International students: Don’t forget the ethical issues

On 21 April the Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science Robbert Dijkgraaf sent a letter to parliament on the topic of international students.

It represents a careful balancing act between, on the one hand, the intense criticism from politicians, media and parts of the higher education community on the growth in international student numbers to the Netherlands and, on the other hand, an appeal by others, including the minister himself, to keep Dutch higher education internationally engaged.

The minister’s key proposals have already been addressed by Liz Newmark and Rosemary Salomone in University World News on 4 May.

As Salomone correctly states, the letter leaves many questions open, in particular whether the minister has indeed been able to provide an acceptable compromise between several strongly conflicting positions with regard to the control of international student streams.

But his proposals regarding specific quotas for English-taught streams and keeping Dutch programmes open as well as allowing institutions to limit the number of non-European Economic Area (EEA) students, are welcome.

In this regard, he also advocates a balance between institutions in the main urban areas, which want to reduce their international streams, and those in regions at the borders, which want to continue receiving international students.

His proposals with regard to Dutch as the main language for education and administration, and the need for international students and scholars to learn Dutch, are also a positive step forwards in the debate on the role of language in international higher education.

The Dutch debate on the management of international student streams is not unique. It takes place in other countries, for instance, the Nordic countries, and as Salomone states, the minister’s proposals might be a potential blueprint for them.

Still, although the position taken by the minister is positive, his letter and approach require some critical reflections on the direction of the current debate about international student streams and internationalisation policies and perceptions in the Netherlands and elsewhere.

The labour market argument

In the debate about international student recruitment, recent criticism has focused mainly on the rationale of revenue generation, with higher education as a neoliberal marketplace.

This has been, and continues to be, the case in most Anglophone countries and in Europe (see the contribution by Philip Altbach and myself in University World News on 11 April). But in the letter of the Dutch minister, one can see a shift in the rationale towards increasing the stay rate of international students to solve the needs of the Dutch labour market for top talent.

In Dijkgraaf’s vision, this rationale – together with creating a more stimulating study environment and getting Dutch science to engage more fully with international scientific developments – drives the internationalisation agenda. In itself this is fine, but I want to make two ethical observations in relation to the labour market argument.

In the first place, more attention could be paid to the brain drain implications of this approach, which has become quite common in national policies for international student recruitment in Europe; for instance, it is also the case in Denmark and Germany.

Staying longer in a country is also a major drive for international students when choosing their study destination. According to IDP Connect, 63% of students said that this would directly influence their choice of a destination, and 44% would even consider changing their choice of destination if opportunities were to arise elsewhere.

Similar trends can be found in Germany, but at least the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) seems to be “aware of fair migration principles, including the risk of brain drain, and that policies should be a ‘win-win’ for individuals, the country of origin and the host country”.

It comes across as a rather neocolonial approach that higher-income countries are placing a priority on their labour market needs above those of the lower-income countries where most international students come from.

Related to the stay rate argument, I have a second ethical observation, namely the fact that there are so many asylum seekers in the Netherlands and the rest of Europe with (potential) high-level skills related to labour market demands who are deprived of studying (including learning the local language and culture) and working opportunities.

Should these individuals not be the main targets of labour market recruitment in their host countries or preparation for the labour market in the countries they come from rather than students from abroad?

Addressing these two ethical concerns is the least one might expect in policies designed to increase the stay rate of international students.

Credit mobility

International student mobility seems to have become synonymous with international degree mobility whereas for decades Europe has been at the forefront of international credit mobility thanks to Erasmus+ and institutional bilateral exchange agreements.

There is much attention on this type of mobility in European policies, including the European Universities Initiative, yet in the discourse about mobility it is almost absent.

This is surprising because many of the negative aspects of this type of mobility (related to housing and language in particular) as well as the positive aspects (creating an international study environment and balancing inbound and outbound exchanges) also apply to credit mobility and exchange.

The minister’s letter pays a lot of attention to the imbalance between incoming and outgoing student streams in the Netherlands and makes an appeal for more outbound mobility. This is in itself correct, but the fact that the letter incorrectly calls this diploma (ie, degree) mobility and not credit mobility is an illustration of the lack of attention being paid to exchange students.

Dutch culture and content

Understandably, the minister pays much attention to the language debate and his proposals foreground moves to make Dutch more central again in teaching and administration and through obliging international students and teachers to learn Dutch.

This is positive, although one wonders if the large group of international students enrolled in one- or two-year masters programmes and in short-term credit mobility schemes will be able to learn the language well. From experience, it is very difficult for international students and teachers, even for periods beyond four years, to learn Dutch well, as most Dutch people prefer to talk to them in English.

It would make more sense to ask international students and scholars to take an introductory course in Dutch language and culture and to stimulate institutions to use more Dutch case studies in the curriculum. I remember hearing international students telling me that they were very positive about the quality of Dutch education but surprised by the lack of Dutch examples in the curriculum.

If you want to increase the stay rate, increasing the focus on Dutch culture and content might be just as effective as teaching the language. Internationalising the curriculum does not imply moving away from the local context to the global context but finding the right balance and connectivity between local and global.

These critical reflections are in my view relevant to the debate, not only on the internationalisation of Dutch higher education, but more broadly. In order to be more inclusive and equitable, internationalisation needs to address the potential ethical consequences and challenges of the policies put forward by institutional, national and other stakeholders.

Hans de Wit is professor emeritus and distinguished fellow of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education, United States, and senior fellow of the International Association of Universities. E-mail: