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Universities to control international student numbers


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Dutch universities should be able to set measures to control the numbers of international students and ensure optimal access of Dutch students to local higher education as soon as possible, university representatives have told University World News.

Their comments come during debates over outgoing Dutch Education, Culture and Science Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf’s bill ‘For a Balanced Approach to Internationalisation in Dutch Higher Education’ (Internationalisering in Balans), during which an amendment was passed to allowing universities to set their own limits on the numbers of international students on English-taught programmes.

“Minister Dijkgraaf wants to create balance between the value of internationalisation for Dutch education on the one hand, and the accessibility to this education on the other,” a ministry spokesperson told University World News.

The Dutch Education Council (Onderwijsraad) (a state advisory body) has just given its opinion on this bill, which will now be sent to the advisory division of the Council of State (Raad van State) for further advice. Then, taking the two opinions into account, “we want to send the bill to the House of Representatives in the second quarter of this year”, the spokesperson said.

But VVD (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie/People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) has meanwhile secured approval on 15 February for an amendment to allow programmes to set student quotas for English-taught.

Universities of the Netherlands (Universiteiten van Nederland – UNL) spokesperson Ruben Puylaert told University World News: “This is a first step in the legislative process.”

Dijkgraaf has asked universities to develop a self-regulation plan, “showcasing what can be done now to jointly direct international students by managing English and Dutch-taught programmes and promoting Dutch language skills”, explained the ministry spokesperson.

“The Netherlands is a knowledge country, which needs international students. Talent for science, talent for our labour market and talent for the educational programmes themselves,” he said, emphasising that it was important to “persuade these talented people to stay in the Netherlands after their studies. Especially in shortage sectors…”

Pressures on quality of HE

That said, over the past decade, the number of international students in the Netherlands has “increased considerably”, he said, meaning the quality of education can come under pressure, accessibility to certain educational programmes could be at risk, and fewer bachelor programmes are offered in Dutch. An accommodation shortage was also “undermining the experience that education and student life should offer”.

The UNL, representing 14 Dutch research universities, welcomes the bill’s “management instruments”, to set quotas – with international students numbering 85,239 in 2022-2023, some 25% of the total university population (universities of applied sciences, however, only have 8% of international students).

Stressing that recruitment at international trade fairs now only happens for subjects with a shortage of students, the association also wants to develop a plan to boost the proportion of international graduates who remain in the Netherlands, currently around 33%.

But the organisation questions many of the bill’s proposals, for example that two-thirds of bachelor programmes should be taught in Dutch.

“Language measures should not be used to manage student intake,” it said, arguing they will reduce the quality of education and research. The UNL’s response to the bill adds that the proposal’s lack of sufficient detail will make it difficult to implement.

It is essential for universities to take decisions on these complex issues and get the legal possibility to do so, Puylaert added. “All universities will work hard on developing and implementing the measures, in dialogue with the staff and student participation bodies,” he said.

Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) President Robert-Jan Smits agreed the bill should give universities the appropriate legal tools to control the influx of foreign students. But “as a university of technology, we hope there will be a derogation for engineering studies, given the enormous shortage of engineers in our country, notably in our Eindhoven Brainport region, which is the centre of the Dutch high-tech industry,” Smits made clear.

Housing shortages add to problem

All Dutch universities support internationalisation because of the “enormous benefits for science and education,” he said. But, especially the larger, general universities in the wider Amsterdam area, see caps on international students as “unavoidable because of housing shortages and to guarantee an optimal access for Dutch students”.

However, “smaller Dutch universities and notably technology universities such as TU/e still have the potential to grow. This is also politically supported, given the enormous shortage of engineers”.

At Breda University of Applied Sciences (BUas), director marketing, communication and student community, Jan Willem Besselaar, said BUas also “supports measures facilitating a higher level of Dutch language for international students and staff, and wants to facilitate student housing by all means”.

At the same time, the university wants to maintain its international and specialised profile, for expertise in tourism; hotel management; leisure and events; games and media; data science and AI; plus logistics, “enabling sound regional, national and international labour markets”.

With “a diverse palette of universities”, large regional universities of applied sciences, such as the Fontys University of Applied Sciences and Avans University of Applied Sciences, along with internationally oriented universities such as Maastricht University and BUas, view the current situation and proposed measures differently, said Besselaar.

Depending on the legislation’s final form and any guidance from the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences, BUas might continue the current approach, “or be forced to decrease the number of international students for some specific education programmes-domains”, he noted.

“The latter situation would have an organisational and a financial impact, if numbers cannot be mitigated by a Dutch student influx,” he said.

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