The letter came in response to the internationalisation agenda of the Association of Dutch Universities (VSNU), and to concerns about the increasing numbers of international students and of English-taught courses.
Ingrid van Engelshoven called on institutions to “take responsibility” to ensure that higher education remains accessible to Dutch students, and that the use of English is substantiated by a rationale and labour market needs and “adds value” to the course.
“We are slightly worried about the heavy regulation on the use of English that is implied in the letter”
The National Student Union was disappointed that stricter rules were not imposed by the minister on the use of English as a language of instruction – arguing that prevalence of EMI jeopardises accessibility.
The minister also supported the idea of giving universities the means to manage student inflow, as advocated by the VSNU in an internationalisation agenda submitted to the minister in May.
Nuffic said it is “optimistic” about the minister’s letter, praising in particular her focus on internationalisation for the VET sector, the stress on the importance of intercultural and language competences, and on talent recruitment.
It also welcomed the minister’s emphasis on the importance of teachers’ language skills when involved in English-taught courses, an issue the ministry had asked Nuffic to consult on.
As for the government’s stance on language policy, Nuffic said the picture is balanced – there will be additional checks but the minister is also planning to relax legislation on the use of second languages in the higher education system.
“Her approach does not discourage foreign taught programs overall but stimulates institutions to make coordinated and advised choices that guarantee availability of sufficient Dutch taught programs in our system,” a Nuffic spokesperson told The PIE News.
VSNU’s Bart Pierik told The PIE that the association welcomed the minister’s letter.
“It’s obvious that the minister has acknowledged our concerns and intentions, she also states that she is willing to explore the new measures we propose to continue the positive international influences on Dutch higher education, whilst guaranteeing the accessibility for Dutch students,” he said.
“We are slightly worried about the heavy regulation on the use of English that is implied in the letter,” Pierik added.
VSNU’s internationalisation agenda encompassed several key internationalisation areas, including increasing outward mobility, attracting and retaining foreign talent and increasing the “stay rate” for international graduates. But it also dealt with some “urgent issues.”
These issues include accommodation shortages, inclusivity and accessibility for Dutch students, and a hotly debated topic – English medium instruction, which has recently seen two universities being taken to court by Better Education Netherlands for offering “too many” courses in English.
“We made several proposals,” Pierik told The PIE.
“The main point is: internationalisation of higher education is a good thing. But it also requires [that] universities… are very careful ensuring accessibility of education. The market for student accommodation also needs attention, and so do the language skills of teachers.”
For Pierik, the “backlash” against English is not that widespread, but it’s something the sector has taken on board.
“Universities need to make sure that courses are also offered in Dutch – this is something we take up as a sector”
“I think that influx of English in higher education is a development that some people are not too enthusiastic about, but I don’t think there’s a big movement against it,” he continued.
“But universities need to make sure that courses are also offered in Dutch – this is something we take up as a sector,” he explained.
VSNU also recommended managing and redistributing the flow of international students, which is currently imbalanced in favour of research universities.
It further recommended restrictions for English-medium tracks, the possibility to impose a cap on the number of non-EEA students and to charge them higher tuition fees and include ‘diversity’ as a criterion for selection.
The association added that if the student influx increases (due to “unforeseen international developments” such as Brexit) universities wouldn’t be able to absorb it without extra investment.
Studyportals CEO Edwin van Rest told The PIE that although the country has experienced an impressive growth, it only has 11% international students, compared with 18% in the UK.
Commenting on the minister’s letter, he said: “we are happy about the recognition of the economic and quality value that international education brings.”
“For both the sustainability of the Dutch economy as for its top universities, it will be important to improve the ability to attract top students and faculty to the Netherlands. Given the ageing population, number of attracted students in total will start to count too.”