UCU’s Cultural Oligarchy

By CLEMENS SCHALLY

Think of three words that define the UCU brand. Was ‘Internationality’ one of them? If it wasn’t, too bad, since this is a print article without a comment section and the question therefore purely rhetoric. However, let’s just assume you did.

The concept of internationality is deeply ingrained in UCU’s self-image. On the website, the Dean professes that we are an “international community of students from all over the world.” In a way, he is correct. Open one of your workspaces, look at the class list and count nationalities and/or where people have grown up. Chances are that you’ll be confronted with a large portion of students who indeed hail from all over the globe. Official UCU statistics (2015) put the percentage of students without Dutch nationality at roughly 30%. Add the double nationals and you’ll have a good 47%. Unique, right?

Not really. Figures like these are not unheard of in other universities. Maastricht University for example advertises an international rate of 49%, trumping UCU even if you count double-nationals.

But then, comparisons mean little. Isn’t what UCU’s internationality brings us academically and socially what really sets UCU apart?

Academically it’s an essential part of the learning process. International students, culturally diverse, bring a wealth of different perspectives and lived experiences to classroom discussions on every topic imaginable, enriching diversity of thought and encouraging ‘thinking outside of the box’.

Socially we learn how to cope with different cultures, learn how to be open to others and their often differing values and traditions. We become friends with people from all across the globe, discovering humanity behind preconceived stereotypes of other nationalities.

In brief, we are to become a specific type of person, ‘Global Citizens’, Cosmopolitan Spirits, the vanguard of a new transnational era. Future leaders, seamlessly fitting into the intricacies of international organisations and corporations all while sculpting a great, idealistic character.

But this wouldn’t be a Boomerang cover article if there wasn’t a catch. To reap the benefits described above, a plurality of cultures is necessary. It’s crucial to bring students from various cultures into a setting in which they can express these differences. Vera, the chair of ASC argues:

“the idea of being international, studying with international students, is that there is some degree of difference. Students can learn from that difference.”

Formation of a cultural monopoly, or even oligarchy, would impose severe limits on how far students can deviate culturally. It would impose a dangerously dominant ‘Leitkultur’, a narrowly defined societal value consensus that is not to be questioned. While social desirability of such is a matter of personal politics on a national level, at an international university, a place of exchange, it is toxic.

UCU is coming dangerously close to such a cultural monopoly. While the numbers really do point to an international student population, they do not signify actual cultural diversity. ‘Internationality’ figures at UCU consist of mere passport distribution, ignoring actual background. Growing up in an exotic country is equally seen as ‘international’, regardless of the circumstances. Instead of a culturally pluralistic society, many students therefore feel that we tend towards a bicultural one: The pure Dutch majority next to a uniform Anglophone IB-dominated third-culture minority.

“Students, especially from ‘international schools’, largely share some sort of monoculture in which people share very similar values, taking away from more genuine diversity,” Joseph, a fourth semester student agrees.

The small minority of non-Dutch, non-IB students feels pressure to adapt to this Anglophone IB-culture monopoly, reducing the extent of their cultural contribution.

Put frankly, UCU is better described as an Anglophone Dutch university with a disproportionate number of students schooled at International Schools than as an International University.

But what can be done to reap the full benefits of an international orientation? We need to actively promote a less uniform culture at UCU, breaking up the third-culture grasp on UCU’s ‘Leitkultur’. While breaking up the Dutch majority remains a distant consideration, we are in the Netherlands after all, the so-called international students are an easier aim. Breaking up this value consensus, even if larger groups remain present, would enable students from still differing cultures to feel more comfortable voicing their opinions; several norms are more permitting to debate than a single. Socio-economics, through scholarships and fees, play a big role in doing so, but this has already been written about in detail. However, why not attempt a different, admittedly radical, solution? A solution that doesn’t only solve the cultural monopoly problem, but also thoroughly improves UCU’s education. The key is language: stop teaching exclusively in English, add other languages to the curriculum; make UCU multilingual.

A multilingual curriculum would offer course options, aside from language courses, in more than one language, realistically two or three. Incoming students could be required to take classes in at least two languages. Imagine that when starting UCU you would not only declare your major, but also in what languages you would do it. History and literature, courses in French and Spanish. Political Science and Law, Italian and English.

Such a curriculum would be beneficial to many areas where UCU is lacking for three reasons. The first is regarding the main issue of cultural diversity. The effect would be the following. Students that have grown up in purely Anglophone settings would be disincentivised to apply, and students from countries where the newly offered languages are spoken incentivised. While this might at first sound like arbitrarily favouring certain countries: it is, but far less so than keeping English as the only language of instruction. English arbitrarily favours native Anglophones and students from International Schools. Proving this point, the British are already by far the largest group of non-Dutch nationals at UCU (stats 2015). By changing this to two or three languages, you permit more of these native speakers to come along for the ride. Choose French and you will get more people from France and large parts of Africa. Choose Spanish and you will reach out to people from Spain and most of South America. Exclusion of certain peoples will always be the case; the question is which ones. You might argue that many people are not comfortable with such languages aside from English, but then many speak the potentially offered languages better than English, giving these people more reason to apply.

Language education is the next vital point. It takes a special type of arrogance to assume that the world of the future speaks English. Being international means being able to interact with other cultures. If you want to communicate on a deeper level, you will have to speak their language. The same goes for if you want to live in another country. While UCU acknowledges this through language courses, their usefulness is contested. In a non-representative poll conducted among UCU students, only 42% of respondents agreed that language education at UCU is effective. Even if you would come to UCU not speaking that other language perfectly, or even adequately, experience shows that immersion is the best teacher. Being thrown into circumstances in which you suddenly have to read, write and speak in another language will kick-start your language learning curve. And remember, first year GPA doesn’t count for a reason.

The last reason is the raison d’être of LAS education: breadth of perception and discourse. Not only would multilingual education be vital in increasing cultural diversity on campus, learning in other languages (at least in humanities and social sciences) would add multiple dimensions to the understanding of topics. It is no secret that translation is never perfect. Certain concepts can only be expressed in certain languages. English, being pragmatic but often imprecise, can be crucially lacking, note the use of ‘Leitkultur’, or ‘raison d’être’ above. It can be enlightening to study authors in their original language. Even in the days when Latin was the academic Lingua Franca, Greek was required for complete understanding of crucial works. Similarly, UCU relies heavily on Anglophone textbooks, often written from an excessively Anglo-Saxon perspective. I remember my economics professors always having to point out the inherently liberal perspective of the textbook our class used. Less reliance on English language textbooks would open up yet another level of diversity of thought.

The ideas in this article are, of course, ambitious. It is necessary to point out that even with will and funding, multilingual education might take years to come to fruition. It requires a change in admissions policy and especially hiring policy. However, the prospect of turning UCU students into true citizens of the world is without a doubt a goal worth striving towards. Let us therefore start with small steps. What about introducing single classes in other languages? Latin American literature. French philosophy. German political theory. Let teachers give lectures in their own languages. Have guest lecturers come from across Europe. And, most importantly, encourage everyone to speak their mother tongue as often as possible. Laissons UCU erklingen en los maravillosos klanken van la lingvoj del mondo.

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