“The sky was the limit when it came to student numbers growing”, says Mark van Ostaijen, a lecturer and researcher in Public Administration and Sociology, who has felt a ‘latent sense of political irritation’ on this issue for some time and wrote an opinion piece for de Volkskrant. “Limits were never discussed by the university or by the Ministry, despite the fact that student numbers have always been critical to the evaluation of degree programmes. The more students, the better. Existing problems are now ‘suddenly’ regarded as excesses.” According to the sociologist, ambitions for growth were the sole consideration, whereas the downside was not considered at all. “As student numbers grew, staff capacity was only marginally increased. Student accommodation wasn’t discussed until students were forced to stay in tents.”

The number of international students at Dutch educational institutions has been rising for years. In the autumn of 2005, 33,000 international students were enrolled, which has risen to over 122,000 this academic year. In recent years, the housing shortage has increased sharply. Last year, universities called on international students not to come to the Netherlands if they did not yet have a place to live. Universities have been complaining for some time that, while the lecture halls were filling up to the rafters with Dutch and international students, funding to cope with this increase was lacking. The workload for lecturers similarly increased along with growth in student numbers. In 2022, the Executive Board asked the Minister for assistance with regard to controlling student growth.

In late April, the Minister of Education, Culture and Science, Robbert Dijkgraaf, made his initial plans available. An ’emergency capacity limit’ should allow universities to exclude students from outside the EU. The Dutch language skills of all students, including international students, must be improved with a view to ‘more international students being actively guided to the Dutch labour market’. In future, the Minister aims for educational institutions only to recruit students in a targeted manner, i.e. only for programmes that match professions in high demand.

Internationale studenten, schiphol

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Like Van Ostaijen, University Council member and international student Sandra Constantinou has mixed feelings. She and her friends have noticed that the debate has made international students feel uncomfortable and less welcome. They feel international students are being blamed for the excessive workload and the shortage on the student accommodation market. Constantinou does, however, recognise these problems and believes that action should be taken. “It’s time to get on with it.”

Long live enrolment quotas

One of the plans is a numerus fixus for international tracks of courses, as is already the case with the international Psychology course in Rotterdam. “We really couldn’t do without it now”, says programme director and lecturer Marjan Gorgievski. Before Psychology began using a cap, twice as many students as the programme could handle would enrol. Of the 600 places available each year, 250 are taken up by international students.

Gorgievski ‘never wants to go back’ to just students from the Netherlands and believes that international students enrich the debate during lectures and tutorials. “They take a different view to some issues, which is good for the debate. Sharing knowledge is part of academia. The Minister wants universities to train people for the Dutch labour market. Is that what universities are meant to do? I don’t think so. Universities are the very institutions that accumulate and share international knowledge.”

Worrisome tone

On top of this numerus fixus, the minister wants an ’emergency capacity fixus’. This should make it possible to reject students from outside Europe if there are many applications. Although Gorgievski is in favour of the enrolment quota, she is against a cap on the number of international students. She has underlined some sections of the Minister’s plans in red because she finds the tone in those sections worrying. “It has undertones of ‘The Netherlands is only for the Dutch’. You can’t think like that. It means supporting exclusion.”

Excluding students from Europe is not an option due to agreements within the European Union. However, in legal terms, setting limits for students from outside Europe is an option. “It’s not something we should desire”, says Constantinou. “Diverse groups and different cultures are good, right? By having these influences, us students can learn from each other and grow with a more global perspective. We cannot effectively build future societies with an exclusively Western frame of reference.”

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Michel Lander, the dean of education at the Rotterdam School of Management, is ‘somewhat concerned’ about the new plans put forward by the government. “This new law may mean fewer international students and therefore less diversity in the lecture hall, which is a shame, as we are training our students for the international world of business. That’s something you achieve best by exposing students to different cultures and perspectives.”

Lander says he ‘doesn’t really see any lasting benefits in the education plans either for his curricula or for the experiences of students. The key issue at present is to await the finalised plans of the government. However, the announcement that all students must learn some degree of Dutch does not sit well with him – especially when it comes to the mental well-being of students. “Those language classes would come on top of the taxing curriculum. In addition, these plans may make us less attractive to students and employees. We’re afraid that we would become less able to attract talent from all over the world. We’re waiting to see if the Minister has taken this into consideration.”

Van Ostaijen hopes universities will realise that they are part of the problem. The ministry alone cannot solve the issues, educational institutions must also actively contribute. “Universities blame the ministry and the ministry does not acknowledge any blame either”, he says. “Politics in The Hague has willfully ignored problems like overworked teachers and educational budget shortages for years. Universities are also to blame. They did not look beyond their growth ambitions.”

Concerns among staff

internationale studenten-international students_koffer_suitcase_3000_Femke Legué
Image credit: Femke Legué

Let us imagine for a moment that fewer international students would come to the Netherlands – what would that mean for employees with permanent contracts? This issue has not yet led to a strong reaction, although Van Ostaijen does say that some dissatisfaction is brewing beneath the radar. “It’s incomprehensible that it hasn’t yet caused major concerns, including among people in permanent employment.” Departments cannot do without these employees, he says. On the contrary, more structure, and therefore more permanence, is needed to maintain the level of research and teaching.

The announcement that all students must speak ‘some degree’ of Dutch raised a number of questions, including for Gorgievski. “A colleague came to ask if she already has to translate all English texts in the student manuals and on Canvas into Dutch for the coming year and if there will be support for that. Lecturers don’t have the hours to do it all ourselves.”

Constantinou believes that the uncertainty is what is causing concern. “The Minister of Education is a clever operator. He’s purposefully being very vague to provoke a response. Hopefully, he’ll listen to ours.”

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