Making The Netherlands a guiding country in academic internationalization

Academic internationalization is a hot topic, energising students, university employees, activists, the judiciary, the legislature, and the government with the question: should universities profile themselves in English or should they adhere to the Dutch language (and mores)? The recent court decision in favour of courses being taught in English at Twente and Maastricht could be seen a small win for those who think that emphasizing the importance of the Dutch language should not result into some form of academic parochialism.

However, a more cautious reading of events suggests that criticism of academic internationalization will not disappear any time soon. The vigorous way in which internationalisation is being criticized is not without consequences. Much of the content of the battle over internationalization focuses on financial aspects, yet in practice the debate presents foreign students at Dutch universities in a negative light. In the context of increasing xenophobia in Western societies over the past years, this seems an undesirable and worrying phenomenon.

As members of the Utrecht University Graduate Student Think Tank of Master’s and PhD students, we would like to point out to the one-sidedness of the current perspective. While much the focus of the public debate has been predominantly on costs and the potential negative consequences of internationalization, we would like to bring attention to the positive aspects of the international classroom.

In an increasingly globalised world, encompassing many challenges that cross the borders of traditional nation states, it is essential for universities to foster the development of students into critical and reflective citizens who are able to successfully engage with the rest of the world. If students are not suitably prepared to be citizens in a globalized and diverse world, they will be unable to acquire or transfer much in the way of useful knowledge, regardless of whether they are pursuing a career in business, science, politics or elsewhere.

An international outlook, a sensibility for different (work) cultures and the ability to cope with cultural differences contribute significantly to individual development and to a successful career. To achieve these goals, proficiency in a widely-spoken international language such as English is an essential quality. In the public and political arena, academic education’s drift from the Dutch toward the English language is often depicted as financially motivated or as mere fad.

However, in the daily practice of university education, teaching courses in English is a prerequisite for the international classroom to succeed in bringing about meaningful exchange between students from diverse geographical (and therefore also cultural) backgrounds.  

We think that reservations about internationalization remain in part because the societal value of having international students in Dutch universities is often overlooked and is also not fully realised. Both international and Dutch students frequently group into rather insulated communities. As a result, little interaction occurs between international and domestic students outside formal teaching contexts such as lectures or seminars, let alone interaction between international students and society at large.

Instead of continuously emphasizing the negative aspects of academic internationalisation, we think that the debate should be oriented towards the question as to how this interaction can be improved. More ambitiously, we should discuss how the benefits of a substantial presence of international students in The Netherlands can be spread through society as whole. To expedite the pursuit of these ambitious objectives, we will now present a few practical policy notions to think with.

First, to benefit from the wealth of experiences and knowledge that students of various parts of the world bring to this country, it is pivotal to create an open and friendly climate. Contributors to the debate, including prominent academic leaders addressing the economic and logistical problems that internationalization causes, should realize that these utterances, however compelling and genuine, may have an undesired side-effect on the international classroom and its perception outside academia. For the international classroom to succeed, benefiting international students and domestic students and non-students alike, it is vital that international students are encouraged to feel at home in this country. We have to accept that social integration can be slower than ideal; for instance, international students face a language barrier and have to adapt to a different culture.

However, we adamantly believe that international students can and do contribute substantially to Dutch society while they are here, and these contributions could be more visible, effective and strengthened by undertaking several practical measures. For example, international students could be given platforms to share their experiences, discussing the strengths (and weaknesses) of their culture, systems and society, their views on living in The Netherlands and how Dutch society might integrate their ideas and approaches. Further, volunteering opportunities, internships in business as well as the public sector, and part-time jobs targeted at international students may help students to make sense of Dutch society and become colleagues with a wider range of Dutch people, and also provide benefits for Dutch organisations. Internationalisation in academia is not threatening Dutch identity but should rather be perceived as an opportunity to (re)accentuate the self-image that the Dutch often cherish, namely that of an open and tolerant (trade) nation. In recent years, many have realised that this self-image is not in accordance with the actual historic and current situation. Luckily, the future is in our own hands. Together with international students, The Netherlands can become an inspiring example for other countries in the field of academic internationalisation.