The politician who could impact the future of English-taught degrees

Who is Pieter Omtzigt and why should you care?

pieter omtzigt foto Tweede Kamer
Pieter Omzigt. Photo: courtesy of the Dutch Parliament

According to a recent poll (link in Dutch, Ed.), Omtzigt and his party Nieuw Sociaal Contract would be able to secure 43 seats in the House of Representatives if the elections were held today. He doesn’t believe he will get this far, though. But one thing is certain: the new party will influence politics in a way that may, in turn, influence the future of international students in the Netherlands.

That's because Omtzigt is concerned about the number of international students in the country and the anglicisation of its higher education system. He is not alone in this sentiment. Considering the Netherlands is governed by a coalition of parties and the cabinet has just fallen, requiring new elections to be held soon, Omtzigt's party may help push a future government towards a more conservative stance.

Earlier this year, Omtzigt submitted a motion proposing that Dutch should be the main language of instruction in Dutch universities, and it was overwhelmingly approved by the Dutch Parliament. Of the biggest parties, only D66 voted against it.

“Some programmes are entirely taught in English and almost none of the students have Dutch roots. The teachers are often an international bunch as well,” Omtzigt said during the debate. “I’m not saying that this isn't welcome but we do have to ask ourselves if we wish to use taxpayers' money to finance it.”

In his view, there are too many students from abroad. He would like the Dutch higher education sector to turn back the clock “to about five years ago when not as many foreign students were coming here." To achieve that, he proposes to diminish the number of English-taught programmes and to adopt stricter legal rules regarding what constitutes an exception to the obligation of teaching in Dutch. 

The law dictates that education should be in Dutch but guest lecturers can teach in English. Exceptions are also allowed when the "specific nature" of a programme calls for English as a language of instruction. That is what opened the gate to the development of many English-taught programmes, so much so that the Netherlands has more programmes in English than any other country in continental Europe.

Omtzigt is not pleased by this at all. His motion (tabled with the parties SGP, SP, JA21 and PVV) advocates "clear standards" to higher education in other languages, to be enforced immediately. He was particularly worried about the Bachelor's level (according to Nuffic, 28 percent of Bachelor’s programmes offered by research universities are taught in English only).

Prior to this motion, Omtzigt submitted a more radical one, which was rejected. He called on the government and the universities to devise a plan to reinstate Dutch as the language of instruction in all Bachelor’s programmes in four years. No more than twenty percent of programmes could be exempted from this requirement. 

Managing the intake
The Minister of Education, Robbert Dijkgraaf, admitted this past spring that it was never the intention for so many programmes to be taught in another language but, according to him, there isn't much he can do about it now. After all, educational institutions are abiding by the current law. However, he did propose a number of measures to enable universities to better manage the intake of international students.

Now that the Dutch cabinet has fallen, it remains to be seen whether Dijkgraaf's plans are drastic enough to please all the members of a future coalition, especially if Nieuw Sociaal Contract is part of it. “These plans are still rather meagre,” declared Omtzigt upon their announcement. “There are currently 115,000 international students in the Netherlands. Forty percent of the students enrolled in Dutch universities come from abroad. These meaningful and expensive spots are funded by Dutch taxpayers to give opportunities to Dutch young people.”

His criticism of the student financing system (link in Dutch only, Ed.). also reflects his aversion to a high number of foreign students. European students are eligible to access student financing as long as they have a side job one to two days a week. Once again, he wonders why Dutch taxpayers have to pay for this group of students, especially considering they can also apply for financing or scholarships in their countries of origin. The Netherlands does not exchange information with its neighbouring countries in order to verify if students are being financially helped twice. According to him, the possibility of obtaining this advantage may lead to “an even higher influx” of European students.

Other areas
Throughout his career, Omtzigt has also gotten involved with other areas that affect students, education and academia. For instance, he is an advocate of greater transparency when it comes to the funding of academic chairs, a longstanding issue that could rise to prominence once more depending on the performance of Omtzigt's party.

He also strove for a compromise when the cabinet did not want to give students no longer living with their parents an 800-euro allowance to help them cope with the rising costs of electricity and gas. He suggested giving them a little bit less money — 250 euros, for instance. The proposal was rejected.