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Looming Dutch election leaves stakeholders sitting in first gear

Rollercoaster would be a tame word to describe the events in the world of Dutch international education over the last two years. 

The debate began after more and more students were reporting difficulties finding housing. Photo: The PIE News

The recent governmental collapse hasn’t helped matters in terms of where universities stand

From a housing crisis, to a stop on international recruitment, to a governmental collapse, almost everything under the sun has happened. 

With a general election in November, there is still uncertainty about what lies ahead in the internationalisation debate in the Netherlands. 

Speaking to The PIE, Jorrit Snijder, Breda University of Applied Sciences’ President, points out that the debate that’s been going on since the housing crisis has left behind some key context. 

“The debate [we’re having] is a very Dutch debate.

“We must ask, what is the European angle? What’s the connection with the labour market? There’s shortages in every sector – this debate should be broader and the European dimension is frankly missing,” Snijder said.

Non-applied science universities have been suffering, arguably, on an even greater scale; the cap on recruitment, and the surprising relinquishment of self-direction amid the so-called “oversubscription” of students has been difficult for institutions.

The recent governmental collapse hasn’t helped matters in terms of where universities stand – consultation was opened about the recent bill, which has been debated by parliament and is slated to resurface again as soon as a government is installed. 

4TU – a group of four universities, including University of Twente, Delft University of Technology, Eindhoven University of Technology and Wageningen University & Research – released its own response to the bill amid the consultation period. Their thoughts were not far from scathing.

“To meet the high demand for engineers, the need for international students is of the utmost importance – especially so that 4TU can continue to compete at the top level internationally, to continue to attract top international talent – both students and staff,” the statement said. 

Speaking of a Dutch debate, the row over the language of instruction at Dutch universities has also reared its ugly head as part of the bill. 

Juriaan Beuk, head of communications at Nuffic, told The PIE that the government’s focus on it had come from the observation of many Dutch universities’ approaches to various degrees.

“There are some signals that if you offer, for example, all your business degrees in English and nowhere in the Netherlands in Dutch, you’re going to exclude some Dutch people.

“It’s to ensure people can study in the language they want. And that the Dutch students can still study,” he added.

He did note that there would continue to be speculation on the matter until the bill has been properly debated – and relented that there would always be some in the parliament who would advocate for all Dutch study. 

“That’s politics,” he added. 

Dutch education minister Robbert Dijkgraaf, whose time in post may come to an end depending on the election outcome, said that two thirds of instruction should be in Dutch but “you can do a third in English” – and crucially, that “a combination will be possible”. 

“Even our education minister acknowledges that for Dutch students in a Dutch program – in bachelor degrees – it’s good that they have part of it in English,” Fred de Vries, head of internationalisation at the University of Twente said, speaking to The PIE. 

“Our experience is that English-language education does not deter Dutch students”

“But it’s a bit simple just to think that “one third in English” would be the key [in language of instruction]. There are many, many other ways to do it,” he continued. 

Snijder argued that as a hybrid institution (teaching both academic and vocational degrees), the situation is much more nuanced. 

“We very much prepare students for an international job market – in the subjects we teach, a lot of graduates will be going into an international job market where English is essential. 

“If you’re preparing your students for such a market, then English is the language you go for in terms of language of instruction,” Snijder argued. 

“Our experience is that English-language education does not deter Dutch students, rather the opposite: many technical students often consciously choose English-language education,” the 4TU statement agreed.

While it’s an important emerging part of the debate, the lack of ability to self-direct – and the curb on recruitment is still what continuously affects the Dutch institutions. 

De Vries said they’re adapting as best they can, but universities have to stand up in order to be taken seriously in the debate. 

“Universities should still show their strength now and design [courses] by themselves. Within the current guidelines, make sure that the programs are, let’s say, truly international – then with others, and the ones where it doesn’t make sense to do that, you adapt and put in those dual language tracks, for example,” he explained. 

A recent consultation for the bill which will include all these elements was recently submitted – over 200 people submitted feedback, a rare high in terms of consultation feedback, Beuk noted. 

“You make laws not for cities or for specific institutes – so the ones less bottlenecks are of course less happy – some will say there’s no problem in our university – whereas others say, for example, we want new caps. 

“From what we’re seeing, I think there’s agreement that these new fixes should be there,” Beuk declared.  

However, due to the flux caused by the looming election, it’s unclear when such fixes will appear, and in what form, depending on the bill being debated. 

“We very much prepare students for an international job market”

Beuk confirmed it isn’t on the agenda until after the election, and the outcome will entirely depend on which parties prevail.

“This will be very interesting if we don’t have a cabinet,” Snijder noted.

The New Social Contract party – the brainchild of right-wing politician Peter Omtzigt – would push for more nationalistic views on the debate, and the Farmers’ Party, another more conservative outfit, is also gaining some traction in the polls.

“It’s unclear what the exact implications will be of the measures – so let’s protect our faculty and staff and keep them feeling good,” Snijder said. 

“We’re having talks with their international colleagues and Dutch colleagues who are worried about international colleagues,” he added.

De Vries is continuing to focus on the bigger picture – and how students can still benefit in the uncertainty. 

“We are looking at how to make these programs better fit any students, as the quality of education is the driving force. We will focus on that.”

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