The letter to the House of Representatives about internationalisation in higher education has been postponed a couple of times, to the irritation of the House, but finally Minister Dijkgraaf is sending it today. In it, he outlines in broad terms how he views the influx of international students.
It is good for society and the knowledge economy if international students come here, the Minister stresses in a press release. ‘But that flow of students must be controllable wherever necessary.’ Otherwise, he believes, internationalisation will lead to ‘overfull lecture halls, a high workload for lecturers and a lack of accommodation’.
The accessibility of study programmes will then come under pressure too, the Minister argues. He gives no further details on this last point, but it relates mainly to study programmes with a fixed quota. In the selection process for those study programmes, Dutch young people face competition from an increasingly large number of students from other countries.
Brake and steering wheel
Dijkgraaf’s conclusion is that ‘in addition to an accelerator, we need a brake, and in particular a steering wheel’. ‘The Netherlands is not an island – on the contrary, we are actually one of the world’s most internationally connected countries,’ the D66 Minister emphasises.
For some sectors it appears that he prefers not to stem the flow. Or as the Ministry puts it: the Minister wants a ‘made-to-measure solution’ for study programmes like ICT and engineering and for programmes in the sectors that are experiencing a labour market shortage.
The approach will also vary from one region to another. Higher education institutions close to the German and Belgian border have, in his opinion, a ‘different position’ with respect to internationalisation.
So what does he plan to do? First of all there will be ‘a form of central control’ so that the entire education system can be examined with social interests in mind. For instance, the demand for talent has to be taken into account when considering the influx of students.
If the system is at risk of being jeopardised, Minister Dijkgraaf wants to have the power to ‘take action’, according to the press release. But it is not yet known what that control will entail. The exact form it will take ‘will be worked out in greater detail in the time ahead’.
He is not ready to share potential ideas on this central control just yet, so some of his plans remain on the back burner. One of the possibilities is central registration for popular study programmes (as used to be the case for medicine), enabling international students to still study in the Netherlands, but maybe not in the Randstad conurbation. Universities of applied sciences, with tailor-made study programmes, might also be able to handle some of the huge influx. But Dijkgraaf is not revealing anything yet.
The Minister wants to make university education more accessible by changing the rules relating to the fixed quota. Study programmes will soon be free to restrict the influx in specific tracks of the programme, the English-language track for example. Dutch-speaking students will then always be able to take part via the Dutch-language track, while a limit will be set for the number of students in the English-language track.
There will also be an emergency brake for when a programme is suddenly flooded with students from outside the European Union. If a study programme is in danger of becoming full, it can counter the unexpected rise with a ‘fixed emergency capacity’.
Finally, Dijkgraaf wants to foster Dutch language skills among all students at higher education institutions, including international students. The underlying theory is that being more proficient in Dutch will improve their employment opportunities. And it makes it more likely that foreign students will remain in the Netherlands after they graduate.
He is also asking higher education institutions ‘to retain and strengthen’ the Dutch language in their educational programmes. He writes: ‘Dutch is and remains the principal language, but the permissible exceptions will be better defined. That makes it possible to keep things under control.’
A new parliamentary bill is needed for this, however. According to the Ministry, this cannot become law before September 2024. If the House of Representatives adopts it, higher education will have to continue under the present system in the forthcoming academic year.
In addition, Dijkgraaf wants Dutch to be, in principle, the administrative language at higher education institutions. Bilingualism would also be acceptable, if necessary. He is going to make ‘administrative arrangements’ for this. English is currently the administrative language at the University of Twente and Eindhoven University of Technology. Maastricht University is one of those that is bilingual. Breda is among the universities of applied sciences at which English is an important language.
Internationalisation is one of the most sensitive topics in higher education. Critics say that many study programmes are given only in English so as to earn money by accepting foreign students, which in their view puts the position of the Dutch language (and students’ linguistic abilities) at risk. Activists have litigated against anglicisation but have been unable to turn the tide.
According to the Ministry, there were 115,000 international students in the Netherlands in the last academic year. That is 3.5 times as many as in the 2005-2006 academic year. This also leads to accommodation problems, especially at the beginning of the academic year. Year after year, you see first-year students having to sleep on a campsite because they have no other accommodation yet.
In Dijkgraaf’s view, students need to get good information about accommodation. And higher education institutions ought to be less eager to recruit foreign students. They would do better to focus, for instance, on study programmes in sectors that are experiencing a labour market shortage. The Minister had already advocated that.
Before the summer, the House of Representatives will have a debate with the Minister about internationalisation. More clarity might then emerge concerning the ‘central control’ that Dijkgraaf is considering.