Foreign Language Courses at Dutch Universities Continue to Be Cut

Christopher F. Schuetze wrote this article for The New York Times (April 8, 2012) about the elimination of Portuguese from Utrecht University:

The decision to close a Portuguese language program at Utrecht University seemed to exemplify the type of change the Dutch government envisioned when last year it demanded efficiency from the country’s universities.

Once popular, the program now attracts few students, said Wiljan van den Akker, the dean of humanities at Utrecht, in the Netherlands. “I’m not able to keep the Portuguese program open for only three students a year,” he said by telephone from his office last week, referring to the decision, announced in February.

In an attempt to make higher education more efficient, the Dutch government is demanding that universities list their strengths and weaknesses. The aim of this profiling process, generally agreed to by the universities in December, is to establish firm, transparent internal goals.

The cuts and consolidation of language courses at certain universities are the result of budget constraints and shrinking popularity of the subjects, rather than the direct result of government profiling, university administrators say. The highly publicized measures do respond, however, to government demands and help universities prove their willingness to become more efficient.

“It fits in, without any doubt,” said Robert Wagenaar, director of undergraduate and postgraduate studies in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Groningen.

Language learning has been on the decline in the Netherlands, where high schools no longer demand extensive foreign language skills apart from English, university administrators say. Popular university programs risk having to close as more students look toward degrees in other fields.

The University of Groningen is in the process of consolidating many of its language courses, Mr. Wagenaar said last week by telephone. Specialization in individual languages will be subsumed into courses leading to a broader degree, the bachelor’s of European language and culture, starting in 2013, he said.

While no language available now will cease to be taught, it is hoped that an important reorganization will bring more students to the program.

Cultural and historical discussions will take place in Dutch, Mr. Wagenaar said. “We will focus more in a European context,” he said of the new program. “We will bring in politics and society.”

By bringing together students who are interested in learning modern European languages and widening the scope of the program, the university hopes to ensure that enough students are enrolled to help the program thrive.

Instead of the two or three students who start a course exclusively dedicated to Hungarian, for example, all 120 students enrolled in the program at large can discuss wider, more pan-European topics, Mr. Wagenaar said.

And besides benefiting from a more diverse classroom experience, students will spend a semester at a foreign university where the target language is spoken.

Universities are also now competing with one another for a slice of extra education funding. The Ministry of Education will make available €80 million, or $105 million, in 2012 and €325 million in 2016 in additional funding for universities that demonstrate strong academic profiles and efficiency targets in the next five years.

To be considered, universities and technical institutions must submit a profile to the education minister, laying out their plans in terms of strengths and efficiency. Submissions will be made in May for extra funding that is available starting in September.

“They are not obliged to do it,” said Job Slok, a spokesman at the Ministry of Education, adding that he expected most universities to participate.

Sijbolt Noorda, head of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands, who signed the agreement in principle for the universities, says the impetus for cooperation among universities comes from the institutions themselves, not from government guidelines.

“The government really applauds this kind of efficiency movement,” said Mr. Noorda, adding that universities have been working toward such internal efficiency and external cooperation for years.

Mr. van den Akker said he did not like having to oversee the closure of his university’s Portuguese-language program.

“It’s a nasty thing to do,” he said.

But while students will not be able to enroll in Portuguese classes taught by his faculty after September 2014, there is a vibrant Latin American program that incorporates Portuguese-language learning at Leiden University, just 60 kilometers, or about 40 miles, away.

 
 
 
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