The Englishization of non-English-dominant universities: An unforeseen consequence of university rankings?

Hultgren, Anna Kristina (2016). The Englishization of non-English-dominant universities: An unforeseen consequence of university rankings? In: Sociolinguistics Symposium 21, 15-18 Jun 2016, Murcia.



This presentation sets out the wider context against which the colloquium is set. It focuses on the reasons why Englishization at non-English dominant universities happens. Englishization is understood as an increase in the use of English in the three key university domains of research, teaching and administration (Lillis and Curry 2010; Dearden 2014; Haberland et al. 2013), effectively reconceptualising English as the “lingua academica” (Vila and Bretxa 2014).

Drawing a distinction between foreseen and unforeseen factors in Englishization, I focus on the role of university rankings as an unforeseen driver of Englishization. I report on an empirical study of Europe, but the underlying principles are global in nature. Neoliberal policies are often formed in supra-national entities such as the OECD and the EU and then trickle down to national and institutional levels (Saarinen and Taalas 2016; Hultgren 2014; Holborow 2012).

A key ambition in the formation of a European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and a European Research Area (ERA) has been to make Europe a more competitive player in the global knowledge economy (Amaral et al. 2009). The political rationale is neoliberalism, defined as “a resuscitation of nineteenth century laissez-faire (hence, neoliberal) capitalism based on Adam Smith’s competitive equilibrium model, in which the unregulated (hence, free) market is assumed to work for the benefit of all if individual competition is given free reign (Piller and Cho 2013: 24). Competition itself is premised on measurability and metrics (Styhre 2014). In other words, in order for competition to work, instruments must be in place that can measure how one entity compares vis-à-vis another, hence the centrality of the notion of “benchmarking” in contemporary society.

Synthesizing data from a variety of sources (Wäcther and Maiworm 2014; Academic Ranking of World Universities 2012), I perform a statistical analysis of the correlation between university rankings and English as a medium of instruction in European higher education. I show that the aggregated rank of universities in any given European nation state correlates strongly and positively (Spearman, coefficient =-.551; P=.002, N=28) with the amount of English used. Mindful that this is a correlational and not a causal relationship, I examine in greater detail the nature of the criteria used in university rankings and consider the extent to which they indirectly engender Englishization.

I conclude by arguing that university rankings, and neoliberalism and metrics in general, are not yet sufficiently recognized factors among policy makers in driving Englishization. Consequently, I argue that greater awareness among policy makers at all levels (global, national, institutional) would enable more informed decisions about the desirability of these partly unforeseen outcomes and ensure that any switch to English is combined with adequate support mechanisms. For the scholarly community of sociolinguists, and in particular those concerned with language policy, I argue for the need to recognize political and economic factors as key drivers of language shift (see also Holborrow; Block; Piller and Cho; Gazzolan; Grin; Ricento).

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