Universities will provide more courses in Dutch

Following several years of political and cultural debate, Dutch universities have announced a new series of measures to manage the high influx of international students into Dutch higher education. Within the package of announcements, the most striking is the active reduction in English-language teaching.

There has been a long running discussion within Dutch society about the potential negative impacts the proliferation of English-language courses has on Dutch higher education and wider Dutch culture at large. In 2019 Beter Onderwijs Nederland, an educational reform association, brought ultimately unsuccessful lawsuits against the universities of Utrecht and Maastricht to stop the anglicization of Dutch education. In that same year, English became the official language of the University of Twente and Eindhoven University of Technology.

Research by Nuffic, an independent non-profit organisation that supports the internationalisation of Dutch education, revealed that international university students made up 15% of the entire Dutch student population, with 122,287 students. This is a 50% increase from a decade ago. It was also revealed that only 23% of Dutch universities offered MA programmes in Dutch.

The new measures were first announced in 2023 under the last Rutte IV cabinet. Robert Dijkgraaf, the Minister for Education, Culture and Science, said in a statement: “In recent years concern has mounted about the unchecked pace of internationalisation, both in education and, more broadly, in the workplace and the community.” The large number of English-language courses was part of the government’s concerns: “My starting point is that the language of education is Dutch. There can be room in the curriculum for another language, but I propose that it should not be more than a third. That means that most of your education is in Dutch, but if you want to give a few specialist subjects in English, that is allowed.”

Despite criticising the plans last year, the union of Dutch universities VVN announced on 8 February a plan to implement the proposals set out by the government in 2023. In a statement, VVN spokesman Ruben Puylaert stated: “With immediate effect, the Dutch universities will be taking their own measures to manage the influx of international students and improve Dutch language skills.” The universities aim to reduce the number of international students enrolling at Dutch universities by banning institutions from recruiting at international fairs, student quotas for English-language degrees, and all major degrees to be taught in Dutch. No new English-language Bachelor’s degrees will be created for an indefinite period and the universities will investigate which English-language courses can be fully converted into Dutch. Also included in the plan are requirements for international students to attend Dutch language classes.

The cultural debate about the Dutch language in higher education represents a confluence of societal issues plaguing Dutch politics that also involves the housing crisis, immigration and national identity. Geert Wilders’ PVV won the general election on a platform of anti-internationalisation, including banning all immigration from Muslim countries, supporting the Netherlands leaving the EU, and an isolationist foreign policy.

The decisions regarding whether to reduce the number of international students and increase Dutch-language courses has potential merit in and of itself. Societies can choose how their education system functions if they are prepared to accept the consequences and outcomes of those decisions. For example, reducing English-language courses will inevitably result in less income for Dutch universities. But within the current political climate, and especially after Wilders’ victory in the November election, this change in attitude towards internationalised education suggests the Netherlands is undergoing a reframing of its fundamental social edicts around tolerance and openness.

Written by James Turrell