In an interview with The PIE News, the Dutch minister for Education, Culture and Science, Robbert Dijkgraaf, acknowledged that international collaboration is key in higher education, but the education of international students will “never be a business model” for the European nation.
“I feel the exchanges of students and researchers actually typically bring countries closer together,” he told The PIE.
“We have always seen that welcoming researchers and students from around the world to build [international] ties works to our benefit. One thing we do feel in the Netherlands is that by working very closely together, trying to be as coherent as a nation in our policies, we can actually play a part in this much larger global world of research.”
However, there’s currently an “interesting debate” in how the Netherlands deals with international students, he continued.
“Clearly, there are benefits. There are also costs”
“Clearly, there are benefits. There are also costs,” he said, adding that much growth in universities in recent decades has been driven to a large extent by international students.
The government is now considering what level of international students is “sustainable into the future”, and what an “optimal mix of providing educational opportunities” for Dutch, European and non-EU students would be. But currently there are more questions than answers, Dijkgraaf said.
“No university and certainly not as a nation, do we see [international students] as an economic model. So we really want to see what the intrinsic benefits are.
“What we have seen in the past years is that there’s a certain stress in the system because the universities are growing.”
The minister pointed to strains on teaching loads, but there have also been concerns with other around accommodation, anxiety and loneliness among international cohorts, and a lack of support initiatives. However, the country remains a very popular study destination among prospective students.
“It’s a little bit of a precarious position and I think we have an interesting debate in our country,” the minister added.
Like other countries, the Netherlands is considering which areas are of strategic advantage and what sort of experts it wants to attract.
“Clearly, there is a great need at this moment for people in the more technical fields. We have a very healthy, high tech industry, and [there is] demand for engineers, scientists in these areas,” Dijkgraaf explained.
The government is working on strategic assessments expected in the coming year in how to deal with this, he added.
“There are strong feelings and pertinent questions in our parliament about this. It’s something that I want to work with the universities, with all the stakeholders to see what our international policy is.
“We feel there has to be a right balance and we have to think about it strategically. It should be based on what the added value is in terms of knowledge, in terms of international connections.”
While international contacts are crucial for the economy, the country wants “to have a sustainable higher education system that is not eroded by an uncontrollable amount of students”.
The minister was speaking with The PIE during a trip to the UK in a bid to find vocational training and student wellbeing inspiration.
The two-day visit saw him visit Queen Mary University of London where he learnt about holistic wellbeing guidelines and specialised hubs for support, in addition to visiting the new South Bank Colleges campus in Clapham to witness the Dutch-inspired T Level technical classes in action.
The minister warned against only allowing international experiences to certain students.
“I feel very strongly that, independent of whether you are a vocational, professional, or more academic student, you deserve the same opportunities because to be more practically oriented doesn’t mean that you’re not internationally oriented. Why, if you’re more theoretically oriented, would you be more interested to talk to colleagues around the world?
“If I truly believe there is added value in international connections, then this is not only something that [should be] granted to those working at the highest regions of academic research. It should be something that’s available to all students – that’s something I want to actively promote.”
The minister also emphasised the importance of collaboration that is “very natural to science” at a time when geopolitics seems to be facing new challenges.
“Science is one of the few areas where globalisation truly works… It’s fascinating to see that even if you look back in history, countries that have incredibly difficult relationships, politically speaking, like the US and the Soviet Union, for instance, they always would have some exchange of scientific views.”
Certain parts of the world are thinking autonomously and thinking in terms of competition rather than collaboration, and “we see a slight drifting away of the world in to separate blocs”, he added.
“In order to find these global solutions, we have to share information”
“If you look at the large geopolitical developments these days, we are not in a phase where globalisation is being encouraged… it’s perhaps a slightly more difficult time now than it was ten or 20 years ago…
“If you think like a scientist, you always feel, ‘wait a moment, why wouldn’t be able to share knowledge?’ Some of the biggest issues that countries are confronted with, whether it’s climate change, biodiversity, the quality of water or infectious diseases, we’ve clearly learnt that these are global problems.
“In the end we need global solutions and in order to find these global solutions, we have to share information, we have to share data and we have to operate collectively.
“I think there’s a general belief within the scientific community that collaboration in science and education brings countries closer together. The aims of science are actually a good way to drive politics instead of the other way round.”