The Netherlands, identity & the internationalisation of education

“In contrast to what some parties maintain, internationalisation poses no threat to our Dutch identity”


Director-general of Nuffic Freddy Weima believes that the internationalisation of education is not a threat to identity. On the contrary, he writes, it strengthens the position of the Netherlands in the world.

International students predominate‘, ‘Stop this English madness‘, ‘Universities aim to reduce international student numbers‘ – the past few months have seen a headline bonanza. The public debate has focused on the problems supposedly caused by the internationalisation of higher education, such as a lack of student accommodation and the imminent demise of the Dutch language.

The term ‘internationalisation’ is usually applied in a limited sense to indicate international students coming to the Netherlands. This limited view is a pity, as internationalisation means so much more.

“For one thing, it is essential to the future of our country”

There are three ways in which internationalisation is a broader and more important issue.

Firstly, the term designates not only international students coming to the Netherlands but also Dutch students moving abroad.

Secondly, it is quite possible to gain international experience without involving actual travel, via online learning for example, and international students themselves also add value. Given adequate supervision, this development will lead to an international classroom in which students are challenged and learn to deal with diversity.

Thirdly, internationalisation is no longer strictly limited to higher education. International skills also play an increasingly vital role in vocational education and training. These days, 7% of senior secondary vocational education and training students complete their work placement or part of their studies abroad.

In regards to secondary education, more than 130 schools (including more than 30 preparatory secondary vocational education schools) now offer bilingual education, where at least half of all subjects are taught in English. Internationalisation is common even at a considerable number of primary schools.

The usual press coverage of internationalisation does not paint the full picture.

“Internationalisation is not a goal in itself but a means to pursue a higher purpose”

A managed exposure of students to international and intercultural experiences enriches their education. Finally, internationalisation can enhance the economy. Students will be better prepared for the labour market and exchanges could lead to new business opportunities.

Our international alumni maintain close ties to the Netherlands. They are our future economic, cultural and diplomatic contacts. In this sense, internationalisation can contribute to harmonious international relations. Even countries with whom our relationship is less than cordial could be partners in education.

Obviously, we should not close our eyes to the challenges posed by international students coming to the Netherlands. An adequate student accommodation offering requires cooperation at both the local and the national level. It is important to establish which degree programs offer added value when taught in English and to ensure that a sufficient number of programs continue to be taught in Dutch.

The integration and retention of international students could also be improved. This will make it easier to retain talent for the domestic labour market – a key concern given the shortage of qualified staff in such areas as technology.

It would also be a good idea if more Dutch students were to complete their entire degree programs abroad.

“The Dutch outgoing student figure of 2% is far below the total European average”

Equal opportunities could also be improved. Research shows that students with highly educated parents are more likely to gain international experience. Many other European countries outperform us in this area.

The Association of Universities in the Netherlands and the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences published their Internationalisation Agenda last month. This month, Education Minister Van Engelshoven wrote to the House of Representatives to set out her vision on the challenges posed by internationalisation in education.

In contrast to what some parties maintain, internationalisation poses no threat to our Dutch identity. Our international outlook has brought us great rewards over the years. For this reason, we must continue to maintain this outlook, particularly in education.

This is the English version of an article which was originally published in Dutch on the newspaper NRC and translated by NufficIt is also a written version of the introduction Freddy Weima gave in a Dutch parliament public hearing on internationalisation of education.