Branding a country to attract international students and scholars

January 1, 1990

The Netherlands is a relatively small country and is proud that all 13 of its research universities feature in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2012-13 (12 in the top 200). But it is not commonly known for its innovative knowledge production: for most, it is synonymous with windmills, cheese and tulips - not very appealing when branding the country as a destination for international students and scholars.

Nuffic, the Netherlands Organisation for International Cooperation in Higher Education, is responsible for promoting the Dutch academy. The main challenge in developing our campaigns was to fuse the country's traditional image with one of a dynamic higher education sector, reflected in one of our mottoes: "Most people come for the tulips, you come for an international experience!"

We have a lot of positive attributes to promote the sector's brand globally, but plenty of challenges, too.

The Netherlands has an open economy. As a trading nation, an international outlook is part of the Dutch tradition and this is reflected in its academy. The use of multiple languages (most notably English) has long been integral to the university culture, in contrast with the rest of Europe. International students in the Netherlands take more courses side by side with local students than in any other non-English-speaking country. The international dimension of the classroom is viewed as an important quality indicator and is evaluated by our accreditation procedures.

Although not low, tuition fees in the Netherlands are not high, either. The teaching culture emphasises interactive methods plus project and problem-oriented group work, while placing a strong emphasis on fostering creativity and innovation.

To protect the interests of students, Nuffic and the Dutch institutions drew up a code of conduct for international education that has been in use since 2006. It obliges universities to adhere to strict minimum language scores and to be transparent in their communications and admissions policies, and also includes a special student complaints procedure. The code has worked well, but the question has now been raised: is the Netherlands too hard on itself?

Research funding in the country is "equitably distributed". This means that we have no "top" university: what distinguishes one from another is its specialist teaching or research areas. Although every institution can boast at least one faculty member at the top of their field, no one outshines the others. All 13 Dutch universities are among the best in the world, but none appears in the WUR top 10. This has raised questions about whether the country should strive to create a Dutch Oxbridge through targeted funding or mergers. This issue remains politically sensitive and highly divisive.

Dutch universities, so far, have hardly invested in offshore activity, thus losing an important foothold in developing economies. Is it too late for them to catch up? The topic is hardly a hot-button issue in the Netherlands, a fact I think is worrying.

More pressing is the debate about labour issues. The further development of the Dutch knowledge society will require talent - talent that will have to come from outside the country.

International graduates are invited to stay on after completing their degrees, and they can obtain one-year visas to find work. Nuffic plays a very active role in linking graduates to the world of employment: "Most students build their knowledge, you build an international career" is the slogan for our latest call.

Hanneke Teekens is a member of the board of directors at Nuffic

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