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April 2017

Ruling out English medium?

In recent years, Italy has been making itself more appealing to the international student market. English-medium degree courses are springing up all over the Boot, from Ca’Foscari University in Venice to Federico II University in Naples, and even in Florence, known as the ‘cradle of the Italian language’.

However, a ruling of the Italian Constitutional Court could spell stormy times for all these institutions.

The court has said that English-medium courses must now also be offered in Italian, and universities will only be able to offer single units taught solely in English if the subject matter requires it. The ruling prompted one university vice-chancellor to say that Italian simply ‘didn’t have the words’ to teach some technical courses and that teaching in English had become vital to what they offer.

The ruling comes as many universities across Europe debate the benefits and disadvantages of offering courses in English (see the story below), which can attract legions of international students.

The news from Italy is the latest chapter in a story which began when the Polytechnic of Milan, a prestigious technology and engineering university, decided to offer all postgraduate and PhD programmes only in English from 2014. A group of lecturers from the polytechnic appealed against the decision to Italy’s Regional Administrative Tribunal, which found in their favour, and the university was forced to give course co-ordinators the freedom to choose the language of instruction.

But when the Polytechnic’s management appealed to a higher body, the Council of State, it found that teaching in a language other than Italian could infringe the constitution by threatening freedom of teaching and the primacy of the Italian language. It could also prevent non-English speakers from accessing education, it said.

However, in the latest ruling, Italy’s Constitutional Court said the law allowing English-only courses did not conflict with the constitution – but they should be run alongside similar courses in Italian. The issue is now back in the hands of the Council of State for the final ruling.

The polytechnic’s vice-chancellor Dr Donatella Sciuto told the Gazette it was difficult to predict what would happen next, but it would still try to maintain an international outlook and ‘abide by the law’. She said that in a technology-oriented university, English-medium courses give students access not only to international employment opportunities but also to subject-specific terminology. ‘I teach advanced computer architectures, and in Italian I simply don’t have the words to teach it,’ she said.

International student numbers at the university have also gone up since the introduction of the English-medium courses – now 24 masters in English, 13 bilingual and one bachelor programme. In the academic year 2012–13 the proportion of international students was at about 17 per cent, while it now hovers at an impressive 30.

Dr Sciuto said that the university was not unique in its course offering and that other institutions offered similar courses in Italian, so non-English speakers were not cut off from learning opportunities. She also suggested that the move to English medium was widely supported by the university staff, and that the appeal to the Regional Tribunal in 2013 was signed by only about 100 lecturers out of a total 1200.

The Italian Ministry of Education said that it would not comment on this issue.

Academic Unease Over English ‘Supremacy’

The ruling by the Italian Constitutional Court (see main story) was greeted with delight by the Accademia della Crusca, the institution devoted to the study and preservation of the Italian language. The language watchdog said it was pleased that the ruling made clear that internationalisation couldn’t relegate the Italian language to a subordinate position or exclude it from whole fields of study. Similar concerns had been raised in 2013 by the Académie Française, the French counterpart of the Accademia, when ministers proposed a new law to allow universities to use more English-medium teaching. The law passed, but public outrage didn’t.

Reactions in northern Europe have not been so heated, but concerns raised by the introduction of English-medium programmes at university are the same: a possible loss of domain for the native language, the inability to access education and information for those who do not speak English, and a possibly poorer quality of teaching and learning if lecturers are not highly proficient in English.

The introduction of English-medium higher education didn’t go completely smoothly even in Denmark, where the nationalist party tried twice (in 2006 and 2008) to introduce a law which would guarantee the supremacy of Danish at university.

The Dutch press reported last year that university student surveys in the country highlighted problems in the English proficiency of both students and lecturers. Some academics also said that lectures given in English by second language speakers ‘may lack passion, subtlety and humour’. Some groups of academics expressed concerns about the supremacy of the English language in academia. German association ADAWiS, for example, supports the use of German as a language for science. It claims the dominance of English in the field may cause knowledge to get lost (for more on this issue, see February 2017 Gazette).

The concerns of the German far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) however, are more of a political nature. In its manifesto, the party said that the German language is the central element of the country’s identity, and that it is ‘worrying’ to see that English is replacing German as the language of science and the economy. The party also recently called for Germany to step back from the Bologna Process, the European Union agreement that ensures the comparability of higher education degrees across member countries.

Pic courtesy: Massimiliano

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