Board president Jouke de Vries on taking office in 2019. Photo by Reyer Boxem

Interview Jouke de Vries

‘We don’t want international talent to leave’

Board president Jouke de Vries on taking office in 2019. Photo by Reyer Boxem
Dutch politicians want to put an end to the influx of internationals at the university and say too many programmes are being taught in English. This has made a lot of internationals uncomfortable. It also makes UG president Jouke de Vries, who’s also temporarily heading up the Universities of the Netherlands, uneasy. The way he sees it, we need internationals more than ever.
By Rob van der Wal and Rob Siebelink
22 November om 11:41 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 27 November 2023
om 16:41 uur.
November 22 at 11:41 AM.
Last modified on November 27, 2023
at 16:41 PM.

Just a few years ago, internationals were all too happy to come to the Netherlands, which was then perceived to be a liberal and tolerant country. Now, it turns out that more than 30 percent no longer feel welcome and are even considering leaving. How do you feel about that?

‘I’ve talked about this before, and I’ve coined it “the closing of the Dutch mind”. That’s now made its way into politics, which is putting pressure on internationalisation and globalisation. Those parties are gaining seats. There’s a renewed focus on the nation state and its language, in this case Dutch. That doesn’t quite jive with our open economy and our way of working.  I’ve noticed before that it makes international students and staff uncomfortable and I don’t like it. It’s concerning if international talents feel the atmosphere is changing so much that they’re considering leaving.’

What can the university do?

‘We will comment on legislation. We’ll try to turn the tide, but the tides are strong. So I’m not sure if we’ll succeed and whether I’ll be able to resolve people’s concerns. But I do think some of the politicians’ points of criticism are justified, and we should take a closer look at them. Which programmes should be taught in Dutch, and which shouldn’t? It’s a difficult debate, but one we should be able to have. Writing a thesis about a Dutch historical figure in English… That just doesn’t make sense.’

I do think some of the politicians’ points of criticism are justified

‘But it’s completely obvious that some other programmes should be taught in English, because international research is often in English. There are also courses that should logically be in Dutch, with the master level being in English. Besides, some Dutch study programmes are partially in English. I myself studied political science. It was taught in Dutch, but the literature was all in English.’

Internationalisation is suddenly a hot-button issue in politics, but at Dutch universities, it was the buzzword for years. 

‘Years ago, internationalisation was a deliberate policy in an effort to make up for the demographic slump in the country. We’ve grown considerably, we’re an international university. But we also have to admit that we’re reaching the limits of this policy in social terms, which you can see in the housing issues here in Groningen and the rest of the country.’

What will happen to the UG if internationals turn their backs on Groningen? 

‘We’ve looked at the absolute worst-case scenario in which the WIIB (Wet Internationalisering in Balans, the proposal to curb the influx of internationals) is adopted without exception. It would mean that two thirds of all bachelor programmes would have to be taught in Dutch. In that scenario, we would lose nearly all 6,500 international bachelor students as well as another 2,000 master students. A total loss of approximately 8,500 international students.’

I don’t agree with this idea that Dutch should be the only language

‘If you put everything together – tuition fees, funding, and the loss of our market share – we’re talking about losing more than 100 million euros in revenue. This could also lead to a loss in jobs, although we can’t be sure if that will happen or to which degree, but it could lead up to a loss of approximately a thousand jobs at the UG and another thousand jobs in the environment.’

‘This is of course the worst-case scenario, which means it’s the most unlikely one, but it does show how important international students are for us. We’ll just have to keep an eye on the political developments and in the meantime, work hard on preventing this from happening.’ 

In the survey, respondents name the Lower House as the most common cause for not feeling at home in the Netherlands anymore. Do you think the politicians in The Hague, and Pieter Omtzigt’s New Social Contract (NSC) in particular, are taking it too far? 

‘He’s not wrong in every single regard. But I don’t agree with his idea that Dutch should be the only language. It’s not just Omtzigt who’s saying this, by the way. I’ve noticed how far-reaching it is. The Labour Party and GroenLinks have also said that they want to get a handle on these developments. And I agree. But then the minister should give us the tools to do that. We’ve been asking for those for so long, and we’ve never been given them.’

‘The university could decide to keep teaching everything in English, but if politicians are so invested in the Dutch language, maybe that means we should take a critical look at what we could do. Perhaps there are some programmes that are being taught in English that don’t need to be. We could always propose making some changes. I do think Dutch universities should take those politicians’ comments seriously.’

So you’re saying that teaching Dutch literature in English would be kind of ridiculous?

‘Yes, I think that’s a correct observation. But the problem is: where are those students of Dutch language and literature? Just a few. That’s what I mean. It’s a very small number. But obviously you have to teach Dutch authors in Dutch. Our country’s history, too, I would hope.’ 

The students I’ve spoken to say they want to be taught in English

‘The best-case scenario would be a combination of Dutch and English. Most Dutch people are pretty good at English. Everything is English now; computer language is in English, children even speak a decent word. In high school, students are being prepared for life in English. Only for us at the highest level of education to then say that we’ll be doing everything in Dutch… The students I’ve spoken to also say they want to be taught in English. Their English is so good, they’re a whole different generation.’

More Dutch classes would mean more Dutch lecturers. Where are you supposed to find those?

‘Nowhere, they don’t exist. In the meantime, our English-speaking staff is feeling the pressure which, as the survey shows, they do not enjoy. What if they have to start teaching in Dutch? That’s going to be difficult, but they are willing. I also think we’re in a position to make some demands. That’s something we have to talk to each other about, figure out how we’re going to solve that. That’s something we’ve never done before.’

You also said that Groningen, with its declining population, needs internationals more than ever.

‘With the gas extraction coming to an end, it’s up to us at the university, the UMCG, and other partners to create more job opportunities, more economic activities. For that, we need talent. But that’s harder to do when the population is declining like it is here in Groningen. Just take a look at the map: Groningen, Twente, Maastricht. That’s what I mean when I talk about the variety of universities. You can make a generally applicable law, sure, but it’ll be difficult to implement since some universities are still growing, some are trying to stabilise, and some have started to shrink. So how would that work? That’s something the minister has to work on.’

‘Look at Denmark, for instance. Two years ago, politicians there severely curbed migration. Now, they’re trying to undo that because they realise how much it’s impacted their ability to attract people and talent. Employers are saying that they need internationals because they can’t find anyone to work for them.’

‘Therein lies my problem with Pieter Omtzigt and his New Social Contract: he’s including international students in his migration policies. So when he’s talking about not letting more than fifty thousand immigrants into the country, he’s including students in that. I don’t know where he’s getting that number, but we’d reach it quickly. It might be politically savvy, but I don’t think it’s right.’