Universities mull expansion as Dutch student numbers grow

Surging international student numbers and regional economic demand seen as twin drivers

May 17, 2022

Rapid growth in student numbers in the Netherlands is posing big questions for Dutch universities over potential expansion, according to a sector leader.

The number of international students in Dutch higher education grew by 12 per cent this year, according to Nuffic, the Dutch organisation for education internationalisation. That came after one of its surveys showed that eight out of 10 European Economic Area students surveyed “were (much) more likely to choose the Netherlands as the destination for their studies as a result of Brexit”, rather than the UK.

That international growth is one factor in increasing overall student numbers at Dutch universities, which stood at 340,000 in the most recent tally.

“If you look at the economy of the Netherlands…there are estimates which say we need another 30,000, 40,000, and perhaps even 50,000 [students] up to 2030,” Robert-Jan Smits, the Eindhoven University of Technology president, told Times Higher Education at its recent Innovation & Impact Summit.

That level of growth raises “questions which are at the moment being discussed by the Dutch universities, together with the Ministry [of Education, Culture and Science]”, he added.

“It’s a matter of quality, in what [subject] areas do we need competencies given the big transitions we are facing in the field of climate, energy and food production; and secondly the question of who is willing to educate those [additional] students.”

“Certain universities” have said “we can’t take more” students, given pressures around staff recruitment and student housing, said Professor Smits.

TU Eindhoven is among “the few that could possibly increase our number of students since we are a relatively small university”, he went on. “For us in Eindhoven there’s a second driver to grow: that’s the [regional] economy, which is booming.”

Locally-based multinationals such as Philips and circuit parts manufacturer ASML are collaborating with TU Eindhoven, local government and other educational institutions in the Brainport Eindhoven partnership. It has been estimated that the Eindhoven region is spending 9 per cent of gross regional product on research and development – the vast majority from private companies. Eindhoven is set to outstrip Amsterdam as the number one driver of the Dutch economy and has frequently been described as the new Silicon Valley.

ASML alone will be looking for an additional 15,000 “knowledge workers” by 2030, said Professor Smits.

He added: “The question from the high-tech industry in the region is: ‘Are you [the university] willing to grow and perhaps even double your numbers, go from 13,000 to 26,000, in order to supply the region with the talent it needs?’”

TU Eindhoven is thus “facing pressure from the national level and there’s pressure from the local level”, he continued. “It’s now for us to decide if we are willing to go for it, are we willing to make this leap forward.”

Such growth would bring “an enormous challenge to keep excellence and quality, to recruit additional staff, to find housing, which is a huge issue in Eindhoven”, said Professor Smits.

But “if at regional and national level you are asked to take your responsibility, I think it is hard and perhaps even irresponsible to say no, let someone else do it”, he concluded.


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