A case of double Dutch

Nicola Dandridge is sceptical of press reports on the boom in British students heading to the Netherlands for a university education

April 12, 2012

Credit: Elly Walton

Of all the hackneyed headlines relating to higher education in the national newspapers, "University Challenge" must surely be the most wearisomely overused. But we now have an upstart nipping at its heels: "Going Dutch". Leaving aside the lamentable lack of imagination inherent in this headline, what is remarkable are the distortions in the articles that follow.

The "Going Dutch" stories read something like this: vast numbers of British students are packing their bags to enrol at Dutch universities; they are heading there because fees are much lower than in the UK; and Dutch institutions offer a range of courses, many of them taught in English. We then have a few selective quotes from happy British students noting how very Continental things feel in Maastricht, how the flat landscape is very conducive to cycling and other such observations.

What these stories tend to leave out is perspective, particularly perspective in terms of the numbers of students involved. The articles talk of British students "flocking" to the Netherlands and of applications doubling. But we are talking about a few hundred British students enrolling on degree courses in the Netherlands each year. In 2010-11, approximately 1,350 students from the UK in total were studying in the Netherlands. This contrasts with the 1.7 million British undergraduates enrolled at UK universities in the same year.

Conversely, there are considerable numbers of students from the Netherlands enrolled on courses at UK universities. The numbers have been going up consistently in recent years; last year, there were approximately 3,340 Dutch students in the UK - more than double the number of UK students enrolled at Dutch institutions. Oddly, these don't get a mention.

The strength and diversity of the UK's higher education system might also explain why the vast majority of British students choose to stay here to study. UK universities have a worldwide reputation for excellence in research and teaching, offering a rich and diverse range of courses. Students are also able to interact with people from around the world owing to the international atmosphere on British campuses. Our universities attract more overseas students per capita than any other major higher education system.

The articles also skirt around the important question of who pays for higher education. While we are reminded at every turn that degrees in the Netherlands (and some other European countries) are "free" or cost a fraction of the £9,000 a year maximum that can be charged in England from September, we are not really given the full picture. Tuition fees in the Netherlands, for example - cited at around £1,500 per year - cover only part of the full cost of the degrees. The cost of teaching will also be covered by a heavy subsidy from the Dutch taxpayer. The new fee structure in England from 2012-13 - which involves reducing the public teaching grant and replacing it with subsidised higher fees paid back after graduation - does not require students to pay up front, and for those who do not earn enough, the fees will never need to be repaid: for them at least, it will be "free". The system has certainly divided opinion, but let's at least ensure it is described accurately.

While some British students will inevitably be tempted by the prospect of not having to make contributions towards the cost of their degrees after graduating, caution is needed when describing degrees in other countries as "free" or "cheaper". What is not being communicated properly here are the full costs involved in funding undergraduate courses and how this requires long-term, sustainable provision.

Interestingly, the issue of who covers the bill for higher education has been thrust into the limelight recently in the Netherlands. It has been reported that the Dutch education secretary, Halbe Zijlstra, is considering the possibility of requesting financial reimbursement from Germany for the many German students who study in the Netherlands.

Another feature of the stories is that they assume that UK students going abroad is a sign of failure. Surely it is a positive thing if we have more UK students studying overseas? An international perspective is good for graduates and good for the UK. However, the current proportion of British students who choose to undertake full degrees overseas is much lower than in other countries with similar-sized populations, such as France or Germany.

We should also continue to encourage more UK students to spend time abroad as part of their degrees. The European Union's Erasmus scheme, for example, has helped from a European perspective, but more British students could be participating. Employers tell us that they are increasingly on the lookout for graduates with experience of other countries and knowledge of another language.

Many of the "Going Dutch" stories have, of course, been generated by some very impressive marketing and press release-writing by universities in the Netherlands. These have been duly lapped up by many British newspapers. But some of these stories have - for want of a better expression - been double Dutch. It is important that they give prospective students and their parents the full picture.

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