This education system profile describes recent trends in Dutch education and international student mobility and provides an overview of the structure of the education system of the Netherlands.

The Netherlands is a relatively small Western European country with 17 million people living on a territory that measures merely a 10th of the U.S. state of California. This means that the Netherlands is the 22nd most densely populated country in the world, as well as the country with the highest population density in Europe.

A foreign trade and export-oriented nation for centuries, the Netherlands was at the forefront of European integration after World War II. Together with Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Italy, the country in 1951 formed the European Coal and Steel Community – an embryonic predecessor of the European Economic Community and eventual European Union (EU), to which the Netherlands ascended as an original signatory.

The Netherlands was also one of the original 29 signatory countries of the 1999 Bologna Declaration and implemented reforms like the two-cycle degree structure, independent accreditation mechanisms, and the ECTS credit system rather quickly, compared to other European countries.

In the same vein, the Netherlands is presently pursuing a forceful internationalization strategy and seeks to attract growing numbers of international students and immigrants. The country considers internationalization vital for nurturing an outward-looking and interculturally competent citizenry and for strengthening the country’s status as a knowledge economy.

Beyond that, attracting foreign talent is seen as a necessary means to counter the aging of Dutch society and the concomitant risk of labor shortages. While the Dutch population is still relatively young compared with those of other European countries like Italy, Greece, or Germany, about half of the Dutch population will be over the age of 50 by 2019. The country’s population over the age of 60, meanwhile, is expected to increase from 25 percent in 2017 to almost 34 percent by 2050, while the overall population size is projected to remain flat.

In light of these trends, the Netherlands has in recent years intensified its international recruitment efforts. One recent example was the so-called “Make it in the Netherlands” initiative, launched in 2014 as a collaborative effort by the Dutch government, companies, and universities to “retain talented international students for the Dutch job market” and “facilitate the transition from study to work for international students” with measures like language training, cultural immersion programs, and the streamlining of visa procedures.

This openness to immigration and the availability of post-study work opportunities have helped fuel a drastic increase in international student inflows: The number of international students enrolled at Dutch research universities alone has risen by 332 percent over the past 12 years.

While student retention rates have fluctuated in recent years due to factors like an economic recession and high unemployment rates in the early 2010s, sizable numbers of international students – 22 percent of 2012 graduates – stay in the Netherlands after graduation, helping to bridge skilled labor shortages in fields like health care. Stay rates are particularly high among graduates from technical universities, 40 percent of whom currently transition into long-term residency. Notably, four out of nine PhD students who were registered for employment in the Netherlands in 2015 were foreign nationals.

However, the extent and speed of internationalization has recently generated mounting resistance in the Netherlands. While the current government seeks to expand international student enrollments even further, there’s now growing criticism from opposition parties, academics, students, and the media of the sometimes negative consequences of internationalization, such as deteriorating student-to-teacher ratios, severe shortages of student housing, and rising rents because of the rapidly growing influx of international students.

Other concerns relate to fears that Dutch students will be “crowded out” of universities, since they have to increasingly compete with omnipresent international students. In 2018, international students constituted a majority of the student body in 210 university programs and made up not less than 75 percent of all students in 70 of these programs. International demand in disciplines like computer science or engineering has become so overpowering that the Delft University of Technology recently had to enact an admissions freeze for non-EU nationals.

Most controversial, however, is the rising use of English as the medium of instruction at universities – a trend that is driven by the fact that English-taught programs are a major draw for international students. The Netherlands now has the largest number of English-taught degree programs in all of Europe – 12 of the country’s top universities offered 104 bachelor and 930 master programs in English as of 2015, according to Studyportals. Statistics of the Dutch Organization for Internationalization in Education (Nuffic) show that 23 percent of all bachelor’s programs and 74 percent of master’s programs were exclusively taught in English in 2018.

This rapid upsurge in English-taught programs has caused growing unease about the marginalization of the Dutch language in education and the “de-wording” and simplification of academic discourse. Student organizations are alarmed that professors’ English proficiency and the proficiency of Dutch students themselves is not high enough to maintain the same level of quality in courses taught in Dutch – despite the fact that the Netherlands is viewed as having the highest level of English proficiency among all non-English-speaking EU countries after Sweden.

Reflective of the recent controversies, the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf in 2018 headlined an article with the message “stop the English madness,” while the organization Better Education Netherlands went so far as to sue two universities for offering too many English-taught programs. The organization argued that the universities chose English as the language of instruction for purely financial reasons rather than for academic benefit, but ultimately lost the case.

Like several other European countries, the Netherlands is also experiencing a growing and increasingly vocal pushback against immigration in general, as well as mounting opposition to European integration. This is reflected, for example, in the rise of Geert Wilders’ anti-immigrant, anti-EU Freedom Party (Partij voor de Vrijheid – PVV), which became the second largest party in the Dutch parliament after winning 13 percent of the vote in the 2017 general elections. While the Netherlands remains an open and immigration-friendly society at large – a recent poll showed that 77 percent of Dutch people supported taking in refugees, for instance – the rising ethno-nationalist and xenophobic undercurrents in Dutch society represent a significant challenge for a country that is widely viewed as a tolerant and progressive nation.

Detailed report available at the following link;

Report by Eric Roach,
December 11, 2018

Education in the Netherlands

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