Aiming for a balanced internationalisation of universities and universities of applied sciences

Retaining the benefits of internationalisation and  achieving balance. That is the core aim of the Balanced Internationalisation bill (Wet internationalisering in balans, WIB), which Minister of Education, Culture and Science Robbert Dijkgraaf submitted to the House of Representatives today. If enacted, the new legislation will make it possible to better manage the mobility of international students. Another aim is to preserve and strengthen Dutch as a language of education and research. The bill is part of a broader package of measures intended to consciously manage internationalisation jointly with universities and universities of applied sciences, as well as to retain international talent for those sectors where it is most needed.

The bill seeks to strike a  balance between preserving the added value of internationalisation on the one hand and, on the other, maintaining the quality, accessibility and efficiency of Dutch higher education. Over the past decade, the number of international students has increased significantly. In places, this is putting pressure on the quality of education and its accessibility for Dutch students, with overcrowded classrooms and high workloads for tutors. In certain areas, moreover, the growing prevalence of courses taught in foreign languages, especially English, is supplanting Dutch as a language of teaching and research.

“The Netherlands relies on knowledge,” says Dijkgraaf. “So we cannot do without international talent, whether for science, the labour market or the quality of the programmes themselves. Our leading position as an international knowledge hub is something we must cherish. But we are now entering a new phase of internationalisation. In this, the key questions are where we really need that talent, how to retain international students and how to maintain the accessibility and quality of education. We have been driving a car with only an accelerator, but now we need a brake. And, above all, a steering wheel. Action is needed, then, but a lasting balance requires precision instruments and customisation. This bill makes it possible for government to intervene carefully, specifically and appropriately where necessary, but with universities and universities of applied sciences themselves still collectively taking the lead in the first instance.”

Retaining Dutch

The bill’s provisions cover language, the mobility of international students and overall control of the educational process. Dijkgraaf wants to preserve and strengthen Dutch as a primary language of higher education and research in the Netherlands. This, he says, will increase the chances that international talents remain in the country after graduation and so contribute to our knowledge economy. “Education and research in Dutch are valuable. I want to guarantee it. Mastering the Dutch language is also a key to finding work and playing a part in our society.”

In the first instance it will be up to educational institutions themselves, working together, to ensure a better balance between courses taught in Dutch and in other languages. To underpin this aim, the WIB provides for a “foreign-language education test”. That defines clear conditions under which tuition in a foreign language is deemed to add value and so is permissible. For the test, the ministry will look at the effectiveness of new or existing Bachelor’s and associate degree courses. As far as possible, this will be done simultaneously for clusters of similar programmes. This way, surveying the scope for variations within the overall supply of courses can be taken into account, as well as the geographical distribution of similar programmes in the Netherlands.

Permission to offer courses in a foreign language will only be granted after independent advice has been obtained and following a careful assessment based upon a number of criteria designed to ensure customisation. These consider regional circumstances, labour market needs, how unique the programme is and its international positioning. For example, the impact that a course has on a shrinking or border region, whether it serves a sector suffering major staffing shortages such as engineering and healthcare or whether it trains students for the international labour market.

The current law stipulates that Dutch is the standard language of tuition at universities and universities of applied sciences in the Netherlands, but leaves considerable scope for exceptions. In the new bill a course is considered “foreign-language” if more than a third of its study credits are for components taught in a language other than Dutch.

Furthermore, universities and universities of applied sciences already have a legal duty to promote Dutch-language proficiency among Dutch students. The WIB will extend this to all students, including those from abroad. The aim is to ensure that they learn as much as possible about Dutch language and culture during their studies. It will be up to the institutions themselves to find a form for this provision that suits their programmes and student population.

Maximum number of students

The bill also contains new rules for capping the number of students admitted to an associate or Bachelor’s degree programme (the so-called “numerus fixus”), a measure voted for by the House of Representatives earlier this year. At present, such a cap can only be imposed for the course as a whole. By henceforth allowing a maximum number of students to be set for just part of a programme, “overcrowding” of that part will not reduce the accessibility of the rest of it. The bill also makes the same possible for Master’s degree courses.

Furthermore, to ensure access for Dutch and European students, a maximum number of places for students from outside Europe can be set. This will only be possible, however, if the teaching capacity of a programme or track proves to be limited. Finally, courses that suddenly experience high numbers of enrolments will be allowed to impose a temporary cap on admissions for a year. This “emergency brake” is intended to protect their quality and accessibility.

Greater control

The WIB is part of a broader package of measures designed to better manage student mobility, in conjunction with the universities and universities of applied sciences themselves. In advance of and in parallel with the statutory instruments contained in the new bill, they recently presented their own plans in this area. These include paying more attention to the Dutch language proficiency of their staff, to recruitment procedures and to the social implications of internationalisation, such as housing issues and the chances that students will remain in the country after graduation. To consolidate these plans, Dijkgraaf hopes to reach executive agreements with the universities and universities of applied sciences.

Careful process

The Balanced Internationalisation bill is the result of a careful preparatory process. Wide-ranging discussions were conducted with the education sector, Dutch and international students, civil society organisations, representatives from the business community and regional partners. Advice was sought from the Education Council of the Netherlands and the Council of State, and implementation tests were undertaken by regulators and executive bodies. An online public consultation also generated plenty of responses. The next stage in the process is the bill’s passage through the House of Representatives.