The rise of English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI) has prompted concerns over linguistic injustice, educational disadvantage, societal inequality and epistemic homogenization. As EMI tends to generate heated debates, its drivers need to be better understood. Borrowing conceptual frameworks from political science, this article proposes a new understanding of the drivers of EMI, pointing to the introduction of new steering tools in the 1980s to govern Europe’s higher education institutions. Conducting Process Tracing in a Dutch university, and drawing on document analysis and interviews with nine “elite participants” – Ministers of Education, University Rectors, Members of the University Executive Board, Faculty Deans and Programme Leaders – we argue that the very first EMI programme at our case university may be traced back to a set of governance reforms in the Dutch higher education sector that introduced key performance indicators and institutional profiling. Responding to calls for linguists to engage with the political economy, we identify previously under-illuminated links between political processes and EMI. We conclude that close attention to the political economy is key to understanding the rise of EMI, and more generally language shift, and ultimately to tackling linguistic injustice that may follow in its wake.