There are reasons for and against teaching in English. But before exploring those, it is important to understand that language is a key component of university internationalisation.
So, why should universities care about internationalisation? Higher education institutions usually fulfill two missions for society: Advance science for the benefit of the public, and educate citizens -the latter often combined with the goal to have a capable workforce. All else being equal, a more international higher education system will fulfill both missions better:
Research and publications in English will mean increased public attention on a global scale. Universities can recruit the best-suited researchers and teachers globally, not just locally. In fact, if Finnish university researchers did not publish studies and results in English, it’s unlikely much of it would be noticed abroad.
Source: Statistics Finland.
The same is true for attracting the most capable students: By offering education in English, universities open doors to a much larger population of potential students, making it easier to fill classrooms with smart minds.
At the same time, employers will get access to a more flexible, more international workforce. This plays into the 'soft power' component that is so often cited: higher student mobility improves political and trade relationships. That is, in a nutshell, why a country like Finland wants to educate more foreign students at its universities, while also sending more Finnish students abroad.
The downsides to teaching in a foreign language
As a key factor of internationalisation, teaching courses in English is an absolute necessity to attract meaningful numbers of foreign students. (Anyone who has ever taken a Finnish lesson can attest to that.) But while there are benefits, there are also undeniable downsides to teaching and learning in a foreign language.
In general, factual learning is most effective in a native language. In an international classroom, English will be almost nobody’s first language -student or teacher. That means there are adverse effects on learning success, even though experts disagree on how bad these effects ultimately are.
To address this issue at least somewhat, typical university admissions criteria include minimum levels of English. To study in Finland in English, students can show their proficiency with internationally standardised tests like TOEFL or IELTS, and other methods exist.
Some critics also point out that the standardisation of language can lead to a loss in diversity of thought and culture. On the other hand: If a common tongue fills a classroom with students from all over the world, that point seems moot.
In fact, the opposite is true: If someone improves their English by studying in the language, it is much more likely they will be exposed to new and different perspectives (and share theirs) through new acquaintances, and by access to information not available in their mother tongue.
University of Tampere. Photo: Mirella Mellonmaa.
Are local students disadvantaged?
There is valid criticism that a too-strong focus on teaching in English may shut out some students from higher learning. But what is 'too strong'? That definition is fluid, and it varies with a population’s proficiency in English and its predominant political influences.
In Denmark, the previous government enacted a lower cap on international student numbers. This was also driven by a concern that many foreign students left Denmark after graduation. And, apparently, reducing access was seen as a better measure than increasing integration efforts. However, after the 2019 election, things might move in the opposite direction again.
In the Netherlands -long a front-runner of university internationalisation- public concern has grown over supposed adverse effects of attracting large numbers of students from abroad.
But the situation is very different from Finland: 11.5% of the student population are international (Finland: 6.9%), and a larger share of programmes are offered exclusively in English: 28% of all Bachelors programmes and a staggering 76% of all Masters.
Although it’s hard to find an actual disadvantage for domestic students, it’s also not surprising that numbers like that would attract attention from vocal critics. The result: drastic budget cuts for Nuffic, the agency in charge of promoting Dutch education abroad.
There is a compromise, but it’s difficult
As is so often the case, there is a promising solution, but it won’t be easy to implement: Bilingual study programmes in English and Finnish (or Swedish, for that matter).
To be more precise, such programmes could begin in English and then slowly incorporate the local language, rather than requiring knowledge in it from the start.
Students could start the first semester with classes in English, plus an introductory course in Finnish. The second or third semester could then include subject classes that are taught in basic Finnish.
Of course, one would not expect graduates from two-, three- or four-year bilingual programmes to speak fluent Finnish. But the “forced exposure” will almost certainly guarantee a higher proficiency, and thus allow for much better integration into society and the local job market. And this could further increase the benefits that Finland’s universities already generate for the country.
*Gerrit Bruno Böss is the Founder & CEO of Study.eu.