Universities back bid to curb international student numbers

The call by the Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science Robbert Dijkgraaf to let universities limit international student numbers if necessary has been welcomed by university leaders.

Dijkgraaf made several proposals in a 21 April letter to parliament on internationalisation in higher education to the Dutch House of Representatives (lower house of parliament or Tweede Kamer).

He is now working on a bill to give universities legal powers to control international student intake more effectively at degree programme level from the 2025-26 academic year, the Universities of The Netherlands (UNL) association announced on the same day.

There has been a steep rise in international students in the Netherlands – with 115,000 in 2021-22, 3.5 times the 2005-06 figure. At universities, 40% of new students came from abroad, compared to 28% in 2015, according to the ministry.

The minister’s proposals include limiting student numbers enrolled in the English-speaking track of Dutch study programmes, reducing student intake outside Europe and encouraging students to learn Dutch.

Benefits of international students

Despite this, Dijkgraaf insisted: “The Netherlands is not an island.” He highlighted the benefits international students bring to the country, noting that high-growth technology sectors are “desperate for new international talent” and will not be subject to the new measures.

A different and more relaxed approach will also be taken for colleges and universities located near the German and Belgian borders.

But the education minister said foreign student numbers should be managed if necessary. Left unchecked, there will be “overcrowded lecture halls, excessive workloads for lecturers, a lack of student accommodation and reduced access to study programmes”.

UNL President Pieter Duisenberg, who has demanded mechanisms to remedy overcrowded degree programmes since 2018, agreed. In some degree programmes, international student growth “is too significant or too fast to enable high-quality education and manageable workloads”, he said.

The minister and universities will also discuss actions to boost the command of the Dutch language among students and provide information to international students on accommodation, he said.

“Speaking Dutch will help students integrate in Dutch society and in a Dutch working environment,” Jan Willem Besselaar, director of marketing, communication and student community at Breda University of Applied Sciences (BUas), told University World News. Encouraging students to speak Dutch and limiting courses to Dutch speakers could “slightly ease” overcrowding, but should not be compulsory, he said.

Moreover, restricting student numbers for certain courses should only take place if a programme “has no real international character or connection, which is not the case for BUas programmes”.

Challenges of growth

UNL Spokesperson Ruben Puylaert said the international dimension of higher education was essential as “it helps us to engage more closely with global developments in science and ... to meet the labour market’s demand for more university-educated talent”.

But, in some universities and university cities, “the growing influx of international students is causing problems”, requiring solutions to retain the “added value of internationalisation” and the “quality and accessibility of higher education”, he told University World News.

The UNL therefore welcomes Dijkgraaf’s plan allowing universities to set:

• An enrolment quota for a specific degree programme (for example, restricting the English-taught track, but imposing no limits for the Dutch stream).

• A maximum number of non-EEA (European Economic Area – EU, plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) students for each degree programme – which would impact British nationals.

• An emergency enrolment quota if, during the application procedure, “non-EEA country applications grow so fast that the degree programme could run into difficulties”.

Several universities would support the use of these tools, Puylaert said. For example, the University of Amsterdam would like to restrict numbers of the English-speaking track of its political science and psychology programmes and Delft University of Technology would favour setting a maximum limit on non-EEA students in its aerospace engineering course.