The influx of ‘internationals’

Imagine being a student from abroad who chooses to study in the Netherlands because you’re promised ‘an international experience’. Having to do an internship here as part of your studies, however, you’re told: ‘Sorry, you need to speak Dutch.’  

This is currently the case with two of the students in my class. Students get to choose between museums, science centres, newspapers, TV and radio stations, and so on. The problem is that some students – the ‘internationals’ – do not get to choose. The reason? They do not speak Dutch. And so, some of them find themselves having to fly back to their country of origin to do their internship.  

International students currently represent about 12 percent of all students in the Netherlands, a percentage that has doubled over the past ten years and has contributed to internationalisation efforts and the economy in ways not many people would have imagined at the outset. 

At the same time, the minister of Education states that he wants to ‘prevent an excessive influx of internationals’, and considers taking a series of measures to cut down on the number of admissions of international students. 

My brain hurts as I’m trying to understand when a human being passes a certain imaginary mark and becomes ‘excessive’. Is it when their presence is no longer necessary to justify marketing the Dutch higher education as international, or is it when their contribution to the economy is no longer needed?

Does a human being become ‘excessive’ when their presence is no longer necessary to justify marketing the Dutch higher education as international?

There’s no doubt that the internationalisation of higher education in a globalised world benefits the Dutch too. Dutch students get the opportunity to learn about other cultures, other curriculums, and other perspectives. About other ways of being in the world. Dutch academics extend their networks and collaborations, acquire funding and eventually contribute to the country excelling in the global knowledge economy. 

Still, international students are often seen as a threat (or, at best, an inconvenience) instead of an asset, and are faced with closed doors when looking for a house, an internship, or a job. 

When a country that, for so many years, has carefully cultivated the image of a liberal, open, and tolerant society suddenly shifts towards the re-nationalisation of higher education, I can only think of this shift as a side effect of a larger trend: nationalism, which is, to put it mildly, suicidal for a country claiming a top place in those – largely pointless – global higher education rankings. 

International students do not come to the Netherlands for the weather, the tulips, or the windmills. They come to the Netherlands because they’re promised to study in an international environment, which goes far beyond the language of instruction. It includes opportunities to interact with society at large.  

The fact that international students struggle to land an internship (or find a house, or a job) as part of their study programmes is both unfair and paradoxical. If local organisations, including universities, understood how much they actually benefit from diversity, they would invest even further in internationalisation, instead of resisting the influx of humans

It seems that, despite various proclamations to the opposite, we’re still miles away from making this happen. 




  1. I understand the frustration of students facing outright discrimination in labour or (tight) housing markets when they come to Groningen or the Netherlands, and universities have a role to play in painting a more realistic picture, alongside taking a strong stance against discrimation. At the same time, I think students indeed come to the Netherlands because it is one of the few non-English speaking countries where people truly can approximate an ‘international’ experience of studying or work, without speaking the local language. Maybe Scandinavian countries rival us, not sure about Austria or Switzerland. In any case, both Dutch universities and academic labour market are exceptionally open to internationals in ways other countries are plainly not, e.g. due to the internationalized academic culture, good English amongst colleagues (generally) and the lack of formal barriers to academic job markets and job promotion, e.g. writing a ‘habitation’ or doing a national exam (try building a career or live in German, Spanish, Italian of French university cities, as a non-national, and certainly without speaking the language (well), it will be very hard and you need a stellar network.) So I think this is a great feature of Dutch academia, and a benefit for all sides. To be frank, this openness to internationals is really (still) rather unique, esp. for a country without a major world language. It is why so many people are attracted to the Netherlands as a place of work or study. In this context, tightening labour and housing markets all across Europe will surely start to show negative effects for living in the Netherlands too – even irrespective of blatant discimination. Dutch students and workers also struggle finding affordable houses, but the main difference is they have some local networks to fall back on.. Speaking from experience: living abroad is a great adventure because it will never be the same as at home, and it is hardly ever the easy choice…

  2. If the Netherlands is such a terrible place for internationals then why do you come here. Just stay at home in your own country and voila the problem is solved.

    • In all fairness, the RUG has been actively recruiting international students and staff for years. If the situation they encounter is different from what they feel has been promised, it’s no wonder they get disappointed. And like everyone else they are entitled to voice their disappointment. Perhaps the RUG needs to tone down its international rhetoric a bit and provide people with more of a realistic preview of how things are going to be (i.e., not everybody will speak English, and much of Dutch society and professional life still operates in Dutch). Then at least people will be able to make an informed choice.

      • Less internationals coming to RUG will result in less revenue, and collecting their money is what this University cares about the most. So it likely won’t happen as you describe.

        • “collecting their money is what this University cares about the most”

          Although I think there’s a lot to be critical about here, this seems like an unfair and unhelpful characterisation, both of the RUG and of internationals’ attitude towards the RUG.

  3. My brain hurts as I’m trying to understand when an international human being demands to be included in Dutch society, yet at the same time takes zero effort to integrate and doesn’t speak a single word in the local language.
    What else did you expect ?

  4. How do other countries do this? How do they deal with international students, do they have similar numbers of them, what language requirements do they have, how easy is it for people to find an internship in English there? Are there any data on that? And I do not mean the English-speaking countries, obviously. This is not a matter of whataboutism, I’d just like to get a clearer picture of how things stand elsewhere in the world and how badly we are actually doing (or not). Would be helpful for everybody, I think.

    • I can’t speak for every university, but when I studied at the department of philology at Universität Hamburg, all courses were in German. And in Karlsruhe (university of applied sciences), international students had to speak some German or had to take a B1 language course (B1 is a basic level of understanding so you can get around in daily live, like at the supermarket).

      But that was many, many, many years ago.

      • Dear both,
        The issue is not that other countries do not offer courses or programs in English or that in Universitat Hamburg courses were in German. The issue here is that many Dutch Universities present and advertise themselves as international universities, offering international study programs and an international working environment being the reality quite different from that, as explained in the article. Do Dutch Universities want to teach and work in Dutch? Fair enough, we can all agree on this. But then, do not present yourself as an international institution and do not promise an international environment because one of the requirements for an environment to be international is that language cannot be a barrier.

        • If you think that it’s so terrible … then just leave.

          I have had it with those whiny internationals with their articles about how it is unfair that they have to adapt to the host country instead of the other way around. Who think that the don’t have to do any research any basic information about for example the healthcare system and then complain about the restrictions due to not being registered at a GP’s office, or about GP’s who don’t invite them for a physical examination when they only have a cough. Who even after several years don’t even speak any Dutch.

          • With all due respect, I invite you to read again the article to understand the main argument of the writer and if possible to do the same with my comment.


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