Last summer, Demissionary Minister of Education, Culture and Science Robbert Dijkgraaf presented the Balanced Internationalisation Act. The aim to reduce the number of international students led to national uproar. What do (former) professors from Nijmegen think about the proposal, and what is the discussion about internationalisation actually about?
Anyone who ventures a tour around campus cannot miss the fact that international students have become part and parcel of the Radboud streetscape. De Refter translates its menus in English, exchange students cycle into each other on the traffic circle near the Erasmus building – who can blame them anyway – and our beloved university song contains not only Dutch but also English and Latin words. When the bypasser arrives at his lecture he also stumbles upon other issues: lecture halls that are filled to the brim, a lack of personal guidance and low English proficiency among professors.
According to Dijkgraaf, all these experiences have the same cause: excessive internationalisation. In a letter to the House of Representatives, he wrote that the influx of international students has lost control. Despite the value international students bring to the table, this is problematic. In the academic year 2021-2022, about 40 percent of students that enrolled in a Dutch university came from outside the Netherlands and a quarter of the total amount of university students came from abroad. According to Dijkgraaf, this growth is exerting pressure on the quality of education, which is why he pleads for a law that will ‘bring back balance’.
The aforementioned problems could, according to Dijkgraaf, be fixed by his Balanced Internationalisation Act. The law is based on two core aspects. First of all, the law will lower the amount of international master students. It will introduce a numerus fixus – that is, a maximum of students that are allowed to enroll – for master programs, and bachelor degrees that suddenly experience too much growth will also be allowed to introduce an emergency clause for one year. This emergency clause will allow degrees to differentiate between Dutch students and international students. Second, the act will introduce a new policy on language, which also consists of two aspects. Two thirds of the courses taught in a bachelor programme must be taught in Dutch and degrees must ask permission from the Ministry to deviate from this. International students also have to follow mandatory Dutch courses. With this last proposal, Dijkgraaf hopes that more international students will stay in the Netherlands after they finish their studies. There is no fixed level that the students have to achieve, but the act does state that the lessons will not have to take up more than 140 hours.
However, the academic world is not unanimous about the use and impact of these measures, according to conversations ANS had with (former) professors from Nijmegen.
Let’s talk numbers
Solely focusing on the numbers, international students are not the cause of overcrowding on campus, according to Hub Nijssen. He works for the Science faculty’s bureau of Internationalisation and Admission and calls himself the founding father of international marketing at Radboud. He explains: ‘Between 2017 and 2022 the amount of students at the RU grew from 18000 to 25000, while the amount of international students grew from 1100 to 2300. The overcrowding is not necessarily caused by international students, but more so by Dutch students who should be following a lower level of education. It is a shame that these degrees lose students because of the university’s prestige and status. 15 percent of university students does not belong here, according to a report by a commission led by Elmer Sterken (the former rector of the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen).’ According to Nijssen, the Dutch system should examine itself critically before directing its anger towards the – factually smaller – amount of international students.
He adds that some degrees at the Faculty of Science need internationalization to keep an acceptable amount of students. An example of this is chemistry. ‘I am now about to say something that the dean will not like: without English education and our ten international students, there would be no bachelor’s degree in chemistry. And a science faculty without chemistry,is unthinkable.’
In 2022, all universities combined had 85239 international students enrolled, while Radboud University had 2703. The percentage of international students is significantly lower at Radboud University than the national average. The growth of the number of international students, both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the total number of students is also lower than the national average.
Data: Universiteiten van Nederland. Left y-axis: number of students, right y-axis: percentage of international students of total. No 2023 data available yet.
Cultural psychologist and science historian Ruud Abma is positive about the new law proposal. He lives in Nijmegen and worked for the University of Utrecht before his retirement. He voices a positive opinion about reducing the amount of English used. ‘People often switch to English, when this wouldn’t have been necessary, solely judging by the content of the courses.’ According to him, the proposed act will help people think more critically about this.
As an example of this unnecessary use of English he mentions a course about Dutch legislation and policy approach towards disability, that suddenly had to be taught in English, just before he retired in 2017. ‘It had absolutely no use for international students and for Dutch students it was essential to know the jargon in their own language.’ Abma argues that psychology and pedagogy students would benefit from following their bachelors in Dutch, because most of these students will be interacting with Dutch people in their field of work. ‘It would be better to teach research oriented masters in English, because students who are entering the international research field need to speak the language at a high level.’
Marc van Oostendorp, professor of Dutch and Academic Communication, also believes that more attention to the Dutch language is important. Nevertheless, he sees in his surroundings that anglicisation at Radboud is currently taking a different turn. ‘In my experience, the demand for anglicization often comes from below. For example, Nijmegen offers the only linguistics degree that is fully taught in Dutch. I think this has caused a relatively big amount of students to study in a different city, like Utrecht, where English-taught courses are part of the curriculum.’ Thus, he is fine with the two-thirds norm that Dijkgraaf proposes (which allows room for English-taught courses). However, it’s a shame that only Dutch and English are the norm instead of a more broad array of languages, he adds. ‘In our border region, there are so many German students for example that we could learn a lot from.’
Demissionary minister Dijkgraaf wants international students to stick around longer in the Netherlands, without closing themselves off from the rest of Dutch society. Would mandatory courses in Dutch contribute to this? Nijssen is positive about the idea, yet critical about the implementation. He explains: ‘With the budget that the act currently allows for language courses, there would be 3 euros available per hour per international student. That includes course materials and a room. I wonder where you would get a teacher with a budget like that.’
He also voices criticism about the level of Dutch students would acquire with this limited amount of lessons. At the moment, the act proposes only 140 hours of mandatory language courses, equal to 5 ECTs, with no mandatory skill level at the end. For master students, the prescription is 56 hours. He personally thinks mandatory language courses that are included in the curriculum are a good idea, but worries his colleagues would not agree. ‘You could argue that international students get less of a chance to delve into study material with extracurricular courses.’ He shares another thought: ‘In order to contribute to society, a student should not necessarily have to speak Dutch. Numbers run by the CBS (Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek, the Dutch Central Agency for Statistics) show that international students contribute €1.5 billion in taxes each year to the state treasury.’
Van Oostendorp disagrees. He believes language lessons in the curriculum would be a good option. ‘It would not be a disaster if they learn a little less about a course. As a university, we should not only be educating narrow-minded-specialists, but most of all people who can introduce their knowledge to society. Besides, it is equally important for Dutch students to speak English as it is for international students to speak Dutch.’
Abma agrees with Van Oostendorp. According to him the mandatory language courses would promote and simplify cultural exchange between international students and Dutch society. This lies at the core of internationalization. ‘In our current system, international students do not get the opportunity to fully develop themselves, which is a shame. They will remain outsiders if they can only speak English. This already shows in places like the supermarket, where they don’t speak enough Dutch to pay at the register.’ Besides the language lessons, he pitches a buddy system: ‘This way Dutch students can offer international students help with language-related problems, which in turn facilitates integration.’
What these opinions and nuances show most of all, is that the core of this debate remains complex. Abma explains: ‘This debate is about the question: what can and should universities contribute to society? In order to survive financially, we have depended on recruiting international students and prioritized internationalization. Because of this, this core question has been shoved to the background.’ This also becomes clear in these conversations. Even though these men all view the proposed act differently, they are mostly occupied with this question.
Although the debate in academia is nuanced, the choices are ultimately made in politics. There, a majority seems to be in favor of the law. The staunchest supporter of the act seems to be Pieter Omtzigt, with his party Nieuw Sociaal Contract (which is currently leading in the polls). For example, he wants the flow of international students into the country to be limited based on the available amount of student housing and he wants non-EU students to pay significantly higher tuition fees. Under Omtzigt’s plans, research about ‘relevant Dutch policies’ will be given priority, and in the end Dutch will become the university’s standard language.
There are lots of different opinions, but what do you think? In the elections on November 22nd, Dutch nationals can vote to show their opinion about this important subject.
Do you have a strong opinion about the proposed law that you would like to share? Send us an e-mail at email@example.com.
This article previously appeared in the latest paper edition of ANS.