Photo by Egbert de Boer, © UG

Cap on influx from abroad

What’s the UG without internationals?

Photo by Egbert de Boer, © UG
The number of students at the UG is rising every year, mostly due to the influx of international students. The downsides of that are a shortage of houses, classrooms and lecturers. But can the university do without internationals?
By Eoin Gallagher and Christien Boomsma
8 February om 11:11 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 28 February 2024
om 12:19 uur.
February 8 at 11:11 AM.
Last modified on February 28, 2024
at 12:19 PM.

‘As far as I’m concerned, we are now at our maximum’, minister for Education Robbert Dijkgraaf told the Dutch Lower House last week. He wants to implement rules that allow universities to restrict the number of international students that enrol. How he wants to do that is not yet clear; he hopes to reveal his plans in March.

Dutch student organisations LSVb and ISO think a permanent restriction is a step too far, but they do believe there should be a temporary measure to halt the influx of international students, they said to news platform ‘The quality of education is in danger.’  

At least some universities would also welcome a cap on international enrolments. ‘We cannot handle the growth anymore’, the president of the board of the University of Amsterdam (UvA) Geert ten Dam said. Her university saw a sharp rise of 20 percent in the number of international students. There is not enough space, she says, and her staff is overworked already.

Double-edged sword

This academic year a record number of 115,068 international students from 168 countries enrolled in Dutch higher education — 3.5 times as many as were enrolled in 2006, according to Statistics Netherlands. At the UG, 26 percent of the students are international: a total of 9,100. 

But while the Netherlands’ popularity among international students is also causing issues in Groningen, Dijkgraaf’s solution is a double-edged sword. Can the university afford to turn them away, after twenty years of enthusiastic internationalisation?   

Having different perspectives is crucial in the learning process

‘When the bachelor/master structure was introduced in the Netherlands early this century as part of a European agreement, quite a few of these programmes started in English. That paved the way for international students’, recalls Mervin Bakker, director of international strategy and relations at the UG.

That was always the intent: to bring the Dutch educational system in line with the British and American ones, making the Netherlands a more appealing place for internationals to study and making it easier for Dutch students to go abroad. 

International classroom

Groningen especially opened its doors. The UG was one of the first universities with a broad spectrum of English-language programmes. Building an international classroom was supposed to help students benefit from the international experience and to expand the research opportunities of the university.

So what is happening now worries Bakker. ‘I have noticed that my country was more welcoming to internationals ten to fifteen years ago’, he remarks. ‘We know from our international community that sometimes they feel a little less welcome because of all the political debate that is going on regarding international students and specific countries. We see a shift towards nationalism.’

He points out the benefits of internationalisation. ‘We would like all of our students to have an international experience’, he says, ‘whether that is in Groningen or abroad. We think that having and learning from different perspectives is crucial in the learning process, and for that, you need international students in the classroom.’


They are an economic resource too. ‘We need them’, wrote a group of representatives of different universities, among whom UG president Jouke de Vries, in an op-ed in Dutch newspaper NRC in December, after the Lower House voted to ban active recruitment of international students. Partly because of the expected shortages on the labour market – 7 million by 2035. ‘But also because the Netherlands is an export country that needs to stay attractive to other countries.’

De Vries and his colleagues fear that restricting the number of internationals will lead to less government funding, as well as a drop in rankings. ‘An international setting is a must for many study programmes to stay at the top of their field.’ 

I’m very tired of nobody taking responsibility

Bakker agrees with that. ‘We want to contribute to societal challenges like public health or the energy transition, and we feel we can better do that by being international,’ he says.

Finally, there’s the effect international students have on the local economy. According to the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB), they inject between 5,000 and 94,000 euros each into the housing market, retail stores, and local bars and restaurants. 

No wonder, then, that Groningen mayor Koen Schuiling would hate to see them go. ‘They are welcome here. People see the advantages they bring: there is no closing time for the bars, there is a rich cultural life, a lot of sports, and everyone realises that if we didn’t have those students, we wouldn’t have all that either.’

Housing shortage

Still, no one can deny the problems the influx of international students is causing are real – the lack of housing being the most visible. According to the LSVb, there’s a shortage of 27,000 rooms nationally, and the student population, currently at 340,000, is still growing. In Groningen – with 63,000 students – international students find themselves homeless at the start of every academic year. 

‘It’s internationals that are the most affected by this’, says Miriam Weigand, a German student doing a master in European languages and culture. Last year, when six hundred students who came to Groningen couldn’t find a room, she helped out with the couch-surfing initiative organised by the Groningen student union GSb and Shelter Our Students (SOS). ‘I’m very tired of nobody taking responsibility. The university always points to the municipality, the municipality points to the university, and the government doesn’t say anything.’

We don’t have a lot of options to step on the brake

Restricting the number of internationals would be a good thing right now, Weigand feels. ‘Maybe just accept fewer people overall, because if there’s no capacity, there’s no capacity.’ 

She is not the only student who feels this way. ‘I think all of my friends are also kind of mad about the uni accepting so many people when they can’t offer them housing options’, says Lydia Radosch, a psychology student from Germany.

‘We don’t want to exclude internationals altogether’, GSb president Annemarie Herbschleb says. ‘It’s just, at the moment Groningen is at capacity and we literally can’t take them in. We also don’t want them to come and then have a horrible time here.’

Shared responsibility

Dealing with the problem is ‘a shared responsibility in the interest of all our students’, according to Bakker. ‘With the municipality and Hanze University of Applied Sciences, we are trying to tackle the housing crisis. We have strongly reduced our marketing efforts and proactively communicate about the housing problems.’

But as De Vries and his colleagues pointed out in their op-ed, Dutch higher education is public ‘and by European law open to European students, who are the bulk of our international student population’. That means you cannot just slap a cap on the number of students coming to Groningen. ‘Sometimes we feel like we are out of control, because we don’t have a lot of options to step on the brakes’, says Bakker. ‘We have to accept all students who meet our entry requirements.’

The UG would welcome tools to better control enrolments, though, Bakker stresses, and is working on that with the government. ‘We could also have much better discussions with the faculties, saying: okay guys, what does your optimum classroom look like, and how can we make sure we have the right number of students and the right mix.’

It is a balance that is needed, he says. ‘Ten to fifteen years ago, creating an international classroom was a goal in itself, and now we have it, and now we are thinking about how we manage it.’