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Internationalisation in the Netherlands: a misrepresentation

Much of what is being reported and communicated by Dutch media and government is a misrepresentation of what is actually happening with internationalisation of education in the Netherlands.

It is unsurprising that universities near the German border, such as Groningen (above), see so many enrolments from Germany. Photo: pexels

The government fails to communicate that 72% of international students studying at universities in the Netherlands come from the EU

This is why the new bill proposed by the Dutch education ministry, aiming to effectively manage the number of international students coming to the Netherlands, should be abolished!

What is happening?

There have been heated discussions recently in the Netherlands around the growing influx of international students enrolled on English-taught bachelor and master programs.

Within the Dutch parliament several arguments have opposed the admission of international students and the number of English-taught programs on offer. There is a lack of overall housing, lecture halls are overcrowded, education quality is declining, the Dutch language deteriorating and Dutch students being outcompeted and pushed out of programs by international students, detractors say.

The debates have resulted in a decision to halt international student recruitment.

“International students only represent 15% of the total student population registered at Dutch universities”

Minister­­ of Education, Robert Dijkgraaf, has introduced the bill proposing universities have legal power and stricter (exception) rules for English-taught programs to give them control over policies related to language of instruction and student admissions.

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.

Although regulation of international student admissions and the number of English-taught programs on offer could prove useful, in the Dutch media there is a total misrepresentation of what is actually happening and who is being affected.

 Should the bill be passed?

In its current state the bill should not be passed. More thought and research needs to be carried and a new bill drawn based on evidence and facts.

The purpose of the bill is to balance the influx of international students, but it needs to be clarified that this should only apply to research universities and only to specific courses at specific universities.

Additionally, the ‘Dutch language is deteriorating’ argument due to the increase in international programs is a fallacy.

The Netherlands – and the world – is becoming more multicultural whether people like it or not. English is the world’s lingua franca for business and science and I suggest that the actions under this point should be abolished.

Most Dutch universities want their graduates to develop intercultural competencies to be successful and offering courses in English provides institutions with a competitive edge to attract diverse talent among both students and academics.

Even so, the majority of programs on offer are still offered in the Dutch language.

The influx of students only affects certain programs that are popular among students seeking to study in English. Those programs are only offered in certain universities of the Netherlands.

International students only represent 15% of the total student population registered at Dutch universities.

Not everyone is aware of these facts or either has or wants the full story.

Headlines or statements around the Dutch language being threatened or Dutch students being pushed out can lead to anti-international student attitudes.

This narrative and actions to ‘eradicate’ the English language from Dutch higher education by capping programs and enforcing the Dutch language, definitely veers toward anti-foreigner, national protectionism and xenophobia, i.e. the ‘let’s make the Netherlands great again’ message.

There are also worries that with fewer international programs offered, the bill could result in fewer international lecturers at universities who bring insight and perspectives from abroad and train graduates to fill labour shortages.

I fear that if the recruitment of international lecturers is stopped, it will have a knock-on effect on the number of skilled graduates each university produces in key sectors, such as ICT and technology, health and education.

Discussion around academic entry requirements to Dutch programs has also been neglected in this debate.

To fully understand the problems the Netherlands is facing, more questions need to be asked and answered, clarity and transparency on the situation (supported by evidence and facts rather than one-sided selective information) needs to be provided by both the government and covered by the media.

The majority of bachelors are offered in Dutch

When government and media speak about internationalisation, they only refer to one form – that is international student recruitment in programs taught entirely in English.

In 2022/23, there were 122,287 international students enrolled at publicly funded universities, accounting for only 15% of all students in Dutch higher education.

The majority of university bachelor’s programs are still offered in the Dutch language

The government also fails to communicate that 72% of international students studying at universities in the Netherlands come from the EU. Neighbouring Germany tops the origin country list with 22,700 students, followed by Italy (7,600 students) and Romania (6,700 students).

Under EU law, students from EU countries have the same rights and access to Dutch education as Dutch students. This means that Dutch universities cannot refuse to accept these students or implement different admission policies for them.

“The majority of university bachelor’s programs are still offered in the Dutch language”

It is important to clarify that the rising number of international student has been reported to mostly affect the country’s 13 public research universities, and not universities of applied sciences, of which there are 43.

With Germany the most common country of origin for international students, we see universities close to the German-Dutch border – such as in Maastricht and Groningen – with higher numbers of international students, especially from Germany. This is logical and natural given the close proximity between the two countries.

Specific English-taught programs, for example psychology courses, at research universities face the biggest problems, but some other English-taught masters programs receive very few or no international students despite being taught in English

Why do other EU countries not experience the same problem?

Ireland, Germany and The Netherlands reportedly offer the highest number of English-taught bachelor and master courses in Europe. Germany offers free tuition and Ireland’s tuition fees are similar to the Netherlands, but why does the Netherlands seem to be the only country that has an influx of international students?

In the case of Ireland, one reason could be the competitive, points-based entry requirements.

For EU applicants, an average of 10 in the Dutch VWO is equivalent to 600 points. To be admitted to physiotherapy, a student must gain 589 points – equivalent to an average of a nine in a Dutch qualification. These entry levels are extremely high for Irish students, never mind Dutch students.

It’s rare for Dutch student to score an average of a nine or 10 in secondary school, and it could explain why the Netherlands has seen an influx of Irish students enrolling in English-taught courses, such as physiotherapy.

In Germany, entry levels tend to be similar to the Netherlands. Germany experienced approximately a 30.9% increase in international students between 2014 and 2019, and a rise of 37% from 2014 to 2022.

Yet, in contrast to the Netherlands, Germany sees international students as an asset to society and the economy. The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) has also recommended that the German government put in place a strategy to double the retention of international students by 2030.

Threat to the Dutch language

Several critics say that international student increases and English-taught programs are putting pressure on the the Dutch language. According to a government reportHet Beleidskompas, there was a mere 9% increase in the number of English-taught programs on offer – this 9% is putting pressure on the Dutch language within education and science overall, it suggested.

This is hard to believe, especially when the increase is seen only within specific programs, and only within certain research universities.

The president of the Board of directors, Geert ten Dam, at Amsterdam University was one of the first to raise the alarm bells on how the growing number of international students is a threat to Dutch students.

She has argued that Dutch students are being outcompeted by students from abroad. She also said that, “There may come a point when you say: you have to learn Dutch if you want to work or study here. We’re not there yet, but I can imagine it.”

Vice-president of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, has responded that the “problem with our Dutch language is not the fact that in higher education we use English to communicate, it is that we neglect to educate our children at a very early age on speaking, reading and listening to Dutch very well”.

The Dutch government recently launched an online consultation on the internationalisation bill. The debate will no doubt continue.

About the author: Simone Hackett is senior lecturer at The Hague University of Applied Sciences and a member of the EAIE General Council for the 2022–2024 term. 

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4 Responses to Internationalisation in the Netherlands: a misrepresentation

    • Hi Elias.

      Thanks for your comment!

      These are the facts based on the research carried out by Nuffic. The article you refer to only gives the stats for research universities in the NL not HBO/universities of applied sciences

      15% (of total pop) refers to the intl students registered in 2022/23 at both publicly funded research universities (13 of them) and publicly funded university of applied sciences in the Netherlands (43 of them). If you check the sources in the article you can find nuffic’s report.

      In 2022/23 25% (of total pop) of intl students were registered at publicly funded research universities and 7.7 intl students registered at university of applied sciences (according to CBS, Nuffic )

      I don’t quite understand your question regarding the OU? To my knowledge, the open university in the NL is quite small (for NL standards) and is very Dutch orientated in the sense that most programmes if not all are offered in Dutch (?) and a few courses offered in English – and it’s online! – not so attractive to international degree seeking students.

      As I mention, there are certain English -taught programmes at certain research universities that are very popular and have many international students. This is what drives up the percentage of 1st year intl student registrations at research universities overall and why some universities, e.g UvA , can’t cope. There needs to be regulations on this but again this only applies to certain programmes at research university not all Dutch research university programmes and not at hbo/university of applied sciences.

      This information is not clearly communicated by the government or by the Dutch media (why?? 🤷🏼‍♀️) which leads to people assuming that it is a general problem for all research universities and all universities in the Netherlands and international students are pushing Dutch students out and taking over.


  1. Very interesting article, hopefully the message will be heard as unfortunately anti-foreign student attitudes and xenophobia are already a common place in the Netherlands. Interestingly Dutch students go for study abroad experience and expect to be welcome there but in their own country the hostility towards anybody non Dutch is very obvious Even if the Non Dutch students learn Dutch or are already fluent Dutch speakers. A very sad development.

  2. @Elias Faehthe: the Minister gives the numbers in the Memorie van toelichting (Comments to the law proposal): p.3; there are 820.000 students at universities and hbo’s. 115.000 are international in 2021-22, p. 15. This makes 14%. It does not need Higher Maths to understand that the problem exits just for 1-2 universities or/and for some specific study programs. It would be better to solve that instead of strangling all other universities and programs. And demanding working knowledge of Dutch is not the problem for me, but make it realistic: not the peanuts of 56 hours which brings you A1 level at the best. No employer nor employee wants that.

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