Internationalisation lifts the Dutch HE brand globally

There has been rapid growth in the share of international faculty members in the Netherlands in the past two decades. Existing data show that in research universities alone, the proportion of international faculty members increased from 17% in 2003 to 33% of the total in 2015.

As PhD or doctoral students are counted as faculty members in Dutch universities, by 2012 the proportion of PhD candidates accounted for the largest share (46%), followed by other research staff (36%) – in particular post-doctoral students and lecturers who did not fall into the other categories.

In contrast, the proportion of professors constituted the smallest share of the total (15%).

By regions of origin, international faculty members in the Netherlands can be grouped into two broad types: those from the European Union or European Economic Area, or EU-EEA, and those from outside the EU-EEA. As of 2012, by region of origin, the total number of international faculty members coming from the EU-EEA (20.7% of faculty members) was more than the number from outside the EU-EEA (12.5%).

In relation to country of origin, according to reports published by the Association of Universities in the Netherlands or VSNU, international faculty members come mainly from south and western Europe, especially Germany.

China is also seen as an increasingly important source of academic knowledge: there were around 650 PhD students and researchers from China by 2014. In both 2003 and 2011, the largest number and proportion of PhD students came from Germany, followed by those from China. The third largest group came from Italy.

By discipline, as of 2015 the largest proportion of international faculty members is from engineering (nearly half of the total number of faculty), followed by those from natural science (about 40%), and the third largest proportion is from economics (nearly 35%).

International faculty members from other disciplines (mainly from the humanities) make up 30% of the total faculty; and their proportion is slightly higher than those from agricultural science (30%). Among all disciplines, the smallest proportion of international faculty members comes from law (less than 20%).

European researcher mobility

There are a number of key drivers behind these changes to international faculty numbers. At the regional level, there has been an increasing demand for academics and researchers in the EEA for several decades. The opening up of the academic labour market has been very much supported by action in the framework of the European Research Area.

European research policies and research funding have had both a direct and an indirect effect on the attraction of foreign staff, mainly from European countries. This is perhaps an important reason why the proportion of international faculty members from Germany makes up the largest share of the total.

The Bologna Process has also indirectly contributed to a much wider open labour market of academic professions in Europe and more emphasis has been placed on the mobility of students. This has made it much easier not only for faculty members to find jobs within the European Economic Area, but also for faculty members coming from outside Europe to be employed in European countries.

For example, a rapid increase in the number of international students from Asian countries such as China and Pakistan and European countries such as Italy and Romania, has provided more sources and possibilities for the mobility of PhD candidates and other types of academics.

International perspectives

At the national level, as early as early the 1980s, the Dutch government imposed a policy of inviting international reviewers to participate in external evaluation of Dutch higher education institutions in order to assure and improve education quality and research activities.

During the process, it created a largely international environment for individual universities and incorporated international perspectives and content into faculty members’ teaching and research activities, as well as enhancing the overall level of internationalisation of Dutch higher education.

In recent years, the government has developed more national policies aimed at attracting further international talent to help the Netherlands play a leading role in research and innovation.

An added factor is that the Netherlands is perceived as having a very liberal immigration policy for knowledge workers. In addition, universities in the Netherlands offer the academic culture and facilities that top academics expect: including autonomy, academic freedom, unrestricted information access and laboratories.

Both liberal immigration and academic policies have provided a favourable environment for attracting international faculty members. In interviews I conducted, institutional leaders stressed that it is important to seek out the best brains from across the world if Dutch universities want to be the best worldwide and attract the best students.

In contrast to France or Germany, there is an emphasis on English teaching in junior and middle schools in the Netherlands. English is naturally considered to be the preferred second language. Almost all Dutch research universities, compared to many other European ones, are highly ranked in major global ranking systems, and a broad variety of research subjects in the Netherlands enjoy an extremely high reputation worldwide.

English-taught programmes

Another important factor is that the Netherlands has provided more and more English-taught programmes in recent years, seeking to foster graduates equipped with international perspectives, knowledge, skills and competencies. Such an emphasis on the importance of English-taught programmes is an enormous attraction for both international students and faculty members.

Finally, a rapid growth in numbers of PhD students who receive various scholarships and are funded by other programmes has also resulted in a massive expansion of inbound international PhD students, especially those from China, in recent years.

The rise in numbers of inbound international staff and professors has evidently enhanced the international reputation of Dutch universities, the presence of Dutch universities in major global university ranking systems and the global competitiveness of Dutch universities, especially their research capacity. It has also made Dutch universities more attractive to both domestic and international students.

In a major sense, the successful attraction of international faculty members to Dutch universities has contributed greatly to consolidating the branding of the Dutch system at a global dimension. In the wake of Brexit, and with the rise of the far right in many European countries, these international links are likely to become increasingly important.

Futao Huang is a professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University, Japan, and an international co-investigator at the Centre for Global Higher Education based at the UCL Institute of Education, United Kingdom.


Post Brexit, I think Holland will be a desired option for former UK academics. I am looking at applying to Dutch places in addition to German.

Christopher Haggarty-Weir on the University World News Facebook page