30 percent are considering leaving

Internationals feel unwanted

With Dutch politics increasingly negative about internationals, foreign students and staff members are starting to feel unwanted at universities in the Netherlands, a survey by UKrant shows. ‘A group in my department is in favour of going back to teaching more in Dutch, which feels like a personal attack.’
24 November om 12:00 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 27 November 2023
om 16:40 uur.
November 24 at 12:00 PM.
Last modified on November 27, 2023
at 16:40 PM.
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Door Rob van der Wal

24 November om 12:00 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 27 November 2023
om 16:40 uur.
Avatar photo

By Rob van der Wal

November 24 at 12:00 PM.
Last modified on November 27, 2023
at 16:40 PM.
Avatar photo

Rob van der Wal

‘I’ve worked in four countries, on three different continents, and this is the institution where I’ve felt the most unwelcome’, says a UG staff member from the US.

‘I’ve become disgusted with this whole populist discourse that’s circulating the country’, says a Romanian student.

‘I don’t want my foreign colleagues to leave and teach only Dutch students’, says a German staff member. 

Internationals at Dutch universities feel less welcome than when they first came here, shows a survey by UKrant and five other independent university newspapers among 1,330 students and employees of the universities of Groningen, Utrecht, Nijmegen, Delft, Wageningen and Twente. 

Over 70 percent of respondents say they felt welcome or even very welcome back when they arrived in the Netherlands, but only 55 percent still feel the same today. Meanwhile, the percentage of people feeling (very) unwelcome has risen from 16.5 to 25. 

The numbers in Groningen, where 368 people filled in the questionnaire, follow this trend. What is striking is that the academic staff more frequently reports feeling unwelcome compared to the students. Among the UG staff, 68 percent initially felt (very) welcome, but now, that number has decreased to only 37 percent—an over 30 percent decline. For bachelor students, this percentage dropped by 15 percent.

Asked why they feel unwelcome, about half of the respondents cite the increasingly negative tone about internationals in Dutch politics. About 30 percent point to negative media coverage.

Curbing English usage

The number of international students at Dutch universities has been a topic of discussion in politics for a while, but the issue has gained significant attention since the beginning of this year when Lower House member Pieter Omtzigt submitted a motion to curb the use of English in higher education. This motion received support from parties across the political spectrum and was adopted with a substantial majority.

The respondents of the survey are not oblivious to this. Over 90 percent indicate they have at least heard that parliament aims to implement measures to control the influx of international students. Approximately 30 percent are even considering leaving the Netherlands due to the internationalisation debate.

For Canadian assistant professor at the Faculty of Science and Engineering Janice – like the other respondents UKrant spoke to, she prefers using a pseudonym because of the sensitive nature of the matter – the proposed government measures raise questions. ‘I would like to hear from the Dutch community about whether they agree with the government changes and if so, why. Based on what I’ve read, it seems that at least some blame the housing situation on internationals.’

Indian master student Sam (FSE) recognises what Janice says. ‘Dutch people don’t blatantly discriminate and are quite open, but it’s in the subtle things like difficulties in finding housing and getting a work permit.’ 

Similar mindset

About half of the respondents feel more welcome inside the university than out. ‘Within the university I am surrounded by other internationals who have a similar mindset’, says a British staff member at the arts faculty. ‘It is harder to integrate into life outside of the university. Even when I try to speak Dutch, people either immediately switch to English or keep conversations very brief.’

However, another 37 percent say there’s no difference. Staff member Christine, also at the Faculty of Arts, has even noticed an anti-international sentiment within her department. ‘A group there is very much in favour of going back to teaching more in Dutch, like they did ten or fifteen years ago. They phrase it in terms of the curriculum and needs of the students, but it feels like a personal attack.’

Lecturer of minority studies Seonok Lee recognises these struggles. She did a study into the effect the language policy in Dutch universities has on international academic staff and found that internationals feel more welcome among colleagues than among people of a higher level. ‘The higher level is more formal, and they feel like their opinion is taken a bit less seriously than that of Dutch colleagues. Sometimes they even feel like there are no career opportunities and that they are in the same position forever.’

Internationals feel like they have one additional requirement, says Lee. ‘For Dutch staff, there is an English requirement, but internationals need to learn both English and Dutch. That feels unfair.’

Learning Dutch

Of the internationals who filled out the questionnaire, about 17 percent speak more or less fluent Dutch, while another 40 percent speak the language a little. Of those who speak little to no Dutch, more than half is definitely willing to learn the language.

To master student Sam, who already speaks a bit of Dutch, it’s obvious that he should learn the local language. ‘It might open up more work possibilities’, he says. ‘I also would like to do courses at university, but now they are unfortunately unavailable.’ The demand for the free Dutch courses that the Language Centre offers is greater than the number of available spots.

Staff member Christine is also encountering the limitations of the available resources. She already speaks Dutch quite well, but aims to further enhance her proficiency. ‘I was hoping to learn Dutch fluently, but the university will not pay for additional courses higher than B2 level, which is enough to have simple conversations, but not much more than that. Having to teach in Dutch would be an added layer of stress. And it takes me much longer to grade Dutch papers, so that would also be bad for the students.’

The emphasis on learning the Dutch language by the university  has increased over the years, Lee says. ‘In the job advertisement it is asked very generally, to attain B1 level in a certain number of years for example. But with a promotion, they ask for a higher level.’

Moving away

Even though some internationals are considering leaving the Netherlands, not all groups are equally eager. Postdocs and PhDs are the most willing to stay, while other academic staff think about leaving slightly more.

‘I think the Netherlands has a long history of internationalisation that won’t be easily dissipated by these potential measures’, says a Mexican staff member at the University College. ‘So far, the national debates surrounding these issues have not affected my experience in my social circles here’, adds a South-Korean master student at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences.

‘If I leave the Netherlands, it would just be to go into another western country’, says a Romanian bachelor student from the Faculty of Science and Engineering. ‘I’ve already been trying to learn the language and understand the local culture, and all in all I like this country, so moving away would seem like an extra hassle.’

Christine had planned to stay here for the rest of her career, together with her husband. ‘But I’m not so sure anymore. The new academic environment makes me anxious’, she says. She doesn’t know where to go now. ‘There is no ideal place. I lived in the UK before, but the visa system is hostile and the working conditions aren’t as good.’

Assistant professor Janice and her family are determined to continue on in the Netherlands, though. ‘I’m being optimistic that the discussion about internationals is a temporary thing, that people will get used to the increase of English speakers and that the housing crisis will be solved. Also, the university community is very open to us’, she says. ‘So there is enough for us to stay.’ 

With thanks to statistician Casper Albers for reviewing the survey results.