Selecting students by nationality: it’s just not allowed

“In my opinion, it should be possible to control the influx of international students,” rector Karen Maex of the University of Amsterdam said last month in her English Foundation Day address. “Can you imagine a lecture hall in the future consisting for 80 percent of students from Germany, or from China? This would not contribute to our goals.”

She’s not the only one who thinks that way. Chairman of the TU Delft board Tim van der Hagen wants to introduce quotas for the number of Dutch students in a study program. “The best thing would be if we could first decide how many Dutch students will be allowed to start a study program, and then we’d add to that number by admitting foreign students.”

Own students first
Similar ideas are floating around the government. Some parties think Dutch students should be given an advantage in studies that choose their students by raffle. This is not the case at the moment: chances are equal for Dutch and foreign students.

Professors of educational law, however, aren’t in favor of the idea. They say it’s not allowed to say, for instance, that any given study program has enough Germans or French students now. That’s forbidden, it’s discrimination.

“It’ll be tricky anyway in the case of European students,” says professor Pieter Huisman of the Erasmus University Rotterdam. “Simply put, in Europe, the same rules apply to all EU citizens. And then there’s the Dutch general law on equal treatment, which automatically excludes the possibility of differentiating between nationalities.”

Colleague Paul Zoontjes, professor at Tilburg University, confirms: excluding students from non-EU countries like China wouldn’t be possible either. “If they’re rejected on the basis of their nationality, then technically they’d be able to file a lawsuit with the Dutch court. In practice, they probably won’t – but it’s still a possibility.”

Rejection based on language proficiency
Study programs are only allowed to reject students based on objective criteria, such as language proficiency and previous education, as professor Miek Laemers of VU University Amsterdam. “But if you’re offering a significant number of English-language study programs, then of course you’re going to draw in a lot of foreign students.”

There’s only one small loophole, professor Zoontjes ponders. Perhaps the study programs could explain that they have educational goals that fit a group of a certain composition of Dutch and international students.  “But the judge is not likely to simply believe that argument. It would have to be substantiated very, very thoroughly.” In all honesty, he doesn’t think it’s a viable practice.

In practice
But how does that work with the selective university colleges, which are so explicitly internationally oriented? The website of the Amsterdam University College (a joint program by University of Amsterdam and VU) mentions that the selection committee doesn’t just look at the individual students and their own achievements, but will, alongside that information, also look at the composition of a “socially coherent, and still diverse group of students”.

In practice, these college don’t have to select on nationality at all, they say. It’s a question of recruitment. In countries that many prospective students come from, you don’t have to recruit as much, and use that to keep the balance.

“Maybe it did happen at first,” Floris van den Burg, chairman of the selection committee of University College Utrecht says. “But I’m not certain, as I wasn’t involved then. Now, at least, we have a sufficient number of international students: around sixty percent. We’re actually going to start recruiting in the Netherlands more. We didn’t really have to do that at all for years.”

Never had to
Amsterdam doesn’t have to select on nationality either, a spokesperson for the AUC says. “We have two admission dates: December 1st and February 1st. Afterwards, we’ll leave the admissions open. So if we end up with a relatively small number of boys who are interested in chemistry, then it’s possible to change that in the late admissions. But we’ve never had to steer on nationality at all.”

Marijk van der Wende, currently professor of higher education systems at Utrecht University, founded the Amsterdam University College and led it from 2009 to 2015. There’s no legal basis to select students on nationality, she affirms, and so that never happened at her college.

But the Ministry of Education used to applaud diversity and the international classroom, Van der Wende says, so this kind of selection was often talked about in groups of educational managers. “You’re dependent on the composition of the influx,” she says. “That was discussed back then with the minister of Education and the association of universities VSNU.” The subject has been re-introduced now, and the new minister, Ingrid van Engelshoven, will consider the issue. “I hope that leads to more clarity,” Van der Wende says.

There are several countries in Europe, small ones usually, that face practical problems with a wave of incoming students from other EU countries, she explains. But you can’t just reject them. “That goes against the principle of the freedom of movement of EU citizens, and it can go against the principle of equal treatment. If educational managers feel those freedoms aren’t practical – well, that’s understandable. But they’re practical to individuals, and that’s who they’re made for.”

Vertaling: Indra Spronk