News - September 22, 2016

Bachelor’s degrees go international

Roelof Kleis

A small selection of Wageningen Bachelor’s degree programmes will probably be taught in English from 2018. The programmes see this as another step along the road to being an international institution. But the wish to grow plays a role too.

Illustration: Geert-Jan Bruins

About ten years ago, the Bachelor’s degree programme in Food technology was on its last legs. Anja Janssen, chair of the programme committee, picks up a graph to illustrate the point. ‘Look, in 2005 we had 20 to 25 first-years. That is below the viable level.’ The bars on the graph shoot up in the subsequent years. ‘In the last couple of years we’ve had a stable 140 to 150.’ But these figures cannot be taken for granted, as Janssen is well aware. In view of demographic trends, the number of Dutch students is set to go down. ‘We hope to compensate for that with an influx of foreign students. For us that is the main argument for going over to an English-language Bachelor’s.’

Food Technology is one of six Bachelor’s programmes on the list to be taught entirely in English from the academic year of 2018-2019. The others are Biology; Soil, Water and Atmosphere; International Land and Water Management, Forest and Nature Management; and Environmental Sciences. The final decision still has to be made, and this will happen next Spring. These six programmes are pioneers, says Environmental Sciences programme director Theo Lexmond. He is in the working group that has been pondering the issue. The other Wageningen Bachelor’s programmes want to watch developments; some of them might follow suit at a later date. Five of the programmes do not want to do so at all.

Larger pool

At Environmental Sciences, the wish to grow plays a role in the decision to run the programme in English, says Lexmond. ‘We’ve been thinking about an international Bachelor’s degree for a long time. Some years ago we told the Education Institute that we wanted to go over to English only.’ Environmental Sciences is one of the smaller Bachelor’s programmes. Switching to English is a way of appealing to a larger pool of potential students.’ Here Lexmond has an eye on Utrecht, the only other Dutch university offering a Bachelor’s in Environmental Sciences. ‘They have just merged their Dutch-language programmes into the new Global Sustainability Science programme, which is taught entirely in English.’

So growth and competitiveness play a role. But furthering the internationalization of the university is at least as important, explains Lexmond. And one of the keys to this is the international classroom. That ideal class, in with at least one quarter international students, is under pressure at the moment. By no means all the Master’s programmes achieve that minimum, says Lexmond. ‘Environmental Sciences is one of the most international. At the other end of the spectrum are programmes such as Biology, where less than 10 percent of the students are international. The big surge in recruitment of Dutch students has put even more pressure on that international class. And English-taught Bachelor’s could make up for that effect.’

International domain

International Bachelor’s students who stay on for a Master’s might even out the make-up of student populations on Master’s degrees, agrees Tiny van Boekel, director of the Education Institute. ‘At the moment there is indeed a big difference between the programmes. But the main argument in my view is the international domain in which we operate. Themes such as food production, climate change, soil, water and atmosphere, are international. You add something to the students’ learning experience if you don’t look at these things from the Dutch perspective alone.’ Van Boekel also points to the fact that the Bachelor’s programmes are a qualification in their own right and not just a prelude to the Master’s. When it comes to looking for a job it is a plus if this qualification is international.’


For International Land and Water Management, the switch to English is no more than logical, says programme director Erik Heijmans. ‘For us that internationalization is the most important point. It is always enriching if you can get on with difference nationalities and cultures in places where you end up later. With an English-taught Bachelor’s the students can already start getting used to the intercultural atmosphere you create on the Master’s programme. And those cultural differences are not to be sneezed at. You even see them between Dutch and German or Flemish students. The way Dutch students give feedback, for instance, is very different to the way foreigners do it.’

Bachelor’s degrees taught in English go with Wageningen’s international themes

The Bachelor’s in International Land and Water Management already attracts the odd student from abroad. They first have to learn Dutch. ‘The use of English on the programme will make things a lot easier for those people.’ Of course Heijmans also hopes that an English-taught Bachelor’s will attract ‘some British students or a few Africans’. Nevertheless, he says, ‘growth is not our main argument. We have grown from 30 first-years in 2008 to 80 now. That is quite a lot. We do want to retain the small-scale, personal quality that Wageningen offers.’


The shift to English as the language of communication runs up against various obstacles. The actual use of English in speaking and writing may be the least of the hurdles. English is already used in the last two years of the three-year Bachelor’s programme. ‘It’s a small step,’ says Heijmans. ‘An added advantage is that there is much more material available in English.’

Selection, on the other hand, does pose a serious hurdle, says education director Van Boekel. ‘For Dutch students a VWO diploma suffices, but what about students coming from abroad?’ That problem is acknowledged by the working group, confirms Lexmond of Environmental Sciences. ‘What knowledge do those students bring in with them, and how do you bridge any gaps in their knowledge? That needs to be thoroughly researched.’

Lexmond also points to cultural issues, such as the specific skills required to teach an international class. ‘We ask about this in evaluations of the Master’s programmes. To what extent does the teacher succeed in dealing appropriately with cultural differences? Most of the programmes get high marks for that.’ According to the education director, both teachers and students should be offered ‘tools’ for this. These finer points will be subject to scrutiny in the coming period.