Letter on internationalisation

Everyone must learn Dutch, Minister of Education establishes

Robbert Dijkgraaf met mbo-studenten
Minister Dijkgraaf. Photo: Twitter

Dijkgraaf's letter about the internationalisation of Dutch higher education has been postponed a few times, to the impatience of the House of Representatives, but today the minister finally delivered it to the Parliament. The document broadly outlines his perspectives on how to control the influx of foreign students.

In a press release, the minister underscores how beneficial it is for society and the economy that foreigners come here to study. "But it should be possible to control the influx of such students when necessary." Otherwise, he says, internationalisation will lead to "overcrowded lecture halls, a high workload for teachers and lack of housing."

The accessibility of higher education is also pressured, states the minister. He doesn't elaborate on that but he's mostly referring to study programmes with an enrolment cap. When applying for these programmes, young Dutch people are having to compete with an ever-growing number of international candidates. 

Brake and steer
"In addition to an accelerator, we also need brakes and a steering wheel," concludes Dijkgraaf. He stresses that "the Netherlands is not an island — on the contrary, we happen to be one of the most internationally connected countries in the world."

He seems to prefer not containing the influx for certain sectors. As the ministry summarises it, Dijkgraaf wants "tailor-made" solutions for technical programmes such as IT, as well as for studies related to sectors that struggle to find enough professionals in the labour market. 

The approach is also going to differ per region. Universities and universities of applied sciences located near the borders with Germany and Belgium are, in his view, in a "different position" when it comes to internationalisation.

But how is he planning on doing that, exactly? For starters, a "form of central management" is going to be set up to take societal interests into consideration when looking at the entire education system. The demand for talent is an example of a consideration to be made when evaluating the influx of students.

If the system seems in danger, Minister Dijkgraaf wants to have the possibility to "intervene", the press release reads. But it's not yet clear what this central management is going to look like. Its exact shape is going to be "elaborated further in the future."

In this manner, he is actually postponing part of his plans once more, as he didn't share any lines of thought just yet. It could be something like central management for popular study programmes, such as what used to happen with Medicine, so that international students are still allowed to come to the Netherlands to study, but they might not be placed in one of the country's biggest cities. Another possibility is having universities of applied sciences absorb some of the influx with tailor-made programmes. But the minister didn't say anything about that, either.

Numerus fixus
The minister is looking to promote the accessibility of higher education by changing the rules surrounding enrolment caps (also known as numerous fixus). Programmes will soon be able to limit the influx of students in one of their tracks, such as the English-taught one. This way, Dutch-speaking students would always get a spot while a limit would be established for the number of English-speaking students.

Universities will also be able to pull an "emergency brake" if a programme is suddenly overwhelmed by applications from countries outside the European Union. In that case, they can curb the rise in the number of students by means of an "emergency cap". 

Learning Dutch
Last but not least, Dijkgraaf wants universities and universities of applied sciences to promote Dutch learning among all students — including international ones. After all, a better command of the Dutch language increases their chances in the Dutch labour market, not to mention it increases the chances that international students will stay in the Netherlands after graduating.

He also asks higher education institutions to "maintain and strengthen" the Dutch language in academia. In his own words: "Dutch is and remains the main language, and exceptions will be better defined later. This will make supervision possible."

But that will require a new draft bill, which, according to the ministry, will not take effect before September 2024. If the House of Representatives accepts it, the old rules will apply in higher education in the next academic year. 

Apart from that, Dijkgraaf wants the administrative language at universities and universities of applied sciences to be Dutch, in principle. It could also be bilingual if need be, in which case he will make "administrative arrangements." Currently, English is the administrative language at the University of Twente and at TU Eindhoven. Maastricht University is bilingual. Among universities of applied sciences, English is an important language of instruction at the Breda University of Applied Sciences.

Housing market
Internationalisation is one of the most sensitive topics when it comes to higher education. Critics argue that many study programmes are only taught in English so that universities can earn money from foreign students, which would threaten the position of Dutch as an academic language, as well as students' command of it. Activists have even filed lawsuits against the anglicisation of Dutch higher education but they didn't manage to turn the tide.

Last academic year, there were 115,000 international students in the Netherlands, according to the ministry. That is 3.5 times more than in 2005-2006. This leads to a shortage of accommodation, especially in the first months of the academic year. Every year, there are scenes of freshers sleeping on campsites because they couldn't find a place to live.

In the minister's view, students should be well informed about housing beforehand and institutions should practice restraint in the recruitment of international students. It's better for them to work in a more targeted way, like focusing on sectors with a shortage of workers in the labour market. That's something Dijkgraaf had already called for in the past.

The House of Representatives is going to hold a debate about internationalisation with the minister, before the summer break. Perhaps this conversation will clarify what Dijkgraaf had in mind when talking about "central management."