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Dijkgraaf’s bill is the Netherlands’ “best chance”

Dutch stakeholders believe that outgoing education minister's bill is "the best chance" to achieve a balance for domestic and international students in the Netherlands.
March 27 2024
4 Min Read

In the Netherlands, some stakeholders believe that outgoing education minister Robert Dijkgraaf’s bill is “the best chance” the sector has at achieving a balance for both Dutch and international students.

If not, the sector could be up against the proposal of a new cabinet led by far-right politician Geert Wilders, who has a majority big enough to form a government but has been unable get partners in a potential coalition onboard.

Kumi Tempels, policy advisor at Nuffic, noted the presence of an older version of the bill, which is still active, with even stricter regulations that would be “less attractive” for international education stakeholders.

Tempels said that as an organisation, Nuffic is happy with the intentions of Dijkgraad’s bill – the Balancing Internationalisation Act – and its efforts to try to “get a balance between Dutch students and international students in all aspects”.

“Housing, labour market, stay rate – these are all things that are connected to that,” she said while speaking on a panel at The PIE Live Europe in London.

The aim is to effectively reduce the number of English-taught courses on offer and manage the number of international students who come to the Netherlands.

“If we can activate our Dutch students going abroad as much as we can receive the international students, then we have a perfect balance.”

During the discussion, panellists painted a picture of the current situation in the Netherlands, including what led to the government’s proposal.

The rapid internationalisation of higher education over the last decade has led to concerns from government – and wider society – around the accessibility of Dutch students into higher education, as well as what some deem an overuse of English as a language, explained Anne Olde Loohuis, head of internationalisation, University of Twente.

Paired with additional issues in housing and overcrowded lecture halls, the government has called on universities to address this.

“On the one hand, as a university and a higher education knowledge institution, we really cherish our autonomy and our academic autonomy,” said Loohuis.

“On the other hand, we’re a publicly funded institution which means that we also have to listen to signals from society and from the government.

“We’ve clearly heard those and we feel we need to contribute in a healthy debate about this as an academic institution. We want to address the issues that people seem to think are going on.”

However, Loohuis said it’s important for universities such as Twente to lobby for regional differences to be taken into account when it comes to new regulations, noting the university’s close and important partnerships with neighbouring institutions in Germany, where it gets many of its international students from.

She also highlighted the fact that Twente does not have issues with housing.

“We really advocate for a non-one-size-fits-all approach,” she said.

It’s a sentiment shared by other regions in the Netherlands.

In a letter dated March 22, the province of Limburg, its municipalities, employers and employees’ organisations, educational institutions and the business community wrote to parliament to outline the dangers of limiting internationalisation in a province like theirs.

With an aging population in Limburg, and without international students, there is a risk of a sharp decline in the influx of students to MBO, HBO and WO programs which could lead to the disappearance of courses and “devastation” for institutions.

Since 2022, Limburg has been among the top 40 European innovative top regions, according to the European Commission. The letter states that to remain at the top and take advantage of new opportunities, education in the province must be strengthened.

Signatories of the letter are urging the government to take off their “Hague and Randstad glasses” and consider that internationalisation is a not problem for a region like Limburg, but rather a solution, and therefore calling for customised legislation and regulations.

Before the election, Dijkgraaf urged Dutch universities to come up with their own plan on how to manage internationalisation and not leave it up to the politicians, Simone Hackett, senior lecturer at The Hague University of Applied Sciences, previously explained in The PIE.

A recent joint proposal by Dutch research universities set out measures such as a commitment to not introducing any new English-taught bachelor’s programs.

Universities are also advocating for the legal option to impose enrolment quotas for English-taught programs which the current legislation prohibits.

Twente is committed to investigating the possibility of introducing a Dutch track alongside its top English programs, Loohuis shared with the London audience.

Reputation is something you can destroy very, very quickly

“Sixteen out of 20 of our bachelor’s programs are actually English-taught, which is a really high number. We’re looking into that to see to what extent we can to do that to increase accessibility for Dutch students,” said Loohuis.

As was the case in many discussions throughout the two-day event, conversations turned to how policy and politics can have an impact of a country’s reputation as a welcoming place for students.

The result of the Dutch election alone is “not good marketing material”, said Peter Birdsall, president and chair of executive at Wittenborg University of Applied Sciences.

“That in itself is going to make it really hard to attract international students,” he added.

Wittenborg is one university set to be exempt from any changes in law, due to its status as an independent university of applied sciences.

“Reputation is something you can destroy very, very quickly,” warned Birdsall.

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