I vaguely remember that there was a European country (not the UK or Ireland) that held a referendum about adopting English as the primary language of instruction in universities. The referendum failed. I seem to remember that it was the Netherlands in the 1970s, but I might be mistaken.

Googling, I am unable to find anything. So hopefully someone here can tell me if any such referendum ever took place or if I'm imagining things.

  • 2
    could it be a poll rather than a referendum maybe?
    – jk.
    Jun 4, 2020 at 15:19

2 Answers 2


I ignored the UK and Ireland in my search, and I found absolutely nothing trying to cover the period from 1945 to approx. 2000 so I'm leaning towards, 'No, there never was a referendum on adopting English in the higher education sector'.

There were two referendums on higher education/research sector in Switzerland in the 1970's: one in 1973 on promoting research and one in 1978 promoting research and universities though their content is not listed. I did not check 1945 to 1969 nor 1981 onwards for Switzerland because this page says their tertiary education is primarily in German, French, or Italian.

Hungary had a referendum on higher education funding in 2008 which was one of the very few mentions of the higher education sector in post-war European direct democracy overall.

The Netherlands did not have such a referendum as they did not have any referendums between 1805 and 2005.

This is also not brought out in the "List of referendums" that I went through on WP between 1970 and 1980, nor on the national "Lists of Elections & Referendums" by country on WP (country-by-country).

Further, looking at this article on higher education in English none of the European countries are listed as having all higher education courses in English. This leads me to suspect this may have only been a plan or a bill of some other kind—but there's still no evidence to point to where it could have taken place.

Perhaps the closest (by a very loose definition) I found to this was a presidential order in Algeria from 2019 where French was replaced with English in the higher education sector.

  • Thanks. Seems pretty convincing. But I'll wait a little bit to see if there are any other answers
    – user38378
    Jun 4, 2020 at 5:38
  • I didn't investigate Poland, Czechia (as part of Czechoslovakia), Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia, and the USSR member states for the above analysis.
    – gktscrk
    Jun 4, 2020 at 12:06

Netherlands seems to be the only possibility. However this Wikipedia article does not mention a referendum.

Most university master's degrees are in English, and an increasing number of bachelor's degrees are as well,[6] and even the first degrees of community college given in English have made their way into existence. In addition, many degrees that are taught in Dutch use English-language materials (such as books) and names.

  • 2
    Netherlands didn't have any referendums between 1805 and 2005. In 2005 a referendum was introduced in the Dutch Law, but it was rarely used (the hurdle to organize one was very high) and none of those was on the subject of education. Meanwhile the parties currently in power (who never liked referendums in the first place) consider it a failed experiment and have abolished it.
    – Tonny
    Jun 4, 2020 at 13:38
  • 1
    Back in the early 90's when I lived in the Netherlands, the universities all used English language textbooks for technical subjects (physics, chemistry, materials science) primarily because who wanted to write on in Dutch (or translate it) given the fairly small target audience. I never heard of any 'referendum' about that - it was just the obvious thing to do.
    – Jon Custer
    Jun 4, 2020 at 15:04
  • 1
    Yes, the physics lectures were (at least primarily) in English. Remember that all students (who ended up in physics) took Dutch, English, French, and German in primary school. Their English was quite good. All science at the institute I worked at was done in English. (The only Dutch I encountered who did not speak decent English were the nice elderly couple the next floor down who witnessed first hand the liberation of Amsterdam.) It was kind of funny to hear people try to talk about physics in Dutch - half the words were technical English terms since their Dutch equivalents were never used.
    – Jon Custer
    Jun 4, 2020 at 21:21
  • 1
    From what I can see of the context the word "referendum" is used in that thesis it's simply an example sentence in Dutch English to illustrate "Loss of distinction between quantifiers for count vs non-count nouns". It has nothing to with a referendum actually happening in this context, it's just an example sentence to show a grammatical feature.
    – Ivan McA
    Jun 5, 2020 at 10:52
  • 1
    @Ivan McA: thanks, I removed that reference.
    – Alex
    Jun 5, 2020 at 11:07

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