Universities oppose request to halt foreign recruitment

Dutch universities are pushing back against an urgent request from Culture and Science Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf that universities and universities of applied sciences stop actively recruiting international students in international education fairs until further notice.

University chairs have told University World News that the minister is taking a step too far.

However, the universities themselves have proposed less restrictive curbs – such as an introduction of quotas on English tracks in degree programmes and limits on the proportion of international students in individual programmes.

In a 22 December 2022 letter, sent to the university boards, Dijkgraaf demanded a halt to active recruitment given the pressure on staff, facilities and accommodation, “until new agreements are made in the context of Dijkgraaf’s vision on internationalisation,” according to the spokesperson for the Association of Universities in the Netherlands, Ruben Puylaert.

“So, universities are not rejecting students, they have been asked to stop actively recruiting on study fairs,” Puylaert explained.

Dijkgraaf’s letter followed a parliamentary motion initiated by MPs Peter Kwint (Socialist) and Harry van der Molen (centre-right Christian Democratic Appeal party) which called on the government to limit international student recruitment.

However, Puylaert told University World News that there are currently no restrictions on international students coming to study “other than meeting the prerequisites and any language requirements of the degree programme (and of course paying tuition)”.

He said: “Some degree programmes have an enrolment quota, but this applies to Dutch and foreign students.”

It is unlikely that the Netherlands’ small number of private universities for fashion or education would be affected by the minister’s proposal.

Notably, in a letter to Dijkgraaf, Wittenborg University of Applied Sciences, a private business school based in Apeldoorn, said it should be able to operate normally and recruit freely. Privately funded, the institution is not using public money and can invest and develop its own student accommodation in the city.

Proposal to be debated by MPs

The minister is expected to debate the issue with the lower House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer) in the Netherlands’ parliament in February. New rules, if any are decided, may come into effect as early as March, Puylaert explained.

Until then, public universities, such as Eindhoven University of Technology are heeding Dijkgraaf’s request.

A spokesperson for Eindhoven University of Technology, Ivo Jongsma, told University World News: “We will halt our active recruiting until February, when the minister presents his vision on internationalisation.”

Eindhoven University of Technology Communication Expertise Centre Interim Director Maarten van den Dungen has issued a note to staff saying: “We will not be going abroad physically in January and February.”

Call to consider added value

However, university heads hope the international student intake will be given a chance in the parliamentary debate: “We often focus on the downsides, such as the use of English [widely used in the Netherlands’ higher education sector] and the housing shortage,” said van den Dungen. “But there are also positive side effects … including increased business activity, more innovations and higher tax revenues.”

Urging politicians to consider the added value of international students, he hoped Dijkgraaf would not impose permanent restrictions.

“Internationalisation highly contributes to the quality of our higher education and research,” Puylaert said. “In addition, internationalisation is very valuable for the Netherlands. It provides highly educated talent in demand on the labour market, especially in certain sectors and regions.”

Universities seek limits and quotas

However, to guarantee high quality education, the Association of Universities in the Netherlands is calling for three instruments: an enrolment quota for an English-language (not Dutch) track in a degree programme; a limit on non-EEA (European Economic Area – European Union plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) students per degree programme; and an emergency quota to be used if numbers rise so much, “that the degree programme is getting into difficulty”.

Jan Willem Besselaar, director of marketing, communication and student community at Breda University of Applied Sciences, told University World News university chairs are expecting “a more nuanced comprehensive letter” from the minister, most likely in February before the parliamentary debate.

For Besselaar, the challenge of how to ease the pressure on universities due to student overload should be seen as part of a much larger set of societal problems, “like housing in general – with students from Ukraine also needing accommodation – immigration, carbon pollution … and we have a role in Europe to keep the free exchange of people and knowledge,” he said.

“Active recruitment took place in trade shows and events abroad to inform prospective students,” before they stopped for January-February-March in response to Dijkbaar’s request. “We still have 25 agents in foreign countries and do a lot of promotion online.”

He said if physical recruitment is no longer possible, “we, with our international profile, would have a challenge and need to find other ways to get in touch with prospective students”.

“We think having an international, intercultural classroom is a very important basis of our educational vision,” Besselaar emphasised. “Students need it and the labour market and industry need it.”

He said that the law as it stands allows people to come and study freely.

Instead of curbing foreign student numbers, the government should provide more accommodation and more financing, so universities can offer higher quality programmes, he said.

Specialised universities such as Breda already have substantial numbers of international students, he said: “This academic year, we welcomed 600 new international students out of 2,100 enrolments (29%), a relatively high share compared to many universities and other UAS [universities of applied sciences] in the Netherlands. About 25% to 30% of our international students are non-EU.”

Netherlands has 80,000 foreign students

In 2021-2022 (2022-2023 figures are due in February) there were 79,826 international higher education students in the Netherlands – 57,230 from the European Economic Area (EEA); 5,154 European, non-EEA and 17,393 non-Europeans, Puylaert said. Statistics Netherlands puts this figure higher, saying 115,000 international students chose the Netherlands to study in that academic year.

According to a study by Nuffic, a Dutch organisation for the internationalisation of education, the top-10 list of source countries for the Netherlands’ research universities foreign students in 2021 was headed by Germany (16,169), followed by Italy (8,771), China (4,689) and Romania (3,401).

There are two tuition fee categories for Breda University of Applied Sciences and many other Dutch universities of applied sciences, Besselaar said: a statutory fee for all EEA countries including the Netherlands of €2,314 for most bachelor’s and master’s programmes, “with research universities perhaps having other fees”. The full price for non-EEA students ranges from €11,050 to €13,000 for some master’s courses.

“The difference between these fees is because the government provides funding for students in the EEA,” Puylaert said. Higher fees could reduce the inflow of non-EEA students, he told University World News: “However, as most are within the EEA, it would only affect a relatively small group of international students.”

For now, said universities of applied sciences are lobbying the government and MPs “to ensure people have the facts right and to influence good decision making”, Besselaar said.

“I don’t think anyone would want to stop people actively recruiting international students, although universities with a lot of pressure on accommodation would want handles on this.

“There is also a call to stop study applications from people from, for example, Bangladesh or Pakistan [if they are really] just trying to reach Europe (although such abuse is limited), but this is quite different from saying ‘Don’t do it at all’.”