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Netherlands takes another step toward limiting international enrolment growth

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The Dutch Minister of Education has provided formal notice to parliament of his intentions to bring forward legislation and other measures designed to more actively manage international student numbers in the country
  • The government is clearly concerned not only with establishing some limits on future growth, but also in retaining a greater share of foreign graduates and improving services for visiting students

On 21 April 2023, Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science, Robbert Dijkgraaf delivered a letter to the House of Representatives in The Hague. The document represents the next step in a quickly evolving discussion in the Netherlands around the rapid growth of the country’s foreign enrolment.

The Minister explained that there are now 115,000 international students in the Netherlands, representing 3.5 times the number that were in the country as of 2005. Roughly 40% of first-year students at universities now come from outside the Netherlands, which compares to the 28% share of first-year enrolments that foreign students accounted for in 2015.

This substantial expansion of the country’s international enrolment has become a more prominent matter of social and political concern in the last couple of years, and even led the government to ask universities to suspend active international recruitment earlier this year.

“The Netherlands is not an island,” writes the Minister. “On the contrary, we are one of the most internationally connected countries in the world. It is therefore a good thing that Dutch students can study abroad and that international students can study here in the Netherlands…But it should also be possible to manage the number of students arriving here, where necessary. Left unchecked, the current numbers will lead to overcrowded lecture halls, excessive workloads for lecturers, a lack of student accommodation, and reduced access to study programmes…We need a brake as well as an accelerator – and, above all, we need a steering wheel.”

The steering wheel that Minister Dijkgraaf has in mind will likely take the form of legislation that is now in development. It will aim to introduce a coordinated mechanism for managing international enrolment growth – one that relies in part on a centralised control through government and in part on measures that can be enacted by individual institutions.

The model the Minister is anticipating also appears to be more nuanced and targeted than what we have seen before, in that it imagines variable limits or caps on enrolment by institution, programme, and even by language of instruction (with differing limits for courses given in English as opposed to those taught in Dutch).

Along with any forthcoming legislation, the government has also signalled that it aims to enter directly into agreements with Dutch universities in pursuit of more targeted recruitment strategies and improved services for incoming students: “This includes implementing agreements on targeted recruitment: for example, institutions should only actively recruit abroad for programmes that focus on (shortages in) the regional labour market…The Minister also wishes more international students to be actively steered towards the Dutch labour market, institutions to adopt Dutch as the primary administrative language (with a policy of bilingualism if necessary) and for students to be provided with better information regarding accommodation.”

Dutch universities, meanwhile, have been quick to respond and to reassure their international students. “We are happy that the long-expected letter has now been published and that the Minister has indicated that he wishes to enter into discussion with the universities on this issue,” said Hester Bijl, the rector of Leiden University. “We will continue our commitment to our international students and staff. They are and will remain an important and valued part of the academic community in our international research university. The international students who are currently studying with us and those who have enrolled for the coming academic year are still very welcome here.”

And Universities of the Netherlands Chair Pieter Duisenberg added, “International talent is essential for the Netherlands. Both for the quality of education and research at the universities, and for the labour market. In some programmes, however, the growth in the number of students is too fast to keep the quality of education high…We have therefore asked for instruments to be able to manage this. It is good news that the minister is now making this customisation possible.”

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