Foreign students in the Netherlands: are they expensive and unfair competition, or sorely needed? As more and more foreigners register at Dutch universities and colleges of higher education, the Dutch government is looking into the costs versus the benefits of students coming here from abroad.
37-year-old Li from China has finished his degree studies in medicine and has started working on a PhD. “I wanted to study medicine in China, but an acquaintance suggested the Netherlands. It’s difficult to be accepted for a course in China, so it was by accident that I came to the Netherlands. My diplomas weren’t considered completely valid, but in the end I won a place in the lottery for medicine.”
In the Netherlands, would-be students have to draw lots to decide who can study over-subscribed subjects, such as medicine and dentistry.
The quality of the education on offer, its international character, specialised master’s degrees and relatively low college fees make the Netherlands an interesting option for foreigners. That’s all well and good, but don’t students from abroad push up Dutch prices, and push out Dutch students from popular courses?
Two political parties – the Socialist Party (SP) and the Freedom Party (PVV) - have started to voice these concerns in the public arena, especially since the latest figures show a 40 percent increase in the number of foreign students in the Netherlands over the past year.
At the moment, some 65,000 foreigners are studying in the Netherlands, compared to 240,000 Dutch. SP political scientist Jasper van Dijk says it’s time to take action.
“Student exchanges and higher level education go hand in hand, but the ratios should stay in proportion. We have to make sure we don’t push out Dutch students because, before you know it, you’ll have a shortage of doctors or teachers simply because they weren’t able to secure a place at Dutch colleges.”
Li came to study in Amsterdam in 2001. He financed all his studies himself with backing from his family.
“The first year was very stressful for me. The lectures were in Dutch. I couldn’t make head nor tail of the material because I didn’t speak the language yet. I had to read up on the material in English-language textbooks. I failed the first year, but did all right in the repeats.”
Foreign students needed
Neither Dutch universities nor the student Union LSVB see any need to reduce the number of foreign students. In fact, they say the Netherlands needs them. They’re important for economic development and international networking.
Li doesn’t think Dutch students have to worry about being driven out of educational institutions. “Most foreigners choose an English-language course which you don’t need to draw lots for.”
Favour Dutch students with lower grades
Dutch students aren’t complaining yet either, although that could change. Foreign students with good marks sometimes get a place in medicine and psychology courses, while Dutch students with lower marks are rejected.
LSVB chairperson Pascal ten Have thinks the lottery system might have to be scrapped altogether to avoid foreigners getting precedence over Dutch students with lower grades.
“Also, a lot of students in Amsterdam complain about the accommodation shortage while foreigners seem to be able to find a room easily. But that’s got more to do with a general housing problem than with foreign students.”
Expensive foreign students?
The PVV and the SP are also concerned about the additional costs of foreign students. In proportion, fewer Dutch students study abroad, so shouldn’t that drive costs up? The schools say that foreign students coming in and Dutch students going out are pretty much in balance. But that assertion can’t be backed up by hard statistics, as Dutch students who study abroad don’t have to inform the authorities.
Students from an EU member state pay the same - government-regulated - tuition as Dutch students. But the costs for students from outside the EU are significantly higher.
For Li, it wasn’t the course content but his contact with other Dutch students which was the most difficult for him. “I wanted to borrow notes, but they wouldn’t do that.” That’s all behind me now, he exclaims - in reasonable Dutch - while he selects paint in a DIY store.
But, despite reassuring responses from the universities and students, politicians remain unconvinced. Jasper van Dijk says other European countries, like Denmark, Germany and Austria, are facing similar problems and the cost factor is an on-going discussion.
In November, Dutch MPs will have more facts and figures to get their teeth into and the debate will really get rolling.