The challenges of international HE in a small country

Small, developing countries encounter specific challenges when developing an internationalisation strategy for their higher education systems, trying to strike the right balance between their colonial past and the present, local and foreign languages and cultures, brain drain and brain gain, national and foreign accreditations, foreign and national providers and the importance of exports and local human capital.

Recently, I was invited to discuss these issues in Curaçao, an autonomous, constituent Caribbean island within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Curaçao has a population of just over 150,000 and an economy depending primarily on tourism and on the presence of an oil refinery.

It is struggling to restructure its higher education sector and address its international dimensions. Brain drain is occurring in the direction of the Netherlands and to a lesser extent the United States.

The post-secondary education sector on the island consists of one small public university, the University of Curaçao, with approximately 4,000 students, a small vocational nursing school and two not-for-profit private universities; the Inter-Continental University of the Caribbean and the University of the Dutch Caribbean.

These last two can best be described as post-secondary teaching institutions with a limited number of programmes (primarily business, finance, hospitality management, law and tourism) and students (around 500 each).

Accreditation issues

There are essentially two types of higher education programmes, one more aligned to the Dutch higher education system, and the other, less prominent, more aligned to the United States model.

The programmes oriented towards the Dutch system, such as those of the University of the Dutch Caribbean, apply for accreditation from the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders or NVAO. The programmes oriented towards the United States, such as those of the Inter-Continental University of the Caribbean, generally apply for accreditation from a member of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation in the United States.

This is a costly affair. So many programmes, even at the public university, are not accredited. As a result, according to some of my sources, strange situations arise; for instance, students graduating with a teacher’s or a nursing degree from the public university or the nursing school are not licensed to work in Curaçao, but are allowed to do so in the Netherlands – which results in brain drain – while the island recruits nurses and teachers with a Dutch degree from the Netherlands.

There has been a discussion on setting up a national accreditation agency or an offshoot of the NVAO, but this is very expensive given the size of the sector and the fact that reviewers would have to come from abroad due to the lack of independent experts in the country.

The transnational education sector

In addition to the regular higher education sector, which falls under the Ministry of Education, there is a so-called transnational education or TNE sector, which falls under the Ministry of Economic Development. It comprises seven institutions primarily providing education to international students, mainly in the field of medicine. There is also a Spanish private university developing a business school.

This TNE sector is a strange mix of local, Venezuelan, American, Indian and other foreign businesses. The John F Kennedy University School of Medicine and the Caribbean Medical University are two examples. In these medical schools, students receive mainly theory classes and have to do their clinical training in the United States or elsewhere.

Students are from the United States (with a large number being of Indian descent), India, and, more recently, from countries like Nigeria. There is no exact information about the number of such TNE institutions and their student body on Curaçao. The Caribbean Medical University claims to have 250 students, of which only six are local students.

There are plans to allow TNE institutions to recruit 20% of their students locally and to make these eligible for financial aid, but this will force them to compete with the regular post-secondary education system on the island.

The accreditation of TNE institutions is unclear and one wonders if some of them are not just diploma mills and-or accredited by accreditation mills. As mentioned above, the Ministry of Education has left the control of the TNE sector to the Ministry of Economic Development, depriving this sector of academic supervision.

Educational hub

Recently, the Ministry of Economic Development has started looking into the option of developing Curaçao into an educational hub and has come to the conclusion that it should focus more on the sustainability and quality of the sector, including giving a more active role to the ministries of education and health and the immigration service.

It is also trying to stimulate Dutch research universities, in particular the University of Amsterdam and Delft University of Technology, to set up branch campuses on the island in the hope that this will attract more students from Latin America and the Caribbean. It is very unlikely that these universities will do so despite a recent law in the Netherlands allowing Dutch public universities to develop branch campuses if the government does not invest any public funds.

Some Dutch universities of applied sciences are already active on the island in joint programmes with the two private universities and the nursing school.

There seems to be greater potential for TNE cooperation between the regular universities on the island, Dutch universities of applied sciences and universities in the region, who could come together to attract a mix of local students, Dutch students doing part of their studies and their internships abroad and students from the region.

Language issues

One of the big challenges is the quality of primary and secondary education on the island, including language policy.

Primary education is taught primarily in the local language, Papiamentu. Secondary education is primarily taught in Dutch.

Post-secondary education is primarily taught in Dutch but increasingly also in English and there is some discussion about adopting English as the sole language of instruction at the tertiary level. But this would make it even more difficult for local students to get into higher education than is already the case (only 19% of this age group is attending and the dropout rate is high) and teaching staff do not have the required language capacity.

To increase the quality of higher education, more attention needs to be paid to the quality of primary and secondary education and to language policy.

Another challenge is the limited size of the island and the high level of personal connections between higher education administration and providers, with decisions on reform requiring balancing personal and general interests. Decision-making is therefore slow and complex. A reform of higher education, including TNE, is in the last phase of completion, but frequent changes in the government and administration delay the process.

The case of international education in Curaçao is no different from that of many other countries in the Caribbean. Regional cooperation in higher education is more difficult than on bigger continents due to the diversity in culture, language, colonial heritage and higher education systems.

There is no straight model for international education for small, developing island countries such as Curaçao. A long-term international higher education strategy, building on their innate strengths, cooperation between different stakeholders, the needs of the local economy and investments in quality, will be more sustainable in the long term than maintaining the current anarchy of the TNE sector.

It is a positive sign that relevant ministries and the higher education sector in Curaçao are aware of the need to move in that direction. That might strengthen both their operations abroad and develop an internationalisation at home strategy.

Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA. Email:


If a middle income country like Dominica with 70,000 people can establish a professionally managed National Accreditation Board, there's no reason that a wealthier, larger island like Curaçao cannot also do so. It's less a matter of resources and more one of will.

Steve Foerster on the University World News Facebook page