Online consultation starts on proposed legislation concerning internationalisation of higher education

Today sees the launch of the online consultation for the proposed legislation concerning a more balanced and coordinated approach to internationalisation in Dutch higher education (Wet internationalisering in balans). Anyone can express a view about the proposed legislation until mid-September. The bill covers measures relating to language and more centralised control of student admissions, with a view to effectively managing the number of international students coming to the Netherlands. The ultimate aim is to achieve a better balance in the internationalisation of higher professional and university education

As the outgoing Minister of Education, Culture and Science, Robbert Dijkgraaf, outlined previously in his letter on the subject of internationalisation, the international dimension of higher education is of major importance for students, educational institutions, the knowledge economy and wider society. Its benefits include attracting international talent and learning international skills.

However, recent years have seen the number of international students increase sharply to reach 115,000. In academic higher education, some 40 percent of all new students come from outside the Netherlands (up from just 28 percent in 2015). Left unchecked, this will undermine the quality of education, resulting in overcrowded lecture halls and excessive workloads for lecturers. It also threatens Dutch students’ access to certain English-language study programmes. In the major cities in particular, students are also increasingly struggling to find housing.

These developments are undermining the experience that education and student life should offer. There is a need to seriously rethink the strategy for internationalisation and the sharing of talent. This proposed legislation aims to strike a sustainable balance in the Dutch higher education system. This will involve balancing the benefits of internationalisation on the one hand with the need to maintain quality, access and efficiency on the other. The ultimate aim of this targeted approach is to help sustain the leading international position enjoyed by Dutch universities of applied sciences and academic universities.

Space for multiple languages

The proposed legislation currently under consultation contains a series of ‘buttons’ that aim to manage and control the influx of international students: mechanisms designed to boost the advantages of internationalisation, limit the disadvantages and withstand major or sudden shocks. This will include specific scope for differentiation to accommodate regional differences and shortage sectors. First and foremost, the measures relate to language and aim to ensure that the use of Dutch in higher education is retained and strengthened.

The legislation also aims to make better use of the opportunities for multilingual approaches while also boosting the international standing of academic universities and universities of applied sciences. It will create more space for courses and modules in other languages within Dutch Bachelor and Associate degree programmes, up to a maximum of one third of the total credits. If more than one third of all credits are obtained on non-Dutch courses, the Minister of Education, Culture and Science will assess the suitability of a Bachelor or Associate degree programme by applying a ‘foreign-language instruction test’. He can grant permission after a thorough assessment of:

  • the availability of staff in a specific sector and students’ labour market prospects. There are currently significant shortages in education, healthcare and technology. However, in some of these shortage sectors, there are also jobs where a good command of Dutch matters, for example in contact with patients.
  • the regional impact of a study programme. In regions facing economic decline, a knowledge institution that has international appeal can be very welcome. The situation may be quite different in cities that are no longer able to cope with the pressure of more students.
  • the extent to which a study programme contributes to the Netherlands’ international standing. Some study programmes deliver graduates who compete among the very best internationally, for example in the fine arts.
  • the question of whether there are sufficient numbers of staff to teach in Dutch. If this is not the case, programmes in other languages will be permitted.
  • the distribution of similar types of programmes across the country. In principle, there should always be a Dutch-language version of any specific programme available to students.

When the test is applied, compliance on just one of the elements will not be sufficient. All of the different elements will be viewed as a whole, set within the specific context of the study programme.

The proposed legislation also includes measures for promoting proficiency in the Dutch language among both Dutch and international students. A good command of Dutch opens doors in the labour market and boosts connections between students, lecturers and wider society. Institutions will still have freedom on how they intend to promote students’ language proficiency, but this will need to be firmly anchored within the basic curriculum (Bachelor and Associate degree programmes). In the case of Master’s programmes, this can be extracurricular.

All students on study programmes not taught in Dutch will have an obligation to improve their proficiency in the Dutch language. The purpose of this differs for each group: Dutch language students will be expected to improve their academic and professional language proficiency whereas the aim for students who are native speakers of other languages is to help them feel more at home in the Netherlands and improve their job prospects in the country.

Maximum number of students

The proposed legislation also includes a measure that permits limited enrolment for part of a study programme. Currently, this is only possible for study programmes as a whole. Targeting limited enrolment on a specific track will help prevent part of the programme becoming oversubscribed and reducing access to the rest of it.

The legislation also proposes a maximum number of places for students from outside Europe in cases where teaching capacity is limited. This will safeguard access for Dutch and European students. The government has a responsibility towards Dutch students and – in view of the close cooperation and reciprocity within the European Economic Area (EEA) – also towards other European countries.

Finally, study programmes that suddenly face large numbers of applications can opt to apply an emergency limit on enrolment, serving as an ‘emergency brake’ if the quality of education is threatened.

Autonomy and self-governance

The measures on language and limited enrolment will prove effective only if they are applied together, within the context of the whole system and wider society. This calls for careful management: first of all through coordination between institutions and secondly by government.

However valuable the individual autonomy of institutions may be, this cannot take precedence over the long-term sustainability of the system, access for students and efficient use of public resources. Taking responsibility for the whole system while also taking wider societal effects into account will require a different and more active attitude from government. For this reason, the proposed legislation provides opportunities for the Minister to intervene as an ultimate measure.

Anyone can express a view about the proposed legislation until 15 September. Separately from these legal measures, outgoing Minister Dijkgraaf intends to make further executive agreements with academic universities and universities of applied sciences, on such issues as more targeted recruitment, more active steering of international students towards the Dutch employment market and effective information about accommodation. These measures are necessary to plug the gap until the legislation enters into force.