Dutch universities are under pressure. “Universities don't want to grow anymore” announced a newspaper headline (NRC, 5 September 2022). Over the past twenty years, student numbers have doubled from 170,000 in 2001 to 340,000 today, thanks in part to an increased inflow of international students.
However, not all universities and all study programmes are alike, as shown in the above-mentioned article. While in some places, universities are indeed well advised to slow down their growth, elsewhere they should do their best to continue to grow.
Science knows no boundaries, and certainly no borders. The problems facing us today and tomorrow pretty much all exceed national borders. The nitrogen issue, immigration, climate change, wars: the list could go on for a while. The fact that our current and future students learn to work and collaborate in an international context is of great importance. Also, and especially, for the Netherlands and Europe. If only for this reason, I am not at all convinced that what we need is a university 'by the Dutch and for the Dutch'. On the other hand, how accessible do the Dutch universities want to be, and how accessible can they be, to European students? How about students from elsewhere in the world? The answer will vary per university, study programme, and region.
Some study programmes will be keen to grow to respond to the demands of the job market. Think of academically schooled teachers for primary and secondary schools, technicians, scientists, mathematicians, computer scientists and healthcare workers. Other study programmes, on the other hand, may, admittedly, be attracting more than their fair share of Dutch and international students. In this context, there may be substantial differences between regions. There are shrinking regions and growth regions, densely populated regions and less densely populated regions. There are universities located close to international borders (in some cases with more than one country). All of this has consequences for a university's internationalisation policy.
One relevant aspect in this context is the vision on language use. The instruction language of a study programme should not be used as a tool to either attract or repel international and other students. The way I see it, this would be inappropriate. The language of a study programme should match the objective and nature of the study programme in question. For example, Radboud University is promoting itself as a multilingual university. The study programme in American Studies is English-spoken, while the study programme in Dutch Language and Culture is Dutch-spoken. And the study programme in Spanish Language and Culture is largely taught in Spanish, as one would expect. In practice, many Bachelor's degree programmes are taught in a mixture of English and Dutch, while many Master's programmes are English-spoken. I'm happy that my future dentist will be able to keep up with and contribute to the international, largely English-spoken developments in her field. I am also happy that they will be able to speak to, and where needed reassure, their future patients in Dutch. Not all study programmes are alike, and neither are all courses within a single programme. There may be good reasons for choosing different languages for different courses, study programmes, and universities, but this should not be used as an instrument to regulate the number of Dutch and international students.
We can be proud of the fact that Dutch higher education is so popular, also abroad. And we should think more carefully about how we want to use this power of attraction for the Netherlands, without it being detrimental to the accessibility of university education for the Dutch students, but also without it forming an obstacle to the cross-border learning, thinking and work of our students. This will in many cases require, apart from general legislation, customised measures for each region, university and study programme.
The power of the Dutch universities lies in their differences, and the way in which they, despite and thanks to these differences, work together to reach and remain in the international top. In this context, we should grant each university the trust and tools it needs to regulate its own accessibility, quality and effectiveness and be held accountable for it.
Daniël Wigboldus is president of Radboud University's executive board. The other members of the board are Agnes Muskens (vice president) and Han van Krieken (rector magnificus). Each member of the executive board regularly writes a column.