Dutch universities understand that the internationalisation of higher education poses certain problems. Their message today is that they want to solve these problems themselves. Self-direction is the magic word.

Migration played a major role in last November’s general elections. The two biggest winners, PVV and NSC, want to significantly curb the intake of foreign students at Dutch universities, for example by making almost all Bachelor’s programmes Dutch-taught again.

Handling it themselves

The universities want to show that they can handle this themselves. While they still point to the value international students add to the economy and the quality of education, they say they aren’t blind to the bottlenecks: there’s a housing shortage, Dutch language skills are declining and Dutch students sometimes have to compete with foreign students for a limited number of spots on programmes.

Meanwhile, figures show that the much-discussed growth in the number of international students has levelled off. The number of international first-year students has remained roughly the same for three years in a row. According to the universities themselves, this is due to the fact that they are no longer actively recruiting abroad. They also warn prospective students that it might be difficult for them to find accommodation. Don’t come here if you don’t have a room, is the message in many cities.

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The universities are presenting a series of measures. One of these is that they want to launch Dutch tracks for every major Bachelor’s programme. This concerns programmes such as psychology, but also those in the areas of economics and business studies.

For the record, Dutch-language variants of these three major studies at Erasmus Universities exist already.

Some programmes, such as pharmacy at the University of Groningen, will switch back to Dutch altogether. The fourteen universities promise to look for other programmes where this might be possible.

Outgoing Minister of Education Robbert Dijkgraaf is working on a law to manage internationalisation without closing the borders to talented international students. It includes a measure that will allow higher education institutions to restrict enrolment for English-taught tracks, without having to do the same for the Dutch-taught versions. The universities themselves have been asking for this for years. In practice, this will make it possible for them to control the number of international enrolments while keeping the door open for Dutch students.

Placement policy

Further down the line, the universities are also looking at the possibility of introducing a placement policy for certain programmes, modelled on the one that used to exist for medical programmes. This would allow students who can’t get into an English-taught programme at one university to be admitted to the same programme at another university that still has places available.

NSC, VVD and BBB wanted Dijkgraaf and the universities to draw up a plan to ‘significantly reduce’ the number of English-taught programmes. The universities, however, mainly want to add Dutch programmes without eliminating their English curricula. Moreover, the three parties also mentioned the Master’s programmes, but these are off the table as far as the universities are concerned – the measures they’re proposing would only apply to their Bachelor’s programmes.

One of the other proposed measures presented today is a commitment to improve the Dutch language skills of students as well as international staff. For the latter group, universities will impose certain language requirements. Some universities are also still offering a ‘preparatory year’ for international students from countries where secondary education does not meet the Dutch pre-university requirements. They will end these programmes ‘as soon as the current contracts with the providers end’.

No targets

While the universities agree that there should be fewer international Bachelor’s students, they do not mention targets. What exactly constitutes a ‘major Bachelor’s programme’ also remains vague. In any case, the small-scale university colleges will not be affected; English will remain the language of instruction at these institutions.

Currently, 30 percent of university Bachelor’s programmes are taught entirely in English. On top of that, 18 percent offer an English track alongside their Dutch track. The rest, a little over half, are Dutch, but even these may include courses taught in English (up to a third).

Universities have agreed not to launch new English-taught Bachelor’s programmes for the time being. Minister Dijkgraaf’s ‘Internationalisering in Balans’ (Internationalisation in Equilibrium) bill includes a test for both new and existing English-taught programmes.

Common language

Of the Master’s programmes offered in the Netherlands, 76 percent are taught entirely in English. The universities themselves believe this makes sense, as these programmes are closer to the world of scientific research, where English is the common language.

The anglicisation of higher education has been a topic of debate for some time. So why are the universities only taking these measures now? Or, vice versa, why aren’t they fighting to protect the internationalisation of education? “We strongly support internationalisation”, says Jouke de Vries, Interim President of umbrella association Universities of the Netherlands. He is also President of the University of Groningen’s Executive Board. “But we are facing some bottlenecks in this country, so you have to ask yourself: what’s the optimal number of students for a university?”

“Internationalisation is very important”, he stresses, “because science is international. But we need to find the right balance. Most of these fourteen universities are saying: some components can keep growing, but we also want to consolidate.”

President of Utrecht University Anton Pijpers, who was also present at the press conference, added that the internationalisation of Master’s programmes is not called into question. “That’s where internationalisation makes much more sense. For the Bachelor’s programmes, it’s a bit more nuanced.”

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Taking responsibility

Minister Dijkgraaf is pleased that higher education institutions are taking responsibility. After he receives the institutions’ individual plans in March, he will provide them with a substantive response and forward them to the House of Representatives. He also reiterates that he wants to keep options open for “regional (and other) exceptions”.

This week, the Education Council sent Minister Dijkgraaf a critical opinion on his plans. The Council of State will also weigh in on the bill, which the minister wants to send to the House of Representatives ‘as early as possible in the second quarter’.