Like in Denmark

‘It’s beginning to feel a lot like Brexit’

Photo: Pixabay

As an international employee of Utrecht University, the plans by the Dutch government to curb English-language courses have left me angry and sad. I am living here long enough to know that in Dutch politics (and at Dutch universities, for that matter) any bold or radical plan will, after much commotion, be quietly shelved or end up as a lukewarm compromise. Which, in this case, might not be so bad. Still, it is clear that this is a turning point: until recently, Dutch universities were actively pursuing an unparalleled internationalization policy to attract more foreign students and staff and to turn themselves into serious competitors in the global Higher Education landscape. There also used to be a sincere belief that a more international education and study experience benefitted home students and Dutch society at large, facing huge global challenges like climate change or the rise of China. That all seems to have gone out the window.

It is hard to tell what has changed. There is still a serious shortage of highly skilled workers in the Netherlands – precisely the people attracted by the English-language degrees offered here. And it has been shown again and again that international students bring in more money than they cost. As far as I am aware, climate change has also not been solved yet.

The government has said that returning to Dutch as the language of instruction will make more international students stay in the country, because they will be forced to learn the language. But of course, many won’t come in the first place – and that’s the whole point. The policy is clearly meant to drive down student numbers to address various domestic problems, from the housing shortage in many university towns to the impending disappearance of Dutch as an academic language and Dutch students being pushed out of the degrees they want to study. These are all legitimate concerns, but it is doubtful that they will be solved by curbing the number of international students. The truth is that this group is an easy target for domestic politics. That is why this policy is supported by the whole political spectrum, from the far-right FvD to Amsterdam’s GroenLinks major Femke Halsema, each of them interpreting it as a win for their constituents. On a political level, getting rid of international students is a national consensus – skills shortage and rising sea levels be damned.

The same happened in Denmark. In 2021, the Danish government, enthusiastically supported by all major political parties, introduced a restrictive ban on English-language programmes, despite the warnings of universities and labour market experts. The result was a dramatic drop in enrolment numbers of international students, particularly in the natural sciences, IT and engineering. Since then, a new government has partly reversed the policy.

Like in Denmark, the Dutch debate is often informed by the myth of the nonintegrated expat, staying here to get (almost) free education or other benefits, and then moving on. It is true that many people coming to the Netherlands to study or work do return. But this is because living outside of your own language and culture, away from friends and family, is hard. Making a new life in a country where you don’t have any roots is not for everybody. But it is easier to do in the Netherlands compared to many other places (my native country Germany, for example) precisely because it often feels like a bilingual country. It gives people an opportunity to find their feet before they decide if that kind of life is for them. Enforced Dutch lessons will not change that: the people I know that stayed all learned the language. The ones that left had different reasons. Curbing English-language courses will just mean that fewer people will come to give it a try. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is important to learn the language of the country you are living in, to fully participate in the society you are part of. But anybody who thinks the pressure on immigrants to learn the host language is not high enough has never lived abroad.

In many ways, it is beginning to feel a lot like Brexit. I studied and worked for many years in the UK and considered it my second homeland – until the referendum in 2016. Back then, it felt like the country had turned from vibrant and multicultural to xenophobic and self-obsessed almost overnight. What struck me back then was the way even my British friends failed to really understand how deeply hurtful the result was for the many EU nationals who had made their home there. They mostly saw the whole thing as an internal affair or a drama of domestic politics.

In the Dutch debate about English-language education the many international academics working here also seem to be forgotten sometimes. But even if you agree with the policy, it is still possible to have sympathy with the people whose lives would be affected quite dramatically. For me personally, this policy will not have major repercussions for my working life, as I already teach classes in Dutch. And I know that most of my international colleagues will also be fine and adapt to this new situation – immigrants are resilient like that. But we came here because of the international and open nature of Dutch academia, and that seems to be vanishing. And that is something to mourn.

If the plans are really pushed through, I will also miss the many international students that brought so much enthusiasm and energy to the classroom – people who pack up and go to live in a different country for a while are usually interesting people. I also know that many of my Dutch students will miss them: the majority of students in our department’s English-language programmes are in fact from the Netherlands. They appreciate the new experiences and perspectives that an international environment brings. It is something that sets the Netherlands apart from other countries and it is something to we should celebrate and preserve. It is also a very nice way to live together. Let’s not change it.