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Clustering of international students is a bigger problem than increase in numbers

Until a few years ago, the Dutch government was fully committed to attracting more international students. Now that attitude has completely reversed. Sociologist Tijmen Weber investigated the migration patterns of this group of students: where do they come from and where do they go? “The problem is not uncontrolled growth, but the very uneven distribution of that growth.” On 18 June, he will defend his PhD thesis at Radboud University on this topic.

In recent decades, the Dutch government made serious efforts to increase the number of international students. Research universities and universities of applied sciences started offering English-language study programmes, and higher education institutions actively recruited international students through advertisements, scholarships, and external agencies. The number of international students in the Netherlands increased almost tenfold between 2000 and 2020: from 14,000 to 125,000. “The Netherlands is a popular destination. We are relatively affordable, the population speaks good English, and many study programmes are offered in English,” says sociologist Tijmen Weber, who also works as a lecturer at HAN University of Applied Sciences. “The original plan was that we would have many more international students by now.”

But around 2019, the mood shifted: international students were blamed for exacerbating the housing shortage and displacing Dutch students. According to Weber, that is far too uniform a perspective. For his research, he used DUO data of every international first-year enrolment for all study programmes offered in the Netherlands between 2016 and 2019. “Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Maastricht and Groningen jointly account for half of all international students in the Netherlands. Germans are the largest group, followed by Italians, Chinese, Belgians and Romanians,” says Weber, summarising his initial findings. “Bachelor's programmes attract relatively more students from European countries, while Master's programmes are more popular among non-European students.”

Level of development

Interestingly, the level of development of the country of origin influences student mobility. As a rule, Weber observes that international students are more likely to come from middle-income countries and study mainly in high-income countries. As middle-income countries become richer, the number of incoming students increases and the number of outgoing students decreases. “When China first started to develop, the flow of outgoing students increased. As China improved its own education system, they started to attract more international students themselves. We can already foresee future hotspots of international students, for example Vietnam and Nigeria,” says Weber.

The profile of the educational institution also plays a role. Weber also included various Statistics Netherlands (CBS) data, such as the number of inhabitants in a city, the number of catering establishments, and data from the Keuzegids on the quality of a study programme. His analysis shows that for Bachelor's students, city life around the institution is a more important factor than quality of education. International Master's students, on the other hand, often prefer educational quality to city life. In general, international students prefer educational institutions that already have many international students.


Weber stresses that the problem of international students is not so much uncontrolled growth, but rather an uneven distribution of that growth. Some educational institutions have too many international students, while others, like Maastricht, would like to attract more. The solution, therefore, according to the sociologist, is not a hard stop, but the promotion of a more even distribution.

In any case, the most frequently suggested solution – fewer study programmes in English – is too simplistic, warns Weber. “Some institutions actually do need international students because they are getting fewer and fewer Dutch students. And what do you do with international staff who cannot teach in Dutch but contribute a lot to research and English-language teaching? A uniform policy for all institutions is not the solution.”

More information on Tijmen Weber's research findings can be found on his Global Campuses website.

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Organizational unit
Faculty of Social Sciences
About person
T. Weber (Tijmen)
Current affairs, Education, Society