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Netherlands: call for higher education funding rethink in ongoing international debate

Debate on government proposals to reduce the numbers of international students in the Netherlands by cutting back English-taught programs is continuing as a public consultation has launched.

Some 72% of international students pursuing a full degree in the Netherlands are from within the EU. Photo: pexels

The 6,000 international student growth in the most recent figures was the slowest level of growth for five years

Last year, Dutch minister for Education, Culture and Science, Robbert Dijkgraaf, told The PIE in an exclusive interview that the country was searching for an “optimal” number of international students, while he praised the role of student and researcher international exchanges.

Dijkgraaf has since urged public research and applied sciences universities in the country to halt the recruitment of international students.

On April 21 of this year, he wrote to the House of Representatives detailing “concrete measures” that are designed to “better control and manage the number of international students coming to the Netherlands”, in addition to “preserving and strengthening” the Dutch language.

Uninhibited flows of students leads to “overcrowded lecture halls, high workload for lecturers and a lack of accommodation, and puts pressure on the accessibility of study programs”, the minister said at the time.

However, Dijkgraaf has always maintained the importance of both Dutch students studying abroad and international students being able to study in the Netherlands. International students’ contribution to Dutch society and its knowledge economy, especially in growth sectors in technology, have also been emphasised often.

The government notes that the total 115,000 international students enrolled at institutions across the country in the 2021/22 academic year was 3.5 times as many as the 2005/06 figure. Figures currently indicate that international students represent 15% of total student numbers at Dutch universities.

However, the 6,000 international student growth in the most recent figures was the slowest level of growth for five years. Funding for the Dutch education internationalisation organisation Nuffic has already been considerably cut back, and its offices abroad – such as in Mexico, Brazil and China, and Russia, Vietnam, South-Africa and Korea – have been closed and backing for Holland Alumni Network officially came to an end in 2022.

Nuffic offices in India and Indonesia will continue to be open until the end of 2023.

The Universities of the Netherlands (UNL) reacted to the plan Dijkgraaf outlined saying initially that the legislation allowing universities to control the intake of international students at degree level was “welcome”.

It noted that Dijkgraaf’s proposal would be targeted, by permitting universities to set an enrolment quotas in specific degree program tracks. The quota would limit English-taught places while leaving Dutch language programs unrestricted.

Universities will be able to define maximum non-EEA student numbers for each degree program, in addition to an emergency enrolment quota if non-EEA applications are growing at an unsustainable level.

UNL added that several universities had indicated interest in the tools that would “enable them to manage student numbers more effectively”.

Examples include political science and psychology at the University of Amsterdam for a restriction on the number of students on a track that is taught in English, and Aerospace Engineering at Delft University of Technology for a maximum number of non-EEA students, it said.

However, UNL president, Pieter Duisenberg, called on government to introduce a funding system that is “less dependent on student numbers and market share”.

“The minister is currently exploring the future of education and science in the Netherlands (through the Toekomstverkenning onderwijs en wetenschap). We hope that this will lead to a system that is better aligned with what is required in terms of both Dutch and international talent and that will make funding is less dependent on student numbers and market shares.

“The current funding system is a distribution model. It is a model that is not suited to the challenges of our time,” he said earlier this year.

UNL also noted that the minister is “keen to consult with research universities and universities of applied sciences over the finer details of the agreements”.

In an online consultation, which – along with the publication of the legislative proposal – UNL described as the most important update since the collapse of the government in early July, government is seeking responses to the bill on internationalisation in higher education.

Suggestions made so far are wide ranging. One response indicates that fewer international students taking flights to the Netherlands will be positive for a rapidly changing climate, calling for colleges and universities to take more responsibility in the environmental crisis.

Others suggest the policy is an attempt to “retreat within national borders”, while others highlight the importance of science being an “international affair” that is largely practiced in English.

Not all responses are negative, with some describing the bill as “well thought-out and actionable” or calling for a complete overhaul of Dutch higher education financing – a point raised by UNL.

Edwin van Rest, CEO and co-founder of Studyportals, said that rather than driving a “protectionist ideology”, government should be focusing on building capacity and attracting more international students that make “the perfect immigrants”.

“The proposal raises concerns regarding university autonomy and the burden of implementing various measures”

Nuffic told The PIE it is preparing its response to the proposals but is not yet ready to comment.

UNL acknowledges the pressure that increased international enrolments have brought over recent years, but emphasised the importance of the “international character of Dutch higher education”.

The country’s universities have been calling for more legal options to manage international student numbers at program level since 2018, a spokesperson told The PIE, such as an enrolment quota specifically for an English-language tracks.

The steering instruments in the proposal will “greatly assist study programs in controlling admissions, monitoring educational quality, and ensuring accessibility for Dutch students”, they said.

“However, the proposal raises concerns regarding university autonomy and the burden of implementing various measures. For example, we are particularly worried about the ministerial regulation governing exceptions for foreign-language education. Universities would prefer to take responsibility themselves to achieve a more balanced approach to internationalisation.”

  • Simone Hackett from The Hague University of Applied Sciences and a member of the EAIE General Council has written an opinion piece on the bill. Read it here.

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