Student internationalisation plan may be a model for others

An escalating crisis in international student enrolment in the Netherlands may finally bring political and academic leaders to resolve long-standing debates over English-taught programmes and the declining use of Dutch. The Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science Robbert Dijkgraaf has now offered a broad but measured blueprint for addressing a situation that has spun out of control.

The enrolment crisis

In a 21 April letter to the House of Representatives, the minister outlined targeted measures to reduce pressures on student housing, programme accessibility, faculty workloads and the consequent effects on educational quality, all related to high numbers of international students.

As the minister noted, in the last academic year, 40% of new students had come from abroad as compared to 28% in 2015. In recent years, reports of students arriving in the Netherlands with nowhere to live and registering for courses with inadequate seating have brought the problem to a head. At the same time, Dutch students are scrambling to enrol in over-subscribed courses, particularly those taught in English.

To realise the necessary changes will demand legislative action. It also will demand buy-in from university leaders unaccustomed to centralised management and heavily reliant on the additional revenue that international students provide.

Aware of those concerns, the minister’s plan calls for customised international recruitment in programmes that prepare students for strategic growth areas like technology or that meet regional needs, including universities close to the country’s borders with Germany and Belgium.

The plan further envisions enrolment caps, particularly in English-taught programmes, which will prevent some international students from enrolling and dissuade them from initially applying.

Unable under European law to limit the number of students from European Economic Area (EEA) countries – the European Union plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein – explicit enrolment caps can only apply to students from outside the EEA. Yet those are the ones who pay the higher tuition fees that add significantly to the revenue stream.

English as a problem and solution

Language, and particularly English, is a key source of the ‘internationalisation’ problem and potentially a key component of the solution. English is the most common language learned by students across the globe and therefore the common vehicle for educating them in international programmes.

Dutch universities offer the most English-taught programmes in all of continental Europe. Combined with the renowned reputation of Dutch education and the ease of navigating Dutch life where English fluency is widespread, these programmes make the Netherlands one of the most sought-after education destinations in Europe.

The more these programmes have drawn international students, the greater the financial incentive for universities to expand their number. The more the programmes have grown, the greater the attraction of studying in the Netherlands.

In 2021-22, 77% of masters degree programmes in Dutch research universities were taught totally in English, as compared to 14% in Dutch and 9% in both languages. For bachelor degree programmes, the numbers were 28% in English, 53% in Dutch and 19% in both languages.

The rise of English, along with the loss of the Dutch language among both domestic and international students, has been the subject of endless reports, ministerial proposals and legislative debates across governments and ministers of education.

A shifting narrative

Prior to 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic upended the world, the debate centred on the impact of English-taught programmes on educational quality, accessibility and the Dutch language.

As in the past, it invoked 1992 revisions in the Higher Education and Research Act, specifically Article 7.2, calling for a showing of “necessity” for teaching in a language other than Dutch, and Article 1.3 requiring that “in relation to Dutch-speaking students, [universities] also focus on promoting expression in Dutch”.

Over the years, the vague wording in these provisions has created a gap between the rhetoric of the policy in protecting Dutch and the reality of universities progressively moving towards English.

The post-pandemic iteration of that debate, with a new minister and a different coalition government, avoids the politically charged legal discourse. It rather suggests nuanced ways to comply with the law on the “necessity” for English and the “promotion” of Dutch, while also focusing on the immediate enrolment crisis.

That discussion centres on the permissible extent of capping English-taught courses and programmes across institutions with diverse programmatic needs. As for Dutch, the minister now says that it should remain the main language in higher education and that “reasonable” standards should be adopted to depart from that premise.

He has entreated universities to use Dutch as the administrative language and to promote Dutch language skills among all students. No doubt, what is ‘reasonable’ can lend itself to wide interpretation.

Questions to be answered

The minister’s preliminary blueprint leaves a number of questions to be answered. Will the proposal now in the making satisfy legislative forces bent on limiting international enrolments and preserving the Dutch language?

Will it require all or certain international students to learn Dutch, if not as a matter of law, then as a matter of policy, for them to remain in the country and work in critical areas like social welfare, medicine and law?

Would such a requirement have a more severe impact on foreign applications than intended or needed to address the current problem? How will that impact be monitored centrally or institutionally?

What standards will be set in place to determine the ‘necessity’ of teaching a course or programme in English?

Will the plan effectively address the quality and accessibility concerns of Dutch students whose education has been both enriched and compromised by the push toward internationalisation through English?

Will it provide sufficient flexibility to calm the fears of university leaders in losing their autonomy along with the revenue and reputational advantages gained from international students?

Will the reforms negatively impact the country’s standing in university rankings?

These are difficult questions for a country that has prided itself on its international programmes built on their appeal among young people seeking quality English-taught education at an affordable price.

The current minister, a highly respected academician who spent 10 years in the United States partially watching from the sidelines, is well positioned to craft an objective and comprehensive plan, and thereby rescue Dutch higher education from having become a victim of its own success. What he has suggested could potentially serve as a blueprint for other countries watching this cautionary tale unfold.

Rosemary Salomone is the Kenneth Wang Professor of Law at St John’s University School of Law in the United States. Her most recent book is The Rise of English: Global politics and the power of language, Oxford University Press, 2021.