
  • Jacques DREZE, professor emeritus at the Université catholique de Louvain, founder of the Centre for Econometrics and Operational Research (CORE), initiator (in 1966) of Belgium's first degree programme taught in English: "Must every economist be taught in English?" (document)
  • General discussion
  • Conclusions by Philippe VAN PARIJS, professor of economic and social ethics at the Université catholique de Louvain, co-ordinator of the Ethical Forum 

Newspapers articles

  • Le français, religion d'Etat? (Le Monde) (document)
  • La syntaxe, cette mégalomanie modeste (Le Monde) (document)
  • L'anglais, esperanto des auditoires? (La Libre Belgique) (document)
  • L'objectif de l'UCL est d'atteindre 20% de cours en anglais (Le Soir) (document)
  • Engels is nodig, willen we snelle neergang van onderzoek en onderwijs vermijden (Campuskrant, KULeuven) (document)
  • Onderwijs stoelt op moedertaal - Onderwijs en taal zijn vrij (De Standaard) (document)