High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands


High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands

Time for Business: Dutch Studies in the UK

Time for Business: Dutch Studies in the UK

The Next Hundred Years of Dutch Studies in the UK

In 2019 the oldest Centre for Dutch Studies in the UK, housed at the prestigious University College London (UCL), celebrates its centenary. Against the backdrop of ongoing Brexit bickering and a precarious climate for Modern Language study at UK universities, one may ask if there is much cause for celebration. No doubt the position of Dutch Studies in the UK will be on the agenda during the upcoming visit of the Education Commission of the Flemish parliament to London. The UK faces a damaging and deepening foreign language deficit. Dutch and Flemish authorities fail to recognise the importance of mutual language and cultural expertise to maintain economic, diplomatic, academic, cultural and creative ties between the Low Countries and the United Kingdom in a post-Brexit world order. Time for business.

Some call it linguaphobia, others simply label it ‘being short-sighted’, but figures show that the United Kingdom is falling behind in language education. The number of secondary school students opting to study a modern foreign language has declined significantly over the past decade. In 2004, GCSE-take-up halved when languages became optional for students aged 14 and up. In the rest of Europe 91% of youngsters study a foreign language as opposed to a mere 40% of British students. There is a knock-on effect on higher education: over the past ten years, the number of students of modern foreign languages at university level has decreased by 57%. Institutions are closing their Language Departments, with the University of Hull – once home to a proud Department of Dutch Studies – as the most recent example.

The British Council is one of the organisations sounding the alarm. In a detailed 2017 report entitled Languages for the Future, researchers explain that in order for the government slogan ‘Open for Business’ and the idea of ‘Global Britain’ to become a reality, Britain must also be open to the language and cultures of their global business partners. Knowledge of language and cultures is vital for successful international relationships at all levels according to the British Council report. This relationship between language and business is underlined by an economic study conducted by the University of Cardiff that concluded that every year a lack of language and intercultural skills is costing the UK economy around 3.5% of its GDP. That is around 48 billion pounds each year. Thus far, these findings have not led to shockwaves or changes in policy. Despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary, the British government clings onto the myth of English as the world’s lingua franca or continues to rely on the linguistic skills of others.

Worldling the Low Countries

So, these are not the happiest of times and contexts to celebrate a centenary of Dutch Studies. However, UCL, the Association for Low Countries Studies (ALCS) and several other partners are – bravely or doggedly – putting together a programme of activities to celebrate language and culture from the Netherlands and Flanders as well as different aspects of Anglo-Netherlandic relations. This includes a brand-new translation of the “book that killed colonialism”, Max Havelaar; a new collaboration between ALCS and Ons Erfdeel; theatre productions and author visits. The year will culminate in the ALCS International Conference at UCL, Worlding the Low Countries, from 8-10 November 2019. A hundred years on, Dutch Studies at UCL is still ‘open for business’.

In 2018, the ALCS reported in detail on the state of university Dutch courses – or Dutch Studies or Low Countries Studies, as we prefer to call them. The results of the survey, The State of Dutch Studies in the UK and Ireland, can be compared with a similar study conducted in 2006, Lying Low. The figures are sobering. Since 2006, the number of students of Dutch has dropped by 35%. The number of institutions offering Dutch Studies as a Major has decreased by 60%: from five universities in 2006 to two in 2018, UCL and the University of Sheffield.

Dutch Studies at UCL has not been spared. In terms of staff numbers, this bedrock of Dutch Studies in the UK has been halved, from 5.0 FTE in 2006 to 2.25 FTE in 2018. Theo Hermans, Jane Fenoulhet, Gerdi Quist, all important pillars in the field of Dutch Studies in the UK, left or retired and were not or only partly replaced. This cutback does not just affect UCL; it poses a serious threat to Dutch Studies as an academic subject in the UK. As a main contributor to a global research community with an excellent publication infrastructure, Dutch at UCL is the backbone of Anglophone Dutch Studies in the UK and beyond.

Dutch of "crucial importance"

Back to Languages for the Future. The British Council’s report includes a top ten of those languages “which will be of crucial importance for the UK’s future prosperity, security and influence in the world”. In order to establish this language chart, researchers applied various parameters: education, economic, diplomatic and cultural relations, as well as the foreign countries’ proficiency in English. After all the calculations were done, Dutch ranked in seventh place, trumping Portuguese, Russian, and Japanese and following Spanish, Mandarin, French, Arabic, German and Italian. When narrowing the focus to British businesses, Dutch climbs to sixth place and when it comes to the demand for languages in export markets, Dutch sits at number three. When you consider that Belgium and the Netherlands together are the UK’s second biggest trading partner, these figures do not come as a surprise. What is baffling is that, in spite of this clear demand, the provision of Dutch teaching is shrinking. And so are the student numbers. Why?

It is a complex picture. Demographics play a part: there are fewer 18-year-olds in the UK, and they have not – or barely – been exposed to foreign languages in secondary school. Over-reliance on English as the world’s only business language and a global decline in the interest in Arts and Humanities are factors too. Then, more and more British universities are run like businesses setting their own priorities and aware of having to balance their books. In an increasingly competitive university market, it is the lucrative non-EU students that provide the income boost. Modern Languages Departments cater predominantly for an internal market and are relatively expensive, with a high number of contact hours and smaller class sizes. In the absence of a national strategy for foreign language provision, it comes down to individual institutions to support a costly School of Languages or invest in courses that attract a profitable global student cohort.

Dutch is by no means the only modern foreign language at risk; German, for example, has seen a dramatic decline both as a secondary school language and at degree level. However, it is the tension between, on the one hand, the identified high economic and cultural significance of Dutch and, on the other, the shrinking opportunities that makes the Dutch case so pertinent. Demand and supply appear out of kilter. Dutch sits two places below German in the British Council ranking, yet the provision of German Studies is twenty times greater than the provision in Dutch Studies.

While the UK persists in failing to invest in the linguistic and cultural competence of their citizens, let’s turn our attention to the Low Countries. How informed and future-proof is our attitude to language study in general and to international Dutch Studies in particular? The UK may well rely on others to adopt ‘their’ global language, in the Low Countries we seem only too happy to accommodate. Worldwide there are about 15,000 students enrolled on university programmes offering Dutch language. Yet we continue to play down – or worse, mock – this interest in the Dutch language and cultures outside of our language area. Surprise is the default setting. “Why are you studying Dutch? We all speak English you know.” We appear to be equally blinkered and ready to ignore the significance of language skills for business, cultural and personal relations. We take pride in our focus on the bottom line and we happily follow the British example of reliance on English as the only language for international business. We have little time for soft power to gain (economic) influence and to foster a positive international image. Ultimately we do not believe that investing in our language and culture for an international audience makes good business sense.

Our European neighbours sing from a different hymn sheet: the Goethe-Institut, the Alliance Française, the Instituto Cervantes and, yes, the British Council, to name but a few, exist in order to promote and strategically position their languages and cultures. Serious money is invested in connecting through language, culture, and learning. The most notable example is the global network of Confucius Institutes that has sprung up in the past two decades, with two institutes in the Netherlands and four in Belgium. As a matter of course, language and cultural education follow economic and diplomatic activity, or, to put it in the words of the Director of the Confucius Institute in Groningen, Knoester-Cao: “The people of the Netherlands deserve the opportunity to discover Chinese culture.” And where are these sponsored institutions strategically positioned? Indeed, on university campuses, precisely where the policy-makers of tomorrow are educated.


It is time to return to 1919 and the circumstances of the founding of that first Chair in Dutch Studies. From his extensive research into those early days, Dr Ulrich Tiedau (UCL) concludes that the first Dutch Department emerged from a public-private partnership aimed at improving the Dutch national image. The reputation of the Netherlands was in need of a boost, the country’s policy of armed neutrality and the political asylum offered to the abdicated German emperor had not gone down well in Britain. A strategic charm offense was in order and took the shape of a Chair in Dutch Studies. A fine example of soft diplomacy.

One hundred years on, 2019 will mark the start of a new chapter in UK-Low Countries relations. When the UK leaves the shared EU structures and institutions, we will have to forge a new bilateral relationship. And, just like a hundred years ago, universities are still key sites for knowledge sharing and developing, for collaboration, and for soft power. In 2019 two UK Universities offer students ‘the opportunity’ to study Dutch language and culture. It is time to stop seeing this number in terms of demise. Let us focus on the close collaboration between UCL and Sheffield as a starting position for the next hundred years; as the foundation on which to build a dynamic Centre for Low Countries Studies. Such a Centre for Low Countries Studies (or House of Anglo-Low Countries relations) will teach, research, represent and promote the language and cultures of the Low Countries in the UK and – why stop there – the wider Anglophone world. This 2019 centre will reach out to wider audiences through cultural events and cultural collaboration with organisations both within the UK and in the Low Countries. The Centre can bring existing but scattered initiatives under one umbrella, academic and cultural, Flemish and Dutch, British Isles and the Low Countries.

If we managed a public-private partnership in 1919, then we should manage it now. After all we have several advantages in 2019. We already have the necessary infrastructure, a well-established reputation, and a collaborative network. Let the 2019 centenary herald the birth of Dutch Studies for the next hundred years. All we need is the sense of urgency of our 1919 forebears and above all their courage to invest in language and culture promotion as an act of friendship and a smart business move.

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