In January, you submitted a motion in which you called on higher educational institutes to come up with a plan to curtail the use of English within eight weeks, because you felt the language was being excessively used. Please elaborate?

“There’s the Higher Education Act, which says that bachelor programmes should primarily be taught in Dutch. After all, university prepares you for a life in Dutch society. The projects and internships you do in Dutch are a part of that. But if you do your bachelor programme entirely in English, you can’t follow any debates, for example.

“On top of that, students are currently divided across two worlds, which don’t really overlap. Dutch students and internationals don’t interact very much. They each go to their own parties. If you want people to stay long-term, you have to ensure that they feel connected to the Netherlands.”

Your own background is in microbiology, a field which leans heavily on international cooperation and therefore the English language. How do you reconcile that with trying to reduce the use of the language?

“First of all, it’s important that academia is largely international. Your mind must be international, but your body must be Dutch.

“Besides, it’s not like we’re saying that English is evil and absolutely everything has to be in Dutch. Even if you switch back a large part of programmes back to Dutch, there will still be courses in English. But you don’t have to have everything in English to ensure your students speak the language properly.”

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Why would it be an issue if hard science students didn’t speak Dutch? Do they really need to in that field?

“In the field of hard science, English is the predominant international language. But in some fields, Dutch is a more logical choice. Take pharmacy or IT, for instance; you need Dutch-speaking researchers for those. Those students would be short-changing themselves by doing everything in English, although we do also have to provide programmes in English in the field because of the intense shortage in the labour market.

“I think we also underestimate how much of an obstacle English can be. For some, studying in English is their ticket to the rest of the world, while for others, it’s a real stumbling block. The best students often end up studying in English, while for the less academically blessed, it can be a barrier.”

Do students like that even belong at university?

“It’s not just about the students, it’s about the divide between them and the rest of society. Speaking the language of the country affords you more opportunities. If your entire university council only speaks in English, that gap would only widen. Only communicating in English can be a barrier for small and medium-sized business owners.”

There currently aren’t enough Dutch lecturers to teach all these courses in Dutch. How should universities deal with that?

“First of all, the number of international students will go down. They currently make up 40 percent of the total number of students. The number of Dutch students will also go down on its own in the long term. That means we’ll need fewer lecturers.

“On top of that, this is something we want to approach gradually. It’s a delicate balance and we don’t want to wreck anything. International university lecturers will have enough time to make sure their Dutch is up to par. Besides, we want to organise the programme in such a way that we don’t have to get rid of anyone, and make sure we fill up the positions that international lecturers leave behind.”

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What do you think this should look like? Language courses are pretty intense and there often aren’t enough spots.

“It’s true we’ll be playing catch-up for a while, just like when a lot of Dutch lecturers suddenly had to start teaching in English.”

International students from outside the EU pay institutional tuition fees, which mean they bring in quite a bit of money. At the same time, the upcoming government wants to cut nearly a billion from education. How can universities compensate for that?

“The funds that universities get from the government will also decrease. The entire higher education sector has to find a way to make do with less. They are publicly financed institutes, and they have to take responsibility for that. One of their core tasks is contributing to Dutch society, as is attracting and training international students. But we simply have to find a balance in this.

“The last government was able to make great investments in education. We maintained an important part of those, like the quality funds (universities received extra funds to improve research and education after the basic grant was discontinued, eds.).

“But some of the cutbacks will be painful. You have to see them in the context of the immense investments that Rutte’s fourth government made. They’ve left us with the job of making cutbacks.

“We’ll have to rearrange a few things to take the shrinkage into account, and we’ll have slightly fewer students. Over the past few years, the number of international students has doubled. That’s less than beneficial to universities’ role in society and to the flow of migration.”

In 2021, Denmark tried to drastically limit several English-language programmes, but two years later, it turned out they really needed educated internationals in the labour market, and they reversed their decision. Aren’t you worried something like that would happen in the Netherlands?

“No. We recently had a roundtable debate about the Internationalisation in Balance Act. One of the speakers was Lotte Jensen (professor of Dutch at the Radboud University and of Danish descent, eds.). She knows a lot about Denmark.

“She said that Denmark never went as far as the Netherlands when it came to internationalisation. Compared to Germany and Belgium as well, we welcomed many more international students than they did.

“Besides, you have to be strategic about the exceptions you make for international students. We actually need more internationals for certain occupations, like engineers at ASML, or people in medicine and the energy transition.

“But most internationals are currently in programmes where there aren’t any shortages, like behavioural and social sciences or languages. Programmes really need to be smarter about that.”

Universities already have to take into account the labour market, the housing availability, and the region in the plans to decrease the number of English-language programmes. Don’t you think all the exceptions to the measures will make them overshoot their mark?

“Fortunately, it’s not like a single one of those criteria is enough to keep a programme in Dutch. You have to look at the whole picture. However, we do have to ask ourselves how many university colleges we actually need in this country.

“We have to take into account the occupations where there are shortages, but we also have to ensure that the truly big bachelors, like Psychology and Communication, go back to being taught in Dutch.”

What if international students want to come here to study Psychology or Communication after all?

“They’re more than welcome, but we feel a large part of education should be in Dutch again. That means that from now on, they’ll have to work on their Dutch language skills if they want to study here. It’s not a done deal yet, but my faction wants to ensure that everyone has enough time to at least finish their programme.

“None of this is new, by the way. The psychology programme in Maastricht used to be in Dutch, and German students would simply learn the language. Science students may act like language is just a vehicle for information, but in the end, it’s genuinely part of the culture.”

International students are worried about their future because of the new government’s plans. Can you understand their concerns?

“First of all, I hold people who teach in the Netherlands in great esteem. It’s important that we hang on to them, so we can fill those positions where there are shortages.

“But at the same time, some of the things people say about the Internationalisation in Balance Act aren’t true. My neighbours, an international academic couple, sent me an article from universityworldnews.com that was particularly one-sided and polarising. One of its claims is that the new government came up with it, but that’s not true. Outgoing education minister Dijkgraaf wrote it.

“People being completely dependent on international news media is part of the problem. I think it’s important that every knowledge worker has access to quality journalism so they can understand where this act comes from and what happened exactly in the Netherlands.

“Besides, the measures will be introduced gradually, not all at once. We want to give people a chance to get their Dutch proficiency up to scratch.”

This interview was first published by UKrant, the university magazine in Groningen. Hertzberger will be one of the participants in a panel debate in Groningen about the future of international students on Thursday evening.

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