ARE AFRICA’S ENGLISH-SPEAKING STUDENTS UNDERRATED DURING ADMISSION AT LEIDEN UNIVERSITY?
A system of University admissions where inclusion is only written on promotional material!
The destructive sting of European imperialism continues to rub pepper in an old and rotten wound of a feeble and ailing Africa. One would think that by now, it could be very clear how the un-ransomed mistakes of the past have caused dire pain, confusion and death on the African continent and have mercy. Constantly, things happen that show that the “powerful” are not willing to give up any bit of their privilege even in instances where they merely need to exercise the principle of merit.
There are now calls to decolonize academia, but this only resonates with a few who are a mere drop in the bucket, and it will probably take “a million years” to disentangle “Colo-mentality” from Eurocentric thinking which is the basis of the “new science” and international development agenda, so to say, Eurocentrism and colonial mentality are birds of the same feather.
The University as a centre of knowledge plays a key role in shaping the paradigms of tomorrow. If something should change about the image of Africa, the University has an upper hand because all the future imperialistic politicians and renown world influencers are most likely to pass through their hands as a popular saying goes ,” you cannot be better than your teacher”.
The restrictive admission policies at Leiden University in specific therefore should be scrutinized to understand their underlying meaning, whether they are strictly aiming at ensuring quality control of the programs or there is also an underlying agenda, a conscious or unconscious bias to prefer students from certain regions to those from Africa.
To get answers to this question, we (Daniel Okiror and Hodo Hassan) set out to carry research on how the English Language requirement influences student admissions at Leiden University and we also wanted to know the rationale behind this policy. This project was a requirement for our intensive methods class in our MA African studies course.
We chose this topic because Daniel Okiror who comes from Uganda experienced challenges while processing his admission.
Daniel Okiror is an influencer, originally born in Uganda but also resides in Kenya for the last 11 years where he runs an organization that helps street children find an alternative home and works to improve the perspective of Africa through African roots music.
Why is his story important?
Daniel Okiror is a graduate of Bachelor of Social Sciences from the prestigious Makerere University, a MA project planning and management of the University of Nairobi, with a diploma in music from Africa institute of Music. All his life he studied and worked in English. As a well-travelled musician and change maker, English is key in all his adventures, yet with all this background, practical experience and passion in speaking for Africa, he was being denied a chance to enrol to his second Masters in African studies because of an English proficiency test.
Uganda the “best” English speaking country in Africa!
The world linguistics society has named Uganda as the best English-speaking country in Africa, as if this is something to be proud about. Uganda won her independence from Britain in 1962 but decided to adopt a British Education system with English as the medium of instruction. Indeed, English and Mathematics are compulsory subjects and failing any of them means that one cannot complete their primary and high school and move into the next level of studies.
Students who are admitted to University pass through a complex learning process and the cut off points to join University are so high that if you cannot understand English it is impossible to pass because everything is in tough academic language. Moreover, to be admitted to the best University in East and Central Africa, Makerere University is considered a trophy because it’s a dream of every student there yet only the cream succeed to join it. It is ironic that someone who has gone through such a rigorous Education background is doubted for their English proficiency.
We used a mixed media methodology where we recorded our interviews on camera and audio equipment and partly, we used ethnographic participant observation especially since one of the researchers-Daniel Okiror was part of the informants and his story inspired this research. Our presentation was made in a short video of 14 minutes and this article.
Our analysis from our research:
What is the origin of the English proficiency test?
As of June 2019, it was clear that the Dutch “government planned to introduce stricter rules on the language of instruction, raise fees for students from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) and make it possible to restrict the intake on courses taught in a language other than Dutch”. a source said.
According to the minister of Education and culture, Ms van Engels oven, ‘Internationalisation in higher education is a boon for our knowledge economy, the private sector and the job market. Long may this continue!’ she said. ‘However, research shows that the proliferation of foreign students and courses taught in English is putting too much pressure on higher education here. There’s a real risk that the system will soon be unable to cope with the numbers of new students. It will squeeze funding for higher education and crowd out Dutch students. So, I’m introducing these measures to safeguard the quality and accessibility of higher Education and ensure that the international dimension is more in harmony with other aspects of Dutch higher education.’ …’In addition, institutions offering the bulk of their tuition in a language other than Dutch will be assessed by the Netherlands-Flanders Accreditation Organisation (NVAO) on whether these courses add value as claimed. Ms Van Engels oven emphasised, ‘As the minister of culture, I also have a strong vested interest in the Dutch language.’ She said.
At Leiden University, the English proficiency requirement was adopted in 2006 ,(Kaag2020)
Who makes the decisions?
According to Nuffic, the final decisions on admissions are made by each respective University and in the case of Leiden University,
“The admissions office is involved with assessing the applications and Barbara Floris is the contact person for African studies. Furthermore, the admissions board for African studies assesses the application. Lecturers Azeb Amha (VZ), Marten Mous and Mirjam de Bruijm are part of this board.”
(Annelies The Konning Coordinator Humanities. Course coordinator African studies)
Are there exempted students?
Yes. If you are from Canada, New Zealand, USA, UK, Dutch HVO or possess an international baccalaureate in English, you are exempted.
This however raises questions as to what criteria was used while deciding on which English speaking country was selected and which one was excluded. The fact that all the exempted countries are from the west ignoring all the 24 English speaking countries in Africa shows bias. Dr J.A Wenstrate, a policy officer at the admissions office expressed his observation that sometimes images of Africa as a dark continent creep in…’I must admit that to a certain extent, I was influenced by these images as well…the case of Daniel Okiror really opened my eyes to see that indeed there are some English proficient students from Africa who are left out by this rule’ He said.
Dr Kaag adds to this discussion, ‘I was really surprised that these rules try to create an impression that there is a difference between English speaking countries in Africa and those in Europe… I feel there is discrimination. Regularly I come across ideas about Africa in the university which are rooted in a colonial view of Africa’,Dr Kaag exclaimed.
Though Dr Inge Wierenga, the senior credentials evaluation officer at the admissions office suggests that exempting more countries from Africa would open the policy to arbitrary confusion of not knowing where to start and where to stop while giving exemptions, we find this statement not true because so long as a student did their prior Bachelors/Masters in English; it should be sufficient proof that they can use English as an academic language therefore, they should be exempted.
There is a true sense in which skin colour plays a role in the admission process. We observed that all the two students from Sub-Saharan Africa who applied for MA Africa studies in the Academic year 2020/2021 faced strong resistance with the language requirement yet their colleagues who are Caucasoid from Africa were admitted without the language test though their host countries in Africa were not in the list of exemption.
According to Dr Mirjam de Bruijm , one of the board members at the admissions committee of African studies, most of the students applying for an English master’s course have done their Bachelors in English, there is therefore no point why they should do a test. ‘I was shocked that one of our students, a lawyer from Cameroon did not pass the English proficiency test even though his English was good, and he had done his entire Education in English…Infact for us too, it is sometimes amazing that these rules are set up by people who don’t know these regions in Africa where these students come from’
The Bureaucratic nature of university administration seems to make matters worse. According to Daniel Okiror, ‘now that I was experiencing a lot of challenges with my English test results, I tried so hard to reach out to someone in the administration, but it felt like I was talking to a wall. There was no human face to help me solve my issues. I only received standard emails threatening to expel me from the university until I decided to start a legal fight by making an appeal, then I got a response’
Until today, Daniel doesn’t know who exactly was sending him these tough emails without trying to listen to and understand what was actually transpiring. We believe that if an English test requirement is meant to give an assurance of quality of the study, then the University should also demonstrate their efficiency by taking time to understand the challenges their students face, perhaps, the reason why there are less African students coming into Leiden university compared to other European Universities is these bureaucratic and exclusive rules.
Is there room for change?
The segrigative implementation of the English language policy is contradicting the objective of Leiden University to ensure inclusivity and diversity both in the admission and Education process.
Students who have done a bachelors program in English regardless of where they did it from should automatically be exempted because English is English regardless of who speaks it.
The University should employ passionate and genuine Africanists from the continent as their policy advisers on Africa, in order to ensure that they are up to-date with developments from the continent. This will also help to counter the colonial mentality which influences the policy making and implementation processes at the University.
There is need to reduce the bureaucracy. While we understand the need to standardize and digitize administrative systems, efficiency demands for the maintenance of a human-to-human value because the University is dealing with human students who have a life surrounding their quest for academic progress and therefore need to be understood.
In the spirit of sustainable and inclusive development, all the 24 Anglophone speaking countries from Africa should be included in the list of exemptions especially in a course such as African studies that is tailored to the study of this continent. It would be courtesy to make the course more accessible to Africans in order to train more influencers who speak for not just speak about Africa. This is a litmus test if Leiden University believes in attaining the SDG target on equal access to Education.
In case it is impossible to include all the 24 anglophone countries to the exempted list, then all students should be required to do the test, that will be equal justice, yet it makes the university monitor the quality of all its students as well. This way we can see that indeed the exempted English speaking countries too measure up to the same standards they are setting up for others.
Another suggestion relating to African studies; All African studies students must acquire 100 out of 120 in Swahili or any other African language to prove their level of commitment in adapting to their field of interest. Similarly, African studies should be taught in Swahili so as not to live out students of which the study concerns.
The current English proficiency tests are very in-effective in testing the English capabilities of students. It is set up by people who are exempted from the same therefore, they do not understand the extent of inconvenience and humiliation it gives to English-speaking African students.
The language skills purportedly tested by Toefl for instance are questionable. The structures are not based on the language used on daily basis in context. The test hypothesises a robotic being who can answer a question about a subject they have never studied or had interest in within 2 minutes!
Further more, the test alludes to a situation where one must first be excellent in linguistics before taking a course of their choice. Perhaps students applying to study the English language need to excel in linguistics first!
We recommend that all the staff members who are involved in setting these language rules should be given to sit for these exams too, so that they can have first hand experience and judgement on the effectiveness of these tests. If any of them fails, these tests should be scraped unconditionally.
Finally, if the rule should continue, the University should develop its own original test within the University to be administered to all students interested in being admitted regardless of where they come from, given that there is a full department of linguistics at Leiden University. Toefl for instance is too bureaucratic, too expensive and does not attend to her clients resulting to a lot of wasted time, resources and ambitions.
Times have changed now; it is time that we recognize what Africa has achieved with all the limitations forced on her. Though It is true that some systems are not yet well developed, Africa does not need to go through the same steps that Europe went through in order to attain the current level of growth.
Africa has effectively bypassed many levels of growth in all aspects and so, it is totally unpalatable to see that in the 21st century many systems in Europe are still stuck in a colonial interpretation of Africa’s capability.
We believe that a good student should be able to translate lessons from their teacher, develop further and even improve it. This is exactly what is happening in Africa.
While English was imposed to 24 countries in Africa, these former colonies have embraced this and made it part of their life. Even though it is true that a Ugandan English accent may not be the same as British accent but, that is the same with Dutch English too. For instance, It is common to hear Dutch English speakers pronouncing ‘They as Zey’. The basic thing is ensuring that we understand each other and that we deliberately want to build an inclusive world that works for all of us.