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Internationalisation in the Netherlands: an uncertain, volatile landscape

It has become a reality in the Netherlands that the Party for Freedom (PVV), a right-wing populist political party, has become the biggest winner in the Dutch national elections.

This result brings a major blow to both internationalisation activities and the financing of HE. Photo: Pexels

PVV won 37 seats out of 150, more than any other party and this gives PVV the initiative to form a new Dutch government and select the next Prime Minister.

Many in higher education, both Dutch and international students and staff, are left in shock, anger and disbelief. There is a wave of disappointment and sadness. This result brings a major blow to both internationalisation activities and the financing of higher education.

And raises the question whether Dutch universities, that promote inclusive education for their diverse student and staff population, can continue to create a safe productive learning and work environment for their students and staff.

These developments and concerns set us back in making progress and leave the future of internationalisation of higher education in the Netherlands very uncertain and volatile.

Geert Wilders and PVV

Party for Freedom (PVV) front man Geert Wilders has structurally discriminated against large groups of people in Netherlands, is in favour of referendum on a ‘nexit’, completely did away with climate concerns and sees Putin as an ally to fight immigration.

Wilders, who could potentially be the next prime minister of the Netherlands, has stated in the past “I don’t hate Muslims, I hate Islam” and has claimed that he wants all immigration of Muslims halted. Based on his anti-Islamic views, Wilders has been banned from entering certain countries such as the UK and also been taken to court for hatred and discrimination crimes.

PVV has no members, apart from Geert Wilders – a one man show.

Left-wing parties such a PvdA/Groen Links and D66 came out on top in densely populated cities with many universities and students such as Utrecht, Amsterdam, Groningen, Eindhoven, Nijmegen, Zwolle etc. But Wilders (PVV) came out on top in the rest of the Netherlands resulting in PVV suddenly becoming the largest party in the Netherlands.

Source: NOS

A distribution of the educational level of the voters who voted for PVV was made by national news outlet NOS which shows big differences between the parties. This election victory brings PVV’s outrageous ambitions centre stage and sends shockwaves throughout the Netherlands and abroad.

Source: NOS

Internationalisation of Higher Education in the Netherlands

Such extreme views don’t just stop at the immigration of Muslims. In the last year, Dutch conservatives such as Wilders (PVV) and Pieter Omtzigt (New Social Contract), who both have very different political agendas, but have voiced their opinions in opposition to internationalisation and want to severely restrict immigration including international students who come to study, live and work in the Netherlands.

Both Wilders and Omtzigt used populist tactics including spreading misinformation, twisting the facts and making false promises to the public, to win the popular vote.

This included exaggerating statistics related to international students, using selective information or making false allegations which are simply not true, such as claiming that international students are pushing Dutch students out of university places or that they are a major contribution to the Dutch housing crisis.

Wilders also claimed in his PVV election programme that internationalisation has made university inaccessible for children of Dutch taxpayers and that the Dutch language has been marginalised.

These two claims are fallacies as the majority of programmes within the Netherlands are offered in the Dutch language and all Dutch students have access to higher education (either at a vocational level college, university of applied sciences or research universities) depending on their academic merits and all have their tuition fees heavily subsidised, including receiving additional grants.

The internationalisation in balance bill proposed by the Dutch government last Spring was the result of these anti-internationalisation discussions. Most international students who study in the Netherlands come from the EU.

Therefore, Dutch universities cannot refuse to accept these students or implement different admission policies for them. The only way to restrict EU students coming to the Netherlands is through not offering English-taught courses and/or a Dutch language requirement.

As such, the bill proposes to reduce the number of English taught courses on offer and enforce the Dutch language and in doing so reduce the number of international students and staff within Dutch higher education. The Dutch language is being used as a barrier and exclusion tool.

This of course has consequences and will limit the possibilities of building international relations for business and science, and limit opportunities for Dutch students to further develop intercultural competencies and English language skills which they will need to be marketable and successful in a multicultural world.


Many Dutch universities, professional networks and business organisations as well as the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) in the Netherlands and the Young Academy of Scientists, have shown strong opposition to the bill and highlight the drastic consequences of the bill on both education and science as well as on the labour shortage and Dutch economy.

The political debates around internationalisation have also resulted in international students and staff feeling less welcomed at universities in the Netherlands. It has been suggested that some universities will not give in and will try to maintain their international profile and international activities and will do so through protesting, lobbying and filing lawsuits.

Minister Dijkgraaf warned universities to prepare for a worst-case scenario

Before the elections, the current minister for higher education, Robbert Dijkgraaf, warned Dutch universities that dark clouds are gathering over higher education and after the elections further restrictions on internationalisation of higher education as well as funding could be proposed.

He sent a letter to universities urging them to come up with their own plan on how to manage internationalisation and not leave it up to the politicians.

Although at the time Dijkgraaf was probably more concerned with NSC becoming the biggest party, given the outcome of the recent elections, he was correct in warning universities to prepare for the worst.

“The political debates have also resulted in international students and staff feeling less welcomed”

If a new government is eventually formed, the question remains what will happen with the internationalisation balance bill and the proposed plans regarding internationalisation and international students.


Although 25% of Dutch citizens voted for PVV, giving it the biggest win, 75% of Dutch citizens did not vote for PVV and the results of the election have not been accepted without unrest.

Already the left-wing party PvdA has held demonstrations in the Netherlands in protest to exclusion and discrimination stating that “the election is a blow and that they will never accept that people are excluded and discriminated against”.

After the elections, Frans Timmermans, who is the leader of the PVDA/GL, and former Vice-president of the European Commission,  stated that “that everyone in the Netherlands is equal” and “we’ve got your back”.

There have also been suggestions that there might be difficulties for the newly elected parties to form a coalition together, especially with Wilders plans to leave the EU, and all might find it difficult to keep to the many promises they have made to the public. If a coalition cannot be formed, Dutch citizens might find themselves back at the ballot boxes next year.

These election results are very disappointing and leave not only internationalisation of higher education in a very uncertain, volatile state but also society as a whole.

However, the results also emphasise foremost the responsibility we have ourselves, and also as educational organisations, to uphold our values and strive for a just, sustainable and inclusive world.

A responsibility to take action, rather than wait for government intervention and do what we can within the constraints and challenges that lie ahead.

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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