Five Wageningen Bachelor’s degree programmes are switching to English next academic year. That is not without consequences for student admissions and assessments, for learning materials and for what happens in the classroom. So it is hard work now on all fronts.
Text Kenneth van Zijl illustration Geert-Jan Bruins
In the spring of 2017, WUR’s Executive Board presented its plan for a phased transition to English as the language of instruction on Wageningen Bachelor’s degree programmes, starting with five programmes in September 2018. The proposal ran up against initial resistance from the Student-Staff Council, which feared a drop in quality and in the overall growth of the university. But after some concessions from the Executive Board – there will be an evaluation after three years, and other Bachelor’s programmes wanting to switch to English within that period can only do so with the blessing of the Student Staff Council – the proposal got the green light. Next academic year, five BSc programmes will make the switch to English: International Land and Water Management, Environmental Sciences, Animal Sciences, Food Technology, and Soil, Water, Atmosphere. Several WUR departments have already been preparing for this transition for months.
Every month on the intranet, the department of Education & Student Affairs publishes an update on the number of preliminary registrations for all WUR degree programmes. A distinction is made between weighted and unweighted registrations. A secondary school pupil who has registered for a Wageningen degree programme as well as three other programmes counts as one preliminary registration in the unweighted figures and as 0,25 of a registration in the weighted figures. A further distinction is made in the figures between preliminary registrations from the Netherlands, from the EER (all EU countries plus Liechtenstein, Norway and Iceland) and from countries outside the EER.
The statistics (see figure) show that the number of weighted preliminary registrations has risen sharply with the introduction of English as the language of instruction on the Bachelor’s programmes. For all the programmes which will now be English-taught, the tally was at 616 weighted preliminary registrations in April, as opposed to over 421 in April 2017. Not surprisingly, there have been far more preliminary registrations from outside the Netherlands (175.4 as opposed to 13 last year). But the number of preliminary registrations from the Netherlands has risen too, from 408.3 in 2017 to 440.6 now (a growth of 8 percent).
Caution is called for in interpreting the figures, warn WUR spokesperson Simon Vink and Dean of Education Arnold Bregt. They stress that it is still anyone’s guess how many students will actually embark on the international Bachelor’s programmes in September. Many overseas students, especially those from outside the EU, will drop out for lack of funding. But one thing you can say, according to Bregt, is that the fear among some programmes that introducing instruction in English would put Dutch students off was unfounded.
All the applications for the international Bachelor’s programmes come into the Admissions Office in the Forum, and the aspiring students’ existing qualifications are assessed. Some of them are carefully scrutinized, as the level required is equivalent to that of the Dutch VWO exam at the end of high school. It is not always easy to establish that equivalence. At Italian secondary schools, for instance, ‘science’ is taught: a mix of chemistry, physics and biology. To test the level of these individual subjects, an internal teacher is asked to assess the curricula. For general information about the educational system in other countries, various databases are used, such as those of Nuffic, the Dutch organization for internationalization in education.
But for certain countries it remains difficult to establish an admissions policy. ‘There are countries in south-east Asia and Latin America where the highest level of secondary school certificate available is equivalent to the Dutch HAVO (which prepares pupils for more applied higher education),’ says Puck Stamps of the Admissions Office, who is responsible for international admissions criteria. ‘But that does not mean we automatically exclude people from those countries. What we do then, for example, is consider whether we can admit them if they have a higher grade average or on condition they do extra year at the university.’
Translating learning materials
Translating learning materials is another challenge facing the international Bachelor’s programmes. Technical terminology in particular requires precise translation. Some programmes have opted to make use of native speakers: Master’s students from English-speaking countries who are paid to translate first-year learning materials. It is up to the teachers themselves to translate their lectures. Most of the academic literature is already in English.
In organizing the translation, an unforeseen obstacle was thrown up by the Wageningen education system, says Arnold Bregt. ‘The education in the first year is strongly interlinked, with introduction courses on Ecology or Cell Biology as part of many programmes. If you start teaching those courses in English, it affects other programmes that are not switching to English.’ So for a number of courses, the teaching will be in English from now on for all first-year students. For other courses a hybrid form has been adopted: English on the international degree programmes, Dutch on the Dutch ones.
Students will be coming to Wageningen in September from secondary schools in dozens of countries. This can cause communication problems in class and in group work. So all the international Bachelor’s programmes will start with an introductory course to help students get to know the programme and each other. Work groups of maximum eight students from a range of cultural backgrounds will get a literature assignment or be asked to make a poster on a particular topic. A coach will supervise the group work and give the students a chance to talk about what cooperation means to them.
This can be challenging, but above all it is very nice to learn from each other, says Erik Heijmans, head of the Education Support Centre. ‘I was programme director of International Land and Water Management for a long time. I asked my students then, for example, what image came up for them if they heard the word “water”. A Dutch student talked about rain and rivers; a Romanian student thought of drought. This creates some fun interaction, and students can learn a lot from each other.’
Bregt expects that the multicultural character of the groups will turn out to be beneficial. ‘I believe that an international classroom with a good mix has added educational value. Many of the courses we teach in Wageningen are about complex problems for which contextual information is very important. The context is different in every land so it is very enriching when international students bring in experiences from their own countries.’
Preliminary registrations for international Bachelor's programmes
Source: Education & Sudent Affairs