What’s going on with international student recruitment in the Netherlands?
On 22 December 2022, the Dutch education minister sent a letter (Dutch) to the Boards of Dutch Universities asking them to halt active recruitment of international students.
According to CBS, the Dutch central statistics bureau, in the 2021/22 academic year, 40% of first-year students at Dutch research Universities were international. For the intake at Universities of applied sciences (“HBO” in Dutch), the figure stands at 25%.
The growing inflow of international students has led to pressure on student housing and other facilities at universities, which eventually led to the Dutch parliament passing a motion (Dutch) asking the minister to send the above mentioned letter.
Contents of this blog post:
- Where I personally stand on this issue
- Exactly what does “stopping active student recruitment” mean?
- Why is the Netherlands popular with international students?
- Will “stopping active recruitment” lower the Dutch 2023/24 international intake?
- Do the Netherlands host many foreign students compared to similar countries?
- How did we get to this point?
- What’s next?
Where I personally stand on this issue
I’m not an impartial observer. I’m making my living helping Universities with their online marketing. Following the minister’s letter, my LinkedIn timeline filled up with people from the sector decrying it, and pointing to the benefits of international education.
I believe in international education. Far beyond the economic benefits, it can help build empathy across cultures and help us work together to make the world a better place. I studied International Business in Maastricht, one of the first English-taught programmes in the Netherlands, and exchanged to Singapore, where I met my wife.
But an open letter by Dutch university boards in NRC irked me, even though it pointed out exactly the above mentioned benefits I also believe in.
It felt one sided and self serving. As with many issues, the debate tends to be black and white. You’re either branded as pro international education or anti immigration. Clearly a small country like the Netherlands cannot host the whole world. How many international students can any country take? And are the Netherlands really reaching the max?
I realised that I didn’t really know. So I decided to not jump straight into the discussion, but ask some questions and look for answers first. Here is what I found.
Exactly what does “stopping active recruitment” mean?
It’s a mixed picture.
There is no stop to admissions of international students, nor will there be in the foreseeable future. The minister’s letter asked Universities to scale back their marketing efforts. He has (as of yet) no legal means of restricting Universities’ admissions. Here are some examples of what’s happening on the ground:
The response differs by institution. Marcus from Blue Ivy Coaching shared that some pathway programs have closed up acutely.
Fontys University of Applied sciences took the middle road in a nuanced open letter (Dutch and English).
In the appendix (Dutch only), they detail exactly which recruitment activities they will stop, what they will continue doing and why. They have decided to stop almost all its initial outreach activities such as Google Ads, Facebook campaigns and campaigns with study choice platforms such as Keystone and Studyportals.
They’re making a number of exceptions – for programs for which there is a labour market shortage, and promotion activities in the neighbouring German state of North Rhine-Westphalia and in the (Dutch speaking) Belgian region of Flanders, both of which are fairly close to their campuses.
Marketing activities further down in prospective students’ decision process, such as webinars and events, will continue. After all, if a prospective student is set on applying, it’s best to make sure they can make an informed decision.
NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences response in an open letter contains only a strong plea for the value of internationalisation, especially in its local context. It’s campuses, based in Friesland and Drenthe provinces, are not much affected by housing or capacity shortages – population decline and skilled labour shortages are more of a problem, and they believe that internationalisation can play a part in the solution.
Though it’s not mentioned in the letter, I’ve been assured that NHL Stenden has limited their international recruitment activities.
Why is the Netherlands popular with international students?
In preparation for this article, I’ve looked into this extensively, but I’ll be brief here. The Netherlands offers a trifecta of quality, affordability and (language) accessibility.
Quality: 10 Dutch research Universities rank in the top 200 of the THE World rankings 2023. Not bad for a small country. Germany, for example, has 22 top-200 universities, but its population is 4.5 times larger. Some larger European countries are present with fewer universities in the ranking, such as Spain (3) and Italy (3).
Affordability: It’s hard to compare prices because there are many factors. But in a European context, the Netherlands sits somewhere in the middle in terms of both tuition fees and cost of living. Overall, tuition fees in EU countries tend to be a lot lower than in traditional study abroad destinations such as the UK, US or Australia.
English taught programs: This is the kicker, especially after Brexit. Within the European Higher Education Area, only Ireland offers more English taught programmes than the Netherlands (Report by Studyportals & British Council). This is a game changer. It sets the Netherlands apart from other European countries that also offer high quality and affordable higher education. For an international student, that isn’t much use unless they can access that education in a language they understand.
Will “stopping active recruitment” lower the Dutch 2023/24 international intake?
Hardly. This letter is largely symbolic. By now, the Netherlands is well known for quality education at an affordable price. Prospective students tend to take 1-2 years to decide on their study abroad destination, so the next year’s intake is already well in the pipeline.
However symbolic, it’s certainly possible that it will persuade some prospective students to choose another study abroad destination. Any legal measures will likely only come into effect for later academic years.
Do the Netherlands host many foreign students compared to similar countries?
In the most recent comparative reports, such as the Education at a Glance 2022 report by the OECD, the share of international students is comparable to other mid-sized EU countries and much lower than typical study abroad destinations such as Australia and the UK.
Share of international or foreign students by gender (2020)
I dug up the most recent number, for 2021/22. The share of international students in Dutch higher education institutions stands at 14%.
Traditional destinations for international students such as Australia and the UK sit around the 25% mark. So comparing the Dutch numbers in an international context, there still seems to be room for growth.
However, the above graph provides only a broad brush, rear-view mirror perspective:
- First of all, the OECD numbers are a few years behind, as tends to be the case for international comparative studies;
- The numbers reported also concern total enrollment over all years and not the share of first-year students. If the share of international students grows with each intake, it takes years to be fully reflected;
- The graph reports an average over all institutions and enrollment types, whereas inflow of international students into the Netherlands is concentrated in specific institutions and cities. (The 40% international first-year students at research universities I mentioned earlier)
Even if there is no issue “on average”, that doesn’t mean there couldn’t be serious issues locally. This is obviously the case with student housing and teaching capacity at research Universities right now. Top ranked research Universities in the largest Dutch cities, such as University of Amsterdam and University of Utrecht are worst affected, as reported by e.g. Times Higher Education.
How did we get to this point?
The inflow of international students saw a sharp rise after internationalisation was given political priority in 2013. In the graph below you can see that the speed of growth sharply increased shortly after.
It’s important to realise that as a member of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), the Netherlands cannot place restrictions on the inflow of European students or provide preferential access to local applicants. If European applicants meet the admission criteria, they need to be admitted.
It’s not as if Dutch lawmakers have not seen this coming: the growth of international students has been subject of public debate as early as 2017.
Some of the possible measures that have been discussed in parliament include :
- Changes in language offerings: Offering Masters programs in both Dutch and English, with a restricted capacity for the English language variants and reducing the number of bachelor programmes offered fully in English.
- Requiring institutions to provide housing to foreign students (If you can’t house them, don’t recruit them)
Legislation has been severely delayed.
If measures like the above had been implemented a number of years ago, Universities would have had the tools to make international student inflow match the housing stock and teaching capacity. That would have avoided the current situation and backlash.
We’re waiting for the Ministry to propose legislation, which will undoubtedly include the above mentioned measures in some shape or form.
I personally hope that the Dutch education sector will become a lot more strategic and coordinated in its internationalisation efforts.
There are serious local problems at top ranked research Universities that need to be addressed. There is also a serious opportunity to be more strategic – given its demographics, the Netherlands needs the inflow of foreign talent. But it will pay to focus on attracting students with specific skills to specific areas, rather than just talking about more or fewer students.
The big question is not whether or not international education can be beneficial, but how the Netherlands is going to put its education system to work for both Dutch society and the world at large in a sustainable way.