European universities are a bastion of original thinking, but as more and more gets taught and learned in the English-language, conformism is bound to spread.
ZURICH — The ongoing debate about the heavy influence of the English language in our education system is mostly focused on primary and high schools. But within many Swiss universities — in economics, finance and management — the utter domination of English has in fact become the norm in master's degree and PhD courses. The same goes for publications and faculty reunions.
There is a process of excluding national languages at the higher education level. And it's not limited to Switzerland. It affects the whole of continental Europe. It's a choice that doesn't make the headlines, and yet it's not a neutral one. It's a strategic one, and it will have serious consequences.
The first is homogenization of teaching and thinking. Having a single unique teaching language goes hand in hand with pensée unique, or mainstream, comformist thinking. And as the last financial crisis demonstrated, one-track deliberation is dangerous.
What's more, the argument that suggests this intensive use of English boosts student exchanges is a double-edged one. Student interest in spending a semester abroad will indeed be limited if the language and the books the students use are the same everywhere. The global challenges we face today should, on the contrary, encourage students to adapt to various environments, to understand them and to be able to communicate with the local actors.
The second consequence has to do with the waning influence of national languages. Foreign students who come to Switzerland to study for their master’s degrees or PhDs are not encouraged to learn our languages — French, in this case. In fact, they are rather dissuaded from doing so, the priority being to focus on their studies and perhaps then go to an English-speaking country to polish their knowledge, rarely of Shakespeare's language but rather of a tasteless technical idiom.
This policy is wrong. First of all, it would be useful for these students to better understand the country in which they are staying, and second, it translates into a loss of income for language schools and local businesses — and, ultimately, for the Swiss economy.
The third consequence of this linguistic choice is the resulting follower strategy adopted by continental Europe's universities. This homogenization encourages students going abroad to continue their studies in the United States or in Britain, instead of going to a non-English-speaking country.
C'est pas bien
The end result is bad for European universities, and French-speaking ones in particular. When they contribute to the idea that their American sisters are the model, they often wind up recruiting students who wished to enter one of these U.S. institutions but saw their applications rejected.
Those who study in Switzerland, or more generally in continental Europe, will implicitly learn that the real model is elsewhere, namely in London or New York. This is an unfortunate conclusion, given the origins of the financial crisis, and these students will think that learning the local customs and culture, its riches and its nuances, is irrelevant.
[rebelmouse-image 27088228 alt="""" original_size="500x281" expand=1] At France's University of Nantes, listening clearly (Photo - Manuel)
This follower strategy, which prevails in economy, finance and management courses and also exists in other domains, naturally has consequences for international rankings too. According to the 2014 Shanghai Ranking, 16 of the best 20 universities are American, three British and finally one, the 19th, is Swiss.
How can we explain such a domination? To be sure, certain American universities, such as Harvard, Stanford and MIT, deserve their ranking. But these results nonetheless seem exaggerated when compared to what the American economy represents, which is about 22% of the world economy. Furthermore, the fact that not a single university from Germany, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Japan or France is in the top 20 is surprizing.
The criteria are biased to favor British and American universities. Strangely, cultural diversity is not taken into consideration. So continental European countries are engaged in a race they have already lost.
But there is an alternative that is both possible and desirable.
With enough political will, a different strategy based on the following characteristics could be created. First, foreign students who don't speak the national languages should be encouraged to learn them during their stay. Second, we should go back to using the national languages in master's degree and PhD courses and make sure this is also the case for bachelor degrees.
Of course, the English language must play an important role, but not to the detriment of our own languages. Similarly, more books written in French, German and Italian should be used in classes, and more diversity should be allowed in the teachings, especially in economy courses. Finally, we should create international university ranking systems that value cultural diversity and take into account the capacity to teach and learn different languages.
*Marc Chesney teaches finance at the University of Zurich.