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. 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 a international institution and do not promise a international environment because one of the requirements for an environment to be international is that language cannot be a barrier.

        • Without attempting any generalization, I can offer one perspective on engineering/science internships in France. I work for an international engineering company located near Paris and we recruit many master students from several of the regional engineering/science schools such as École polytechnique, CentraleSupélec, ESPCI Paris… Students in these universities have diverse backgrounds and are taking English classes. I don’t think that this is a ‘national educational requirement’ but its common and expected in these schools. When our company looks for 3-6 months internships we require a certain English proficiency, because within the company communication typically takes place in English (emails, meetings, documentation…) and we have a large international component among the employees. Local written communication (within the French center) is done in both English and French. I personally have also mentored international students – for instance from Lebanon or Russia- who knew no or only little French. In summary, I would therefore assume that depending on the business sector (such as engineering & technology) international students may find it an advantage to speak English. Maybe also in the The Netherlands?


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