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“Strengthen Dutch learning in our universities”, minister insists

Dutch will gradually become the main language in educational institutions in the Netherlands – and international students will have to learn too, the education minister has suggested. 

The plan, which will be debated in parliament later in the year, comes as fierce debate has enveloped the parliament. Photo: Pexels

The measure is just one of many that have been outlined in the letter

In a new letter Robbert Dijkgraaf sent to the prime minister of the country, he said that as part of a “long term and targeted approach” to internationalisation, Dutch should be “strengthened” at universities. 

“Our system is distinguished by an exceptionally wide range of foreign-language study programs… I also want to focus on promoting Dutch in a completely foreign-language study program,” the minister wrote. 

“This means that, in principle, attention will be paid to Dutch language skills in every study program – I want to set higher requirements for being able to offer foreign-language study program,” he continued.

The measure is just one of many that have been outlined in the 26 page letter to the prime minister. 

Fred de Vries, who heads up international affairs at the University of Twente, told The PIE News that the while the current wording on the expansion of the use of Dutch in programs is a slightly “vague”, it would align Dutch HEIs with more of Europe.

“It will hurt some programs – that is unfortunately inevitable, but it’s a matter of how this is worked out – but say if you go and study in Spain you would still learn the Spanish language to actually find your way in the country.

“The issue is, in the Netherlands we are soused to switching from Dutch to English, we almost forget the value of our own language,” de Vries pointed out.

Other recommendations Dijkgraaf has made include that of introducing a “max-capacity” outline on foreign-only programs, and also the promotion of Dutch students studying abroad. 

The letter also expresses that there is a pressing need for a “central management” system around higher education, especially in regards to international student recruitment – with which, Dijkgraaf said he should have the option to “intervene” if necessary. 

“The Netherlands is not an island – on the contrary, we are one of the most internationally connected countries in the world. 

“With a long-term and targeted approach, I want to prevent the quality of our colleges and universities from coming under such pressure [from international oversubscription] that this undermines our international top position.

“I want to support that position. In addition to an accelerator, we also need a brake and, above all, a steering wheel.”

The plan, which will be debated in parliament later in the year – rumours suggest this will be around mid-June – comes as fierce debate has enveloped the parliament regarding the need to curb international student numbers, triggered by a housing shortage.

Perry Hobson, Breda University of Applied Sciences’s academy of tourism director, who has been following the situation closely as slightly different measures are being debated for the UAS sector, told The PIE that the main issues are very closely entangled.

“The issue here is that the numbers of international students in the main research universities has shot up, but in the UAS sector it has not. In fact, for the UAS sector it seems that enrolments are stagnant or declining – but these are the graduates that Dutch industry says it needs,” he said. 

“In addition to an accelerator, we also need a brake and, above all, a steering wheel”

The letter does point out that UsAS in the Netherlands will be faced with a different strategy going forward.

“In general, universities of applied sciences currently have a (still) smaller share of international students, with the exception of a number of specific institutions, and the language of instruction is Dutch in the vast majority of the programmes.

“However, this does not mean that within higher professional education there is no need for strategic action before the same urgent problems arise there as they have in academic higher education,” Dijkgraaf wrote.

Hobson added “lack of access to housing and concerns about the ‘Anglo-fication’ of degrees” were problematic for many institutions.

“That is also aligned with the issues that many of the international students and graduates in the Netherlands don’t seem to stay on after graduation.

“Compulsory teaching of Dutch language within the curriculum, however, seems to be a no-go ‘red-line’ for the universities – as it’s seen as the government interfering in academic freedom,” he pointed out. 

While the matter has been debated, there has been an almost complete halt on recruitment for universities across the sector. 

Dijkgraaf’s plans regarding the Dutch language are, in his view, one of the ways to encourage students to continue to stay in the country after they graduate. 

“These measures should lead to higher Dutch language skills among students, with the aim of a better connection to the Dutch labour market and society and to increase the chances of international students staying.

“In principle, attention will be paid to Dutch language skills in every study program”

Notwithstanding the language question, Dijkgraaf suggests that the central management approach can leave room for customisation in terms of labour market shortages, especially in regards to different regional needs. 

“I would like to see that in the future, as a rule, only foreign students are actively recruited for courses that train for the needs of regional society and on the condition that this does not put undue pressure on the capacity of education or the living environment,” Dijkgraaf wrote.

“It’s a very important issue because the Netherlands is quite a small country, but still companies will be want to near a university have a strong collaboration with them,” de Vries noted.

“It’s a balancing act – the way the way this issue would be dealt with is very different in Amsterdam to how it would be in Rotterdam, or Maastricht, for example. In a sense there I think that’s also covered in the regional aspects in the document,” he affirmed.

The central management, which would look at all of these issues, will be given as a project to a “coordinating body”, he envisaged – which would consistently monitor all the issues set out in the letter.

“The central themes on which the body can focus are: sustainability and accessibility of the education system in relation to the total international influx – what can society and the system cope with? – balancing the social consequences and the question of where space can be given for customisation.

“For example, the envisaged body could look at the impact of the measures proposed in this letter with regard to language and capacity, as well as overarching themes, including targets, regional accents and customisation and EU developments in the field of student mobility.

“It would also be a good idea to take a critical look at the full range of foreign-language courses,” Dijkgraaf added.

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One Response to “Strengthen Dutch learning in our universities”, minister insists

  1. Dear Sophie,
    I have never been a “core advocate” for stopping the recruitment of international students. In fact I was the only coalition MP who voted against that motion.

    I have been an advocate, for two years now, of giving universities the tools they need to take control, an of an approach that takes into account what The Netherlands long term needs are with regard to (fundamental) science and human resources.

    I hope this helps PIE News’ understanding of this political debate.

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