International students? Dijkgraaf asks for more patience

The long-awaited letter about the influx of international students won’t be coming this month. ‘I expect to be able to send a letter to the house by May at the latest’, writes Robbert Dijkgraaf, Minister of Education, Culture and Science.

Photo by: Martijn Beekman

It is perhaps the most controversial issue in higher education politics: the influx of international students to the research universities in particular. Mr Dijkgraaf had promised a letter. It was initially supposed to be sent in February, then March and now a little later still: by May, at the latest.

According to a separate letter from Dijkgraaf notifying the House of Representatives of the postponement, the reason is that a ‘wider conversation about migration’ is currently being conducted within the cabinet, which the letter about international students has become part of.

One in three

One in three first-year bachelor and master students at research universities now come from abroad. That is three times as many as at universities of applied sciences, where one in nine students are international.

Universities say they want more control over the influx of international students. If a programme risks being deluged by students from abroad, they want to be able to curb the numbers.

But draft legislation that would allow them to do that was shelved when the last cabinet fell. Minister Dijkgraaf has done nothing to revive it. He first wants to carefully consider the pros and cons.

The proposed legislation would have introduced stricter rules on the language of instruction in higher education. A good many members of the House already believe that too many courses are taught in English, particularly at bachelor level. They feel this is detrimental to the Dutch language and to students’ command of it.

February, March...

Dijkgraaf was initially due to unveil his vision in February, but the House first wanted a debate with him, resulting in the letter being postponed until mid-March. That deadline is now also about to pass.

In the most recent debate, Dijkgraaf provided a glimpse into his thinking and dilemmas. For example, it must be possible to impose limits on the number of students taking the English-language track within a programme, whilst keeping the Dutch-language variant open. That way, international students cannot displace Dutch students on the programme. But in his view, the main question is ‘should there be a more centralised control?’

He doesn’t want to become fixated on this problem to the exclusion of other considerations. ‘Today we are looking at funding in relation to international students, but perhaps some other day we will be looking at it in relation to regional contraction, or alignment with the labour market’, he said. ‘There are multiple perspectives and we need to bring them together.’


The patience of the House has been sorely tested. Pieter Omtzigt submitted a motion about the language of instruction in higher education. Under the law, degree programmes must be taught in Dutch, aside from a few exceptions. Omtzigt wants the Inspectorate of Education to enforce that law and clarify when programmes may and may not make exceptions to it.

After the motion was adopted, he demanded a response from the minister within a week. None was forthcoming. So he asked series of written questions, which minister Dijkgraaf largely brushed off with reference to his advertised letter.

Dijkgraaf did explain why, in his view, higher education institutions are not breaking the law if they teach in English. He did acknowledge that ‘exceptions to the rule’ seem in recent years to have ‘increasingly become the norm’. But the law offers educational institutions ‘scope for their own interpretation’, i.e., for English-language instruction.

Future options

Minister Dijkgraaf has commissioned several research agencies to make a comprehensive study of future options. The results are expected before the summer, after which the minister will himself respond in the autumn.

The part about international students is expected to be brought forward, not least because the House has been so insistent.

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