Towards the end of February, the Dutch government took another positive step towards enabling Dutch higher education institutions to fully participate in international higher education. The cabinet proposed legislation to enable Dutch higher education institutions to deliver Dutch degrees at offshore locations without requiring students to spend 25% of the duration of their degree in the Netherlands.
Part of the conditions for allowing a Dutch higher education institution to teach a Dutch degree programme wholly offshore was that they would need to go through an application procedure and receive ministerial approval. The activities of Stenden University of Applied Sciences on four international campuses were mentioned as an example of how higher education institutions might benefit from greater internationalism.
Since September 2012, students enrolling on degree programmes at Stenden University of Applied Sciences at any of its four campuses abroad (South Africa, Qatar, Thailand or Indonesia) have been required to spend one year (25%) of the four-year bachelor degree programme in the Netherlands.
Undoubtedly, this has cost Stenden some enrolments at its overseas locations, despite the observation that students forced into this international mobility were, by and large, happy to spend a year at the Leeuwarden campus in the Netherlands.
It remains to be seen whether word-of-mouth recommendations will preserve the mobility of these students when it no longer becomes compulsory to follow 25% of the programme in the Netherlands.
The obligatory requirement to spend time in the Netherlands to be able to graduate with a Dutch degree put the Netherlands at odds with what is practised elsewhere in the world.
After a first debate on the proposed legislation in December last year, several questions were raised and amendments proposed. The populist PVV party remained unequivocally opposed with its education spokesperson appealing with a range of emotive arguments that centred on conducting Dutch higher education only within Dutch borders, thus sticking his proverbial head in the sand. These arguments were not persuasive.
Issues that were raised by other parties included potential threats to academic freedom, potential loss of brilliant academics to overseas programmes, equality of access to higher education and expenditure of public funds on private overseas education activities as well as the reputational and financial risks in the event of the closure of such ventures.
The experience of Stenden shows that it is possible to safeguard public funds from being used for these operations and that there has been no loss of staff from its main campuses in the Netherlands to its overseas operations.
On the contrary, staff who have been on exchange to the overseas campuses extol the virtues of these experiences to their colleagues in terms of personal development, teaching in an international classroom and new insights into their own discipline. They are also able to provide students with detailed, first-hand accounts as to why they too should undertake a period of foreign study at one of Stenden’s overseas campuses.
This has resulted in a tripling of international inter-campus student mobility over the last few years, more than the increase in traditional student exchanges between home students and Stenden’s international university partners over the same period.
It is thought that international inter-campus mobility presents fewer barriers to students with guaranteed credit transfer and alignment of programme options. In addition, overseas campuses provide Stenden students with optional modules that take account of the campus location and are otherwise unavailable in the Netherlands.
Several programmes at the main campus are also taught at its branch campuses and the development of these programmes benefits from being taught in different contexts with staff from multiple locations sharing their insights, resulting in a better programme everywhere.
Thus, much of the concern voiced in parliament can be assuaged if the experience of Stenden is anything to go by. To date, it has not experienced any issues with regard to academic freedom, although there have been not-insurmountable challenges, for example, in teaching some components of a hotel management programme dealing with alcoholic beverages in a Muslim country.
The beneficial effect of such a challenge is that it makes staff at the home campus think about intercultural issues and examine their curriculum critically in that respect.
The proposed changes to Dutch legislation further enhance the ability of universities to attract talented young international scholars. When the legislation is passed by the Senate – and it is expected to pass this hurdle given the wide support the cabinet received from almost all parties – it will also become possible for universities to bestow the right to supervise PhD candidates on PhD-qualified staff who have not reached the status of full professor.
Universities will remain in the driving seat, given that they need to give their acquiescence for PhD supervision.
Previously they were restricted by law to be able to confer this right only on full professors, thus preventing the hiring of talented, PhD-qualified academics who would only be attracted to the university if they were able to build up a research group of their own PhD students.
Robert Coelen is professor of internationalisation of higher education at Stenden University of Applied Sciences, the Netherlands.
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