The regional education minister for Flanders Ben Weyts has made an unprecedented move to refuse a package of applications for English-language courses in an effort to "preserve Dutch-language education."
Weyts clashed with universities about a number of proposed foreign-language courses. The biggest bone of contention was the master's programme in civil engineering, in which three Flemish universities wanted to scrap Dutch-language masters from the next academic year.
Although their request received a favourable opinion from the competent committee, it was a firm "no" from the Flemish government, with Weyts calling the move to scrap the Dutch version of the course "a bridge too far."
"I completely understand that universities are responding to requests from sectors and also want to attract more foreign students, but this should not be at the expense of Flemish students and their right to a quality Dutch-language education," Weyts said.
'Very exceptional rejection'
From kindergarten to the final year of secondary education in the region, the language of instruction in schools is Dutch. However, in higher education, this is not a mandatory requirement though there must be a full equivalent course in Dutch.
Nonetheless, the Flemish government can decide to allow exceptions to that principle, and historically has done so. Yet last week, the Flemish government rejected 32 requests for exemption for a total of 19 master's programmes that the universities would no longer offer in Dutch.
Weyts said it was “very exceptional for the government to refuse such applications” but expressed concerns that their approval could create a language gap between English- and Dutch-educated students.
Alle begrip dat de universiteiten willen ingaan op de vragen van sommige sectoren en ook meer buitenlandse studenten willen aantrekken. Dat mag echter niet ten koste gaan van Vlaamse studenten en hun recht op een kwaliteitsvolle Nederlandstalige opleiding. pic.twitter.com/Q06OZ9d9FM— Ben Weyts (@BenWeyts) March 10, 2023
Tweet translation: We fully understand that the universities want to respond to the demands of some sectors and also want to attract more foreign students. However, this should not be at the expense of Flemish students and their right to a high-quality Dutch-language education.
The universities regret the decision, De Standaard reports, with rectors arguing that it ignores the reality that there is a very high demand in the field for more engineers. Rather than lowering the standard to attract more people to the profession, universities had hoped that by offering a degree purely in English would attract more students from overseas.
They also argued that with English-language master's programmes growing in popularity, Dutch-language programmes are in danger of becoming ghost programmes, putting an unnecessary extra workload on already overworked professors.
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Weyts countered this, saying the demand for a Dutch-language master's degree in civil engineering remains. For example, at KU Leuven this academic year, 444 students opted for the English-language degree while 725 chose the Dutch-language variant.
The education minister said that the Flemish government monitors Dutch as a language of education more strictly than before: "It took a very long time for Dutch to be accepted as a fully-fledged language of education, a scientific language, an academic language. We mustn't throw that away now."