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Foto: Sander Nieuwenhuys, UvA

UvA board members are critical of Dijkgraaf’s internationalisation bill

Dirk Wolthekker,
15 april 2024 - 10:44

The Internationalization in Balance bill is giving university board members a lot of headaches, including president of the executive board Geert ten Dam and rector magnificus Peter-Paul Verbeek. They do not like the current proposal, but hope it can still end well. “Internationalization has not been a revenue model at the UvA for a long time.”

The title of the bill by outgoing Minister Dijkgraaf (OCW) is telling, especially the term “in balance.” It suggests that the internationalization of higher education is out of whack and needs to be brought into line, “in balance,” so to speak. And that is exactly what is going on, particularly in undergraduate education. This is true throughout the Netherlands, and certainly at the UvA, where now a third of undergraduate students are not from the Netherlands. Welcome, you might say, but there are quite a few hiccups, plusses, and minuses to this heady growth, which means that the UvA now has a total of 44,000 students. It is no longer manageable, according to Ten Dam and Verbeek.
Ten Dam: “If we do nothing and extrapolate the current growth to the immediate future, in a few years the UvA will have 50,000 students.”
Verbeek: “The buildings couldn’t handle that. It would create too much work pressure for staff and it would erode the quality of academic research.”
Ten Dam: “Research funding would then no longer keep pace with the growth in the number of students.”
Verbeek: “We actually want to stop the growth. Deans indicate that the whole internationalization discussion is already noticeable in the number of applications. This discussion has a dampening effect on that.”
Ten Dam: “Internationalization has not been a business model at the UvA for a long time. We cherish our international character but also want to remain accessible to our Dutch students. That is what matters to us.”
Outgoing Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf (D66) has initiated a law stipulating that bachelor’s degrees may no longer be offered indiscriminately in English. Only narrowly defined exceptions will be possible. This should limit the number of international students and simultaneously make way for more Dutch language programs for Dutch students (and thus lecturers), for whom there would otherwise be insufficient room at Dutch universities. This new law from Dijkgraaf, who is also an internationally renowned scientist who worked in America for many years, should come into effect in 2025. Ten Dam and Verbeek fear that its introduction will be accompanied by a lot of administrative and legal red tape from The Hague. For example, the new law requires all current English language programs to prove themselves by first jumping through an effectiveness hoop, meaning passing an effectiveness test.
Ten Dam: “Then you have to think about questions such as: Does such an English-language program meet the needs of the Dutch labor market and does it contribute to the regional economy? If not, it would not be effective. Apart from the importance of English language programs for the quality of our education and research, several of our major English language programs keep other programs (such as minor languages, for example) alive. If the English language variant does not pass the test, too few students are left in such a program. If you pull one thread, the whole sweater unravels. Is that the intention?”
Verbeek: “Broad, generalist universities are going to pay the price if that law is introduced.”
The bill is clearly not well received by Ten Dam and Verbeek. They are now more in favor of self-direction and an approach together with other universities because, according to them, the new law does exactly what the UvA does not have in mind: It turns the university back into a closed stronghold with an inward-looking culture where Dutch dominates.
Ten Dam: “What we as administrators asked the minister for is a steering element to control the influx of international students. What we got is a bill around the Dutch language and its mandatory use in all programs. That does not fit in with the international, bilingual culture that we at the UvA cherish and want to maintain.”
Verbeek: “If we have to ask for a waiver from the minister for every English language program we want to start, it’s going to be very difficult to maintain the international culture at the UvA.”
Ten Dam: “If we are only allowed to offer English language programs in exceptional cases, it will be disastrous for the UvA.”
In anticipation of the new law, the joint Dutch universities have now announced that a total of 35 English language bachelor’s programs will have a Dutch equivalent alongside them.
Ten Dam: “This includes all English language bachelor’s programs at the UvA.”
Verbeek: “So English language programs will not be converted back to Dutch, we will instead add a Dutch track alongside the English ones.”
Ten Dam: “This also applies to programs in Economics and Business Administration. There they are now well into developing Dutch language curricula.”
The question of course is whether these Dutch language variants will fill up with Dutch students, who are following the English language programs in large numbers.
Ten Dam: “Eighty percent of the Dutch psychology students at the UvA would like to take the English language variant. They apparently see the advantages of a diverse student population that offers them the chance to broaden their horizons.”
Verbeek: “The study material is and has been in English for a long time, also at the UvA. That fits in with the intercultural educational environment we want to offer.”
Ten Dam: “Even though it was not yet included in the law at that time, we applied a numerus fixus in psychology last year at track level where we determined the number of students for both the Dutch and English language tracks ourselves.”
Verbeek: “We have been, so to speak, administratively disobedient.”
Ten Dam: “We will soon get a visit from the Education Inspectorate about this. It applies the principle ‘explain or apply.’ We did not apply [the law], but we can explain why: We can no longer cope with the international influx. But that doesn’t mean we no longer want to be English-speaking at all, quite the contrary.”

Geert ten Dam: “We will fully commit to bilingualism for both students and employees”

To keep English-language admissions under control, Ten Dam and Verbeek want to employ a numerus fixus regulation for English language programs and tracks. This is basically what already happened in psychology last year on a trial basis.
Ten Dam: “We will fully commit to bilingualism for both students and employees. That means ‘actively fluent’ for the Dutch and ‘passive fluency and reading comprehension’ for non-Dutch. We’ve let that slip a bit lately, but we’re going to work hard on it. That also means that non-Dutch employees have to invest in the Dutch language. We plan to do that together with the UvA Talen department.”
Verbeek: “We are looking at whether we can include this in employment contracts, although it will be difficult to enforce this in practice. Amsterdam is and remains an international city where it is often not even possible to order a cup of coffee in Dutch at a sidewalk café.”
Ten Dam: “I expect that by around the ‘27/’28 academic year, we will have implemented bilingualism at the UvA.”
Meanwhile, the Education Council, led by incoming UvA College President Edith Hooge, has been fairly critical of the new law. The council has advised the minister to “further think through and further develop” the proposal. The council sees problems “with the proposed measures on the language of instruction, especially with the substantiation, proportionality, legal certainty, and enforceability” of the new law. Meanwhile, the law is with the Council of State for advice.
Verbeek: “But the House of Representatives can disregard such advice.”
Ten Dam: “The House of Representatives wants less English language education, but I wonder if they are really aware of the current laws and regulations. I have spoken to House of Representatives members who did not know that we are legally not allowed to refuse international students from the EU. That’s just European law.”
Verbeek: “There will fortunately be a few more moments when we can put forward the rationality of our arguments.”
Ten Dam: “We will do so with passion because this is truly a flawed and unworkable law.”
Verbeek: “In Denmark, similar legislation was already reversed after a short time when it became clear what the effects were on universities and the labor market. If this law were to be introduced, the Netherlands would truly regret it within a short time. As it stands now, it is simply a bad law.”