The Netherlands has passed the high water mark of internationalisation

The recent election result underlines that international student recruitment is encountering limits, both physical and political, says Michèle Wera

December 29, 2023
A heavily loaded container ship in Rotterdam, symbolising internationalisation
Source: iStock

Even as the Netherlands’ right-wing political movement celebrated a general election victory powered by its opposition to internationalisation, the sizeable Dutch delegation at the 2023 European Quality Assurance Forum (EQAF) underlined the ongoing commitment to global discourse within the country’s higher education ecosystem.

A remarkable 10 per cent of the approximately 420 attendees at the conference, held in Aveiro, Portugal, came from the Netherlands. And despite the organising committee’s intent to ensure geographical diversity on stage, Dutch speakers presented eight out of the 41 sessions, with a Dutch representative also delivering the opening speech.

The Netherlands asserts itself as the uncontested leader in continental Europe for English-taught higher education. However, domestic public opinion is turning against the growing number of foreign students. Even progressive voices, including outgoing education minister, physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf, are expressing reservations.

As these concerns grow, the Netherlands must exercise caution. While a presentation on the CeQuint certificate – a European Commission-funded initiative to recognise and encourage internationalisation efforts – may be of interest to Spanish or German universities, it is less relevant in the Dutch context, where the question is not only whether international programmes have sufficient quality but also whether there are simply too many of them.

It is undisputed that internationalisation contributes to the quality of higher education. In the Netherlands, however, the benefits no longer seem to outweigh the drawbacks. These include a shortage of student housing, overcrowded lecture halls, overworked teaching staff and limited access to higher education for Dutch students.

It is not true, of course, that every country is having doubts about internationalisation. Ireland, for instance, is seeking to attract more international students through a well-designed International Education Mark, which aims to guarantee a consistent and high-quality learning experience. After all, international students (especially those from outside the European Union) are significant sources of revenue for universities in many European countries. In the UK, for example, fees from non-EU students now make up 20 per cent of total university income.

But internationalisation is encountering limits, both physical and political. The UK is contemplating eliminating its post-study work visa and Australia has just cut two years off the duration of its version. And EQAF participants from both the UK and Ireland, as well as Austria, showcased large-scale projects in Africa and Asia for the further development of their own quality-assurance systems – potentially dampening the demand from those countries for European study. I myself presented a case study of a project run by the Dutch quality assurance body the NVAO in the Kurdish region of Iraq.

However, delegates worried about the risks of a neocolonial approach and the applicability of the ESG (Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area) in other continents. Also, the Bologna Process pillars of trust, transparency, student participation, academic integrity and quality culture may not necessarily align with higher education values in Erbil, Maputo or Jakarta.

Internationalisation, alongside digitalisation and, more recently, artificial intelligence, has also flung the door wide open to fraudulent activities. In the final EQAF session, Douglas Blackstock, president of the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA), rightly emphasised the danger of international students being duped by “fake” and poor-quality overseas universities, programmes, diplomas, quality assurance organisations, accreditation agencies and more.

In a previous article for Times Higher Education, for instance, I highlighted Georgia’s international medical education industry, which raises a host of quality concerns. As outlined in a joint session with the NVAO in Aveiro, the World Federation for Medical Education (WFME) is taking steps to address the proliferation of dubious medical education programmes across the world – but it won’t be easy to regulate a lucrative industry. Preventing the proliferation of fake higher education offerings emerges as a meaningful theme for a future EQAF meeting.

Next year's event will be in Enschede, in – you guessed it – the Netherlands. This location, home to the University of Twente, guarantees another substantial Dutch presence. However, a smaller delegation would reflect a recognition that, whatever the exact character of the Netherlands' next governing coalition, we may have already passed the high-water mark for internationalisation here and elsewhere.

Michèle Wera is a senior policy adviser for NVAO in The Hague.


Print headline: Reaching high-water mark

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