Dilemma: what to do with internationals?
Five years after universities themselves asked for ways to control the intake of international students, there is a bill on the table that is much more drastic than they would like to see. How could this happen?
Anoushka Kloosterman
Friday 13 October 2023

International students and staff should absolutely feel welcome,’ board member Kristiaan van der Heijden reaffirmed last week during the Social and Behavioural Sciences Faculty Council meeting. ‘We stand by that.’
The statement echoes what more university board members keep emphasising these days: we stand behind our internationals, and in our view, there is no need for such harsh intervention as is currently being threatened.
Five years ago, universities and universities of applied sciences asked for legal tools to adjust the intake of international students. For years, higher education had invested in internationalisation - according to national policy - but in the meantime, the growing intake was causing practical problems: overcrowded lecture halls, difficulty in predicting student numbers and lack of housing. There were also concerns about the quality of the English and Dutch used at the universities. Universities wanted to make adjustments, but this required a new act.


That was 2018. It is now 2023, and after the reintroduction of the basic student grant, the collapse of two cabinets and with many rain-soaked students living on camp-sites, the number of English programmes has grown and the number of international students increases every year. The housing shortage is as high as ever and the debate polarised.
Yet, a legislative change has still not been achieved.
Now, another proposal is on the table which is much more drastic than what universities had in mind: the Balanced Internationalisation Bill. It is the younger sibling of the 2019 Language and Accessibility Bill, which did pass the Lower House at the time, but was blocked by current (outgoing) minister Robbert Dijkgraaf in 2022. He felt that the bill did not ‘go far enough’ in some respects and wanted a ‘stricter’ policy.

‘A substantial encroachment on the autonomy of universities’

The good news for administrators is that it contains measures they have been eagerly awaiting, such as instituting a fixed quota on English-language tracks. The bad news is that these measures are enshrouded in rules that universities oppose to.
A quick overview: if the bill passes, at least two-thirds of all programmes will have to be taught in Dutch. Otherwise, they will be labelled as a ‘non-Dutch-taught programme’ - in practice, these are usually English-taught programmes - and universities will have to explain to the minister why this is so. The promotion of an ‘international classroom’ in itself will no longer be a sufficient reason. If a programme is taught in a language other than Dutch, then a minimum of 140 hours (for bachelor's programmes) or 56 hours (for master's programmes or associate degrees) must be devoted to learning Dutch.
Universities believe this is far too much government interference. ‘A substantial encroachment on the autonomy of universities that will have a direct negative impact on the quality of education,’ warned umbrella organisation Universities of the Netherlands during the internet consultation, which closed last month. In addition, the proposal would add significant workload: once the act is implemented, universities would have six months to have their programmes tested. And where would they find all these Dutch lecturers?


‘The debate has become polarised, and that has resulted in a stringent proposal,’ says Van der Heijden. Just how polarised it has become is reflected in the two hundred responses to the consultation. Critics fear that too much English limits access for Dutch students and leads to language degradation. They think the proposal does not go far enough. Others call it “xenophobic”.
The debate is so divided that international students are wrongly being demonised, said international student party DSP in April: The media and politics paint the picture that international students are causing a crisis in higher education. This has shocked us deeply.’ Leiden Board president Annetje Ottow defended them: ‘Leiden will keep sending out the message that these students are very welcome here.’

‘Attracting talent is the main priority’

It puts the universities in a strange position where they do want to control the international intake, but they also want to maintain their international position and not deter international students. One plain reason for this is money: the funding system rewards universities that attract many students, and other countries form a much larger pool to fish from. Furthermore, English-taught programmes are also popular among Dutch students.
However, according to Ottow, attracting more and more students is not the ambition: ‘Attracting talent is the main priority,’ she said in April.
At the same time, universities have hardly acted against the problems they were sounding the alarm about in 2018. The massive housing shortage was brushed aside more than once, under the guise of ‘not our responsibility’, despite countless cries for help from various quarters - including from internationals themselves. Moreover, they continued to set up English-taught programmes: in 2018, 20 percent of bachelor’s programmes and 70 percent of master’s programmes were in English; now, it's 28 and 77 percent, respectively.


However, it seems that this is about to change. Although the proposal is still in its infancy, the political pressure is evident. In May, the Law School decided to offer a planned English-taught Economics & Society programme in Dutch after all. ‘The ministry asked us to change the language,’ said then-administrator Ton Liefaard. ‘Otherwise, we probably wouldn’t have received approval.’
Van der Heijden also foresees changes. ‘There are real problems, such as housing,’ he told the council members. ‘The fundamental question is, are we, as a university, responsible for them? Apparently so. And maybe we should take some of that responsibility. That does mean we have to make choices. For some programmes, we can make a better case for English-taught instruction than for others. So we might have to take measures.’
But for now, there are still ‘a great many uncertainties’, he pointed out. ‘First the proposal has to be amended, then the question is whether it will pass, and if it doesn’t, what will happen then? That will depend on the political leadership in power. Not to mention the implementation committees that will be examining its feasibility. Those are a lot of uncertainties. As administrator, I struggle with that. So we will have to wait and see, but also carefully think through different scenarios.’