International student with technology or IT aspirations? Welcome to the Netherlands!

Illustration: Pixabay

The internationalisation of Dutch higher education has been a hot topic for years, as more and more international students have been coming to the Netherlands. On the one hand, institutions are happy with the increased international enrolments because government funding is generally given on a per-student basis. On the other hand, the sector is already bursting at the seams and research funding is not keeping up.

The Dutch Minister of Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, submitted a bill (link in Dutch) in late 2019 to prevent the numbers of international students from spiralling out of control. This resulted in all kinds of motions in the House of Representatives, for example regarding the development of an international talent strategy. There's also been a motion about effective cooperation with British institutions following Brexit.

The SP party proposed limiting the active recruitment of international students, citing “the finite capacity of the Dutch higher education system”. VVD and CDA representatives responded by suggesting that recruitment efforts should focus on sectors facing potential shortages of skilled workers.

D66 and ChristenUnie parliamentarians then noted that all those talented international students would have to continue to live and work here after graduating, otherwise the efforts would be in vain. The government would have to devise a plan to cover this eventuality as well. 

No sooner said than done: in her new ‘international knowledge and talent strategy’, Minister Van Engelshoven claims to meet all these requirements, as she wrote in a letter (link in Dutch) sent to the House over the Christmas recess.

She writes that the government wishes to shift from quantity to quality when it comes to recruiting international students. The intention is to attract students of technology and IT, as these sectors are facing significant shortages. Education and healthcare face these shortages as well, but the Minister says that Dutch language skills are vital in those sectors.

Although the Minister’s letter is not explicit on this point, it is clear that the government does not intend to make an effort to recruit students in other sectors. There is little reason to do so, after all: figures from Nuffic, the Dutch organisation for internationalisation in higher education, reveal (link in Dutch) that many international students are enrolled in programmes in the social sciences and economics. At art schools, as many as a third of students come from abroad.

Foreign policy
Van Engelshoven specifically mentions countries with which the Netherlands would like to cooperate more closely. These are countries whose “quality of higher education and science is in order” and that “share our core academic values”, she writes.

There are additional considerations, however, according to her letter. Cooperation may be sought with countries that offer the Dutch knowledge sector economic opportunities, that may involve a “foreign policy interest”, or that contribute significantly to solving global problems such as climate change.

Bearing all this in mind, the Minister wishes to use her new strategy to focus primarily on cooperation with Germany, France, the UK, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Africa, South Korea and “possibly Israel and/or Switzerland”. Activities are to be phased out in Turkey, Mexico, Russia and Vietnam.

The government will soon be launching a campaign aimed at attracting and retaining international knowledge migrants, Van Engelshoven writes. The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science will also be sending special “education and science attachés” abroad over the next few years, partly to replace the Netherlands Education Support Offices, which were previously tasked with recruiting international students. The Dutch embassy in London is to be “reinforced” to ensure a fruitful post-Brexit relationship with the UK.

Knowledge security
It is striking that China is included on the Minister’s wish list. China has long been a cause of concern for the House of Representatives due to the lack of academic freedom and human rights violations going on in the country.

The Minister mentions the increased tensions between China and the US in her letter, underscoring the importance of knowledge security. She also feels that the Netherlands should be conscious about the balance between the opportunities and risks involved in international cooperation.

The House of Representatives will meet next Thursday to discuss scientific cooperation with countries where freedoms are lacking.