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Foto: Jeroen Oerlemans (UvA)

Geert ten Dam: ‘We're heading for 55,000 students, that's impossible’

Henk Strikkers,
24 juni 2022 - 10:35
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Last fall, Board Chair Geert ten Dam sounded the alarm about the UvA bursting at the seams. Six months later, little has changed, she observes. Emergency measures are coming ever closer. ‘We can't wait another three years.’

Has anything changed since November?
‘The answer is no. We had pinned our hopes on the Language & Accessibility Act, but it was declared controversial after the fall of the cabinet. Last week Minister Dijkgraaf decided to withdraw that law. And of course: that law had imperfections, especially for the situation we are in now. But withdrawing it means that there will be a proposal in 2023 at the earliest and it can only have consequences in September 2025. That's just too late. Then we might be at 50, or 55,000 students. That's not possible.’


Did that withdrawal come as a surprise?
‘We didn't see it coming. We had many conversations with the ministry, so we were really surprised. At the ministry they also see the problem of the increase in international students, and they are also open to consultation. We expected to get more steering instruments.’

‘The Roeterseiland campus is full. With even more students, there will be a shortage of teaching spaces’

In Maastricht, the withdrawal was welcomed with cheers by board chair Rianne Letschert. Does this repeal also represent a break in the coalition of universities?
‘No, definitely not. Universities all think that internationalization in itself is not the problem. The enormous growth is the problem, and the consequences this has for the quality of our education and the accessibility for Dutch students. The degree of internationalization also differs. In Amsterdam we suffer from these problems much more than in Maastricht. The growth here is really too fast. Thirty percent of the students at the UvA now come from abroad. The bachelors we offer in English turn out to be very attractive.
This applies to international students, but the concept of the international classroom also appeals to Dutch students. Going back to purely Dutch programs is not in their interest. However, it is unacceptable if internationalization means that there is less room for Dutch students at our university. In programs with a numerus fixus, the competition is now so huge that displacement occurs. This is really different in Maastricht.’


What is the future of the UvA if nothing happens?
‘Our projections show that we will continue to grow and will soon have 50, 55,000 students. The UvA can't handle that and neither can the city. The Roeterseiland campus is full. With even more students, there will be a shortage of teaching spaces.
Moreover, there is already a major problem with student housing. The UvA Housing Service does a good job, and we are clear to students about how difficult it can be to find an affordable room. For the students who nevertheless come, we do feel responsible. I can imagine that next year we might have to say that enrollment is closing. That we say, 'Sorry, we're full, we can't help you anymore'.’

Can’t the UvA even do something?
‘We have the blunt instrument of numerus fixus. If we select, it is legally permitted to also use criteria that have to do with the international classroom. We are not allowed to select on nationality, but we are allowed to select on diversity and for example the motivation of students to contribute to the international classroom and to integrate at a Dutch university.
The UvA is explicitly bilingual. I think this should imply that you speak fluent English or Dutch, and passively master the other language. Studies can pay more attention to this in their selection process. And we can facilitate this better, for example with language courses.
Many people take it for granted that we switch to English if there is someone in a company who is not Dutch. I doubt we should do that, to put it mildly, but that's a conversation we need to have as a whole UvA.’

‘There may come a point when you say: you have to learn Dutch if you want to work or study here. We are not there yet, but I can imagine it’

But if a prospective student says he wants to learn Dutch during the selection process, you can not hold him to that once he is admitted.
‘That is right. At the moment we are mainly trying to entice students to learn Dutch. Students from the Faculty of Economics & Business Administration can get credits for a language course, or even have an external course reimbursed by the program if the course is successfully completed. There may come a point when you say: you have to learn Dutch if you want to work or study here. We're not there yet, but I can imagine it.’

Is that all?
‘In our education system there is legal room for experimentation. We are going to urge the ministry to give us that space. Let us use that space to see how we can better manage the intake. In doing so, other universities can also learn from us. We would like to be able to set a numerus fixus at track level: so only for the English-language track within a study. The Dutch track would then remain open. We would also like to be able to put a stop to students from outside the European Union.
Last year I received a cry for help from the director of the psychology department, and a while ago Tom van der Meer from political science also sounded the alarm. Let it be clear: something has to be done.’

At the same time, Roel Beetsma, the new dean of Economics & Business Administration, says that he will ‘certainly continue’ to recruit students from far abroad and to the preparatory year of OnCampus. How is that compatible?
‘Roel is busy with innovation. At the FEB, for example, there is a new Business Analytics study. That came about because there is a great demand for that type of graduate on the labor market. At the same time he is sensitive to accessibility and diversity.
The preparatory year, which Folia has been very keen on in the past, is also intended for students from countries where they cannot attend secondary school at VWO level. Apart from that, it is certain that at the institutional level the limit has been reached. We have asked all faculties to do a portfolio analysis before the end of the year. In which fields or in which studies do they want to grow, and where is stabilization or even shrinkage desired.’

‘We would like to be able to set a numerus fixus at track level: only for the English-language track within a study. The Dutch track would then remain open’

In the humanities, they say they need this international influx to keep their range of studies up to standard.
‘Sometimes you do indeed need this international influx for the vitality of your studies. But the continued existence of a specific study is never set in stone. We have areas of expertise and we want to keep them going. For example, we used to have the study of German. Now it's German language & culture, so on the one hand you can keep the expertise, but by adding the cultural component you can also appeal to a wider range of students.’

But if nothing happens at Humanities and Economics & Business Administration, then Society & Behavior will be the only faculty with English-language bachelor’s programs where shrinkage is possible. Do I see that right?
‘No, that's judging too quickly. Across the board, our goal is not to grow, provided it doesn't impede the innovation of the university and our education. How we arrive at that stability is something we need to talk about. The science faculty, for example, is working on the new Science & Design study. In doing so, they are hoping for a hundred first-year students. But of course those are not a hundred new students; those are students who might otherwise have opted for another UvA study. They are partly communicating vessels. So it is too short to say that the decline should be in Society & Behavior. With the new Computational Social Science program, among other things, we are also working hard on renewal there.’

Suppose that nothing at all comes from The Hague, not even room for experimentation. What then?
‘Then we'll first see if how far we can get by tightening up the selection criteria.’

Is that enough?
‘No, that is not enough. The Technical University of Delft has now said to the study of Aerospace Engineering: we are full, the store is closed, we can no longer accept applications from students from outside Europe. If we do not get any help from The Hague, I can imagine that we will have to do the same with students applying next year.
That is where the shore is going to turn. We are first going to try to do it within the current regulations. But if we really can not do it anymore, and if we have to wait until 2025 for new legislation, then it will probably be necessary to take measures ourselves.’