‘Little sympathy’ for universities in new Dutch parliament

Victory of Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom likely to lead to stronger crackdown on English-language teaching and international student intakes, experts say

November 29, 2023
An election sign of Party for Freedom (PVV) leader Geert Wilder to illustrate ‘Little sympathy’ for universities in new Dutch parliament
Source: Getty images

The shock victory of Geert Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Dutch elections could herald troubled times for the country’s universities, experts have warned.

The anti-Islam populist PVV won 37 of 150 seats in an election shaped by debates on migration, the topic that prompted the collapse of outgoing prime minister Mark Rutte’s government in July.

Now, sector leaders fear that a government under Mr Wilders, who is currently attempting to form a coalition, could implement harsh restrictions on English-language teaching and international student intakes, already subjects of controversy in the Netherlands.

“I don’t think there is much reason to be optimistic for the universities,” Barend van der Muelen, head of the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente, told Times Higher Education.

Calls to reduce the Netherlands’ international student intake, which made up 15 per cent of all degree-level students in the 2022-23 academic year, pre-date the elections – the outgoing education minister, Robbert Dijkgraaf, proposed a law earlier this year that would allow universities to restrict intakes on English-language programmes and to limit the number of non-European Economic Area students.

The September launch of Pieter Omtzigt’s New Social Contract party (NSC) was perhaps the higher education sector’s primary concern before the country went to the polls. Like the PVV, the NSC, which won 20 seats, opposes internationalisation in higher education, calling for Dutch to be the primary language of education and for a cap on foreign student numbers.

But universities failed to respond adequately to the “irritation” that some in parliament felt about their international outlook, according to Professor van der Muelen. “Higher education organisations could once rely on a basic sympathy for what they were doing. This has gone,” he said. “They will no longer have the legitimacy that they have always relied on with the new government.”

A PVV-led government is likely to crack down on international student intakes as a means of fulfilling its anti-immigration manifesto, according to Marcel Hanegraaff, associate professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam. “For parties which are being evaluated on how much they limit migration, focusing on limiting students is a very easy way to do that. So my guess would be that they will try to do this as much as possible,” he said.

If the government employed the “big hammer” – mandating the use of Dutch for the majority of instruction – both student and staff numbers could be expected to plummet, Dr Hanegraaff said, noting that 70 per cent of students and more than 50 per cent of academic staff in his faculty did not speak Dutch. “Lots of my colleagues are already worrying, thinking, ‘OK, what’s my future here?’” he added.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if students and academics became more apprehensive about an academic career in the Netherlands,” said Elisa Weehuizen, president of the National Students’ Union (LSVb). “Students are scared that educational institutions will become less inclusive, innovation will be halted, and international students will come under increased scrutiny.”

To have the greatest chance of winning over the new government, Professor van der Muelen said, research universities and universities of applied sciences, known in the Netherlands as hogescholen, will have to band together. “They have a tradition of lobbying separately, and they have separate interest organisations, which is unfortunate. They have to develop a shared framework to make the government understand that investments in higher education are really needed.”


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