International Staff And Students Feel Unwelcome – Survey


Most international students and staff in Dutch universities feel less welcome today than they did when they first arrived in the country, according to a survey conducted across universities ahead of a general election that saw hard right anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders emerge as a clear winner – although his bid to be prime minister is still in doubt.

Six independent university newspapers and magazines – University Newspaper Groningen (UKrant), DUB Utrecht, VOX-Nijmegen (Radboud University), TU Delta at Delft University, Resource Wageningen and U-Today at the University of Twente – conducted the survey among 1,330 international students and employees from 5 November to 17 November.

The results were published on university media platforms on 21 November, a day before the general election, in which Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) emerged victorious. The PVV, among others, advocates a policy of de-internationalisation. While Wilders won the most seats in the November election he must first form a coalition government with other parties – some of which have already ruled out their participation owing to Wilders’ extreme views – in order to be prime minister.

In its party programme the PVV states that bachelor degrees should only be offered in Dutch and that Dutch tax paying parents have suffered as a result of the increased accessibility of universities to international students.

“The universities must first and foremost be there for our children. The PVV therefore wants student migration to be severely limited,” it states.

Political landscape

The universities’ survey results presented last week show that over 70% of students and staff members who responded had felt welcome or even very welcome when they first came to The Netherlands. Now, this figure is 55%.

About half the respondents said this was because the political landscape has become increasingly more negative about internationals who are becoming a scapegoat for several ‘Dutch problems’, according to some of the respondents.

About 50% of students and staff members said Dutch politics is increasingly negative about internationals. About 30% of the respondents noted that the media are negative about internationals.

Over 90% of the respondents had at least heard about parliamentary measures to restrict international student numbers. Over 80% of respondents were aware of the strong movement towards reducing the use of the English language, the survey revealed.

All six university media outlets published the results of the survey across all universities in addition to the results from their individual universities.

At Groningen, where the survey was initiated by UKrant, 368 people filled in the questionnaire. About 30% of those who responded said they are considering leaving.

Academic staff more frequently reported feeling unwelcome compared to students. Among the University of Groningen staff, 68% initially felt welcome or very welcome, but that number had decreased to 37%. For bachelor students, this percentage dropped by 15%, UKrant reported.

DUB-Utrecht reported that the results reflected the perception that attitudes towards foreigners had become increasingly negative among politicians, while Vox-Nijmegen reported comments that indicated the problem would take “decades to fix”.

“Meanwhile, the number of people feeling (very) unwelcome has risen from 16.5 to 25%. The numbers at the University of Twente follow this trend; at first, 68% felt (very) welcome. These numbers have dropped to 40%”, U-Today reported.

U-Today reported that feelings on the politics behind the perceptions were mixed. Numerous respondents variously described the political approach as ‘stupid’, ‘populist’ and ‘short-sighted’.

The article quoted an Indian academic staff member saying: “I think it’s suicide for the Dutch society if they reduce internationalisation. The Netherlands stands today as a very well-desired country, exactly due to its past open-mindedness in internationalisation.”

According to the survey results, about 17% of internationals spoke more or less fluent Dutch, while another 40% spoke a bit of Dutch. Of the respondents who did not speak Dutch or spoke it a little bit, more than half was willing to learn the language. Only 6% said they would not like to learn the Dutch language.

About 30% of the respondents think about leaving The Netherlands because of the internationalisation debate. Postdoctoral students and PhD candidates are the most willing to stay, while other academic staff members think about leaving slightly more frequently.

“I don’t want to leave, but I fear I might have to due to ‘insufficient’ language skills,” one staff member, quoted by U-Today, said.

“I don’t have the capacity to learn Dutch in a way that I could teach,” said a German academic staff member. A German masters student said: “I don’t want to stay in a country that is pushing for fewer internationals,” reported U-Today.

Rense Kuipers, a journalist for U-Today, said because of the open nature of the survey (through Google Forms), the survey results should be seen as indicative. However, they did provide insight into the “sentiments” of international students and employees at the University of Twente and other Dutch universities, he said.

Commenting on the findings he said: “I think it’s very hard to tell whether the situation for international scholars and students has severely worsened. Time would have to tell. Already since the discussion on The Netherlands’ internationalisation policies at the start of this year, we’ve noticed some concerns.

“The survey results only amplify those – even before the elections took place,” he said.

Kuipers said the PVV was unable to “wave a magic wand and change legislation” on higher education overnight, it was to be expected that the sentiments of international scholars and students will change and, despite efforts by universities to remain open and inclusive, scholars and students “will definitely not be immune to all [the] moving parts in Dutch politics”.

Leaders reach out to internationals

Responding to the election results and the results of the universities survey, Professor Vinod Subramaniam, president of the University of Twente’s executive board, noted that the election results affect many people, and especially the university’s international community “on a deeply emotional level”. He emphasised that the university “is and remains an open and inclusive community”.

In a message published on 23 November on the university’s homepage, he wrote: “Together we stand up against exclusion and ensure that the social and political debate does not separate us from each other.”

Referring to his own status as an immigrant, he said feeling unwelcome was a feeling he recognised. “And it saddens me to note that the same applies to others. I am a new Dutchman, [for] only eight years now. Despite the support I feel from fellow university board members – I am the only one with a non-western migration background – it sometimes feels lonely.”

He said the election results have “potential implications” for the university. “We see several parties doing well that do not necessarily share our convictions about the value of education and science to our society. Some propose far-reaching cuts in funding for education, science and innovation,” he wrote.

“It is important not to let ourselves be paralysed by this uncertain political perspective, but rather to continue to – together – powerfully increase our societal value as a knowledge institution and show it with pride,” he wrote.

The election and survey results also moved Assistant Professor Benjamin Leruth, a political sociologist at the University of Groningen, to publish a personal message to his former, current and future students on social media.

“Yesterday’s results sent shockwaves across the Netherlands and Europe,” he said.

“In these uncertain times, there is one simple message that I feel needs to be repeated to our students: You belong. You matter. You are valued,” he wrote in a message aimed largely at his international students.

Leruth said the anti-immigration voice did not “resonate with a majority of Dutch voters”. Although he conceded that the chances of seeing a populist radical right-led (or backed) government were high, it would take weeks, if not months, before a government was formed.

“In the meantime, I know all universities will maintain and even double down on their views and beliefs over internationalisation: it is essential. Internationals make a huge contribution to Dutch society. They are an integral part of Dutch society, and what makes it successful … And all universities are going to keep on fighting for that,” he said.

Leruth told University World News the election results were “reminiscent of Brexit in many aspects”.

‘Shooting themselves in the foot’

Professor Dr Jouke de Vries, president of the supervisory board of the Groningen University Foundation and interim chairman of Universities of the Netherlands (UNL), said the new Cabinet faces major challenges requiring robust scientific education.

“The Hague can count on us, the Dutch universities. Unfortunately, many political party plans suggest this is not mutual,” he noted in an article in the Trouw newspaper on 23 November.

De Vries warned that limiting international inflow is “an extra blow to the labour market and regional vitality”, especially in areas with declining Dutch youth populations.

He also criticised the plan by PVV, New Social Contract, and the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy to mandate Dutch as the instruction language in almost all bachelor programmes.

“The Netherlands is shooting themselves in the foot with this. It has consequences for our position in science, business and our international independence,” he wrote.

De Vries told University World News that UNL is “working in the spirit of the deeper values” of the country’s 14 universities.

“We are, like science is, international, open and we have strong ties in our regions. Our values are connected with our Constitution. The Dutch universities are partially autonomous. We are developing our own proposals and will present them to our new government,” he said.

International student numbers

Nearly 123,000 international students were enrolled in Dutch higher education in the 2022/3 academic year, accounting for 15% of all university (WO) and vocational college (HBO) students.

Over three-quarters (76%) of international students come from Europe, mostly from Germany, while 17% came from Asia, 4.3% from America, 1.8% from Africa and 1.3% from Oceania, according to The Netherlands in Numbers website.

In the study year 2013/14 there were 57,600 international students at Dutch higher education institutions, which means an increase of 113.5% over the last decade.

However, a small proportion of graduates remain in the country.

According to a German DAAD report, of the students who came to the Netherlands from outside Europe in 2010, only 12% were still living there 10 years later. By comparison, in Germany, 45% stayed – the highest retention rate worldwide.

Nuffic, DAAD’s Dutch counterpart, believes international students in the Netherlands are quicker to leave because they are given less time to find suitable work after graduation.

“They only have one year to find a job before their residence permit expires, compared to two years in Germany”, according to a report in DUB Utrecht.

A general trend

Hans de Wit, professor emeritus and distinguished fellow at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, United States who discussed the Dutch election in a recently published article told University World News the results reflect a more general trend in Europe and beyond towards a more inward nationalist view on society, based on fear, uncertainty and discontent over previous, more centrist governments.

“Immigration became the key topic in Dutch elections, while the left was focusing on climate change and did not have a clear strategy on immigration,” he said. “Of course, the right does not have such a strategy, but it could profit from the anti-immigration sentiments in the country as a result of incidents with asylum seekers from so-called safe countries, as well as shortages of housing for Dutch people, including students and skilled immigrants,” he added.

He said the extreme right is divided on these and other issues. Thus, it would not be easy to form a coalition government and some compromise among them was needed.

“The private sector will apply strong pressure to keep skilled immigration open (maybe with a reduction in or cancellation of tax benefits for them, already in the making).

“And the law prepared by the current departing minister on teaching in English, requiring international students and staff to learn Dutch and reducing the number of incoming students, will likely be made more severe,” he said.

However, De Wit said European regulations will make it difficult to stop the majority of international students, coming from within Europe and Germany in particular.

“In the short term no major changes will likely happen, but for sure there will be an impact in that international students and staff as well as skilled workers will be less enthusiastic about coming and staying. That is, I think the main result of the election,” he added.

Jeroen Torenbeek, arguably one of the frontline internationalists at European universities over the last three decades, told University World News the country should continue to attract students in the fields in which they are needed, “but not in the fields that are less attractive to the Dutch students” simply in order to maintain jobs for teaching staff.

Torenbeek said Wilders uses the current situation around immigration to blame the internationals – all internationals – for everything. “Wilders pretends to bring us back to old times, when everybody was happy, and the world was beautiful, a world that never existed. What I find really frightening is that over the last years he has attracted more and more young people. So nowadays the young generation is (very) right wing … but it is not yet certain that Wilders will govern,” he said.

Meanwhile, on Thursday the international student organisation Erasmus Student Network (ESN) called for a transparent debate on the internationalisation of higher education.

“Internationalisation is the driving force of high-quality education in the Netherlands as it facilitates research and attracts highly skilled experts, which allows the Dutch academic society to flourish. International classrooms foster critical thinking and openness of all students. This is to the benefit of both international and Dutch students,” ESN wrote in a statement.


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