Language Policy leaves room for interpretation

Recently, updates to the RUG Language and Culture Policy were presented to the Board of Directors. But the new rules leave some room for interpretation.

The RUG needs to have up to 35 percent of its students coming from abroad by 2020 to continue growing, according to the plans. More English-speaking people means more English-language publications, which means more citations and therefore higher positions in the university rankings globally.

However, that doesn’t mean that the University itself suddenly becomes completely international. The new policy makes English mandatory and ‘stimulates’ Dutch, and other languages are also a possibility when applicable. But that can actually lead to some confusing situations, both for lecturers and students.


One lecturer who wanted to remain anonymous had an experience at the University that the new rules seem hopeful to avoid. As an international instructor who was not required to speak Dutch in order to work here, she wound up teaching a course in English in an otherwise Dutch-taught programme.

What else is changing?

Since January of 2015, staff and students have to be able to speak English (which will be more regularly assessed from now on) and Dutch is ‘voluntary but stimulated’. Other languages can be incorporated when appropriate, i.e. teacher training courses for future German and Spanish instructors.

Establishing ‘clear, consistent entrance and exit levels of English’ and raising the fluency goal of Dutch classes for internationals from A2 to B1 are also new developments.

It will be the responsibility of a project group comprised of ESI (Educational Support and Information), the Language Centre, Human Resources, the Education & Students Department and representatives of two faculties to oversee the implementation of the plans. A budget of 344,000 euros is available in 2015 to finance the group’s work.

There will also be more effort to place international staff and students in leadership positions where they can more directly influence university policy.

‘It was a mismatch of expectations’, she says. In her course, a handful of students did their exams in Dutch because that was their right by national law. She had to enlist help within the department to translate the exams into English so that she could grade them. ‘It was quite disappointing’, she says.

Under the updated RUG language laws, another language can be used for instruction and exams if: the degree programme concerns a different language; instruction is provided by a foreign lecturer; the language is an optional part of the programme; or the ‘specific nature, organization or the quality of the teaching’ or ‘the origin of the students’ makes it necessary.

That means that projects like the International Classroom have the right to require instruction and final exams in English. During a transition period, students who started their studies in a programme whose language of instruction was Dutch can complete their studies in Dutch.


Even though the RUG is moving ahead with the updated language policy, Dutch national higher education law is actually worded differently than the University’s new rules. In particular, Dutch law for higher education and scientific research article 7.2b says: ‘a language other than Dutch can be used if it is a guest lecture being given by a non-Dutch speaking lecturer.’ It doesn’t mention regular courses by name.

RUG lawyer Kristel Modesti says that the RUG law is not in conflict with the national law. ‘If the faculty board, after consulting the specific advisory committee of the course, is of the opinion that the course needs to be in English, the Board can decide upon this accordingly.’ Modesti says that courses that are not officially International Classrooms could also justify using English under this ruling.


The new rules are intentionally broad, which could be a good thing or a bad thing. Associate professor of developmental psychology Saskia Kunnen says that it makes sense that Dutch students prefer to do their exams in their native language. ‘I teach one course in English and the rest in Dutch, and it has happened that Dutch students have asked if they can do their exams in Dutch, even in the English-taught course. I’m able to grade both, but the students can of course better express themselves in Dutch.’

Michael Stevenson, an assistant professor of New Media and Digital Culture, has experienced the flip side of that. ‘There have been some issues with young Dutch students who want to write their exams in English. If they ask to do that, I tell them to concentrate on the material instead of the language. It should always be a level playing field.’

‘I have had one example of a student in one of the international courses who asked if they could do their exams in Dutch’, he says. ‘But I would sooner file that particular case under someone looking for a short cut rather than a serious language concern.’

The new policy seems to simultaneously aim for more enforceability and broader definitions about when it’s okay to adopt a different language of instruction. ‘A change of language of a course doesn’t happen overnight’, Modesti says. ‘Often, it is an ongoing process that takes years.’