Members of the Dutch House of Representatives have strong opinions on both Russia and China. Both countries are accused of human rights violations and silencing political opponents. And there is also the risk of political interference and espionage abroad. But these strong opinions have led to quite different conclusions regarding higher education and scientific research.
The Dutch House of Representatives would like to see more Russian students and researchers coming to the Netherlands. More scholarships should be made available and it should be made easier for Russian students to obtain visas, according to motions passed in parliament on Tuesday.
According to the latest figures (reference date 1 October 2020) TU Delft has 801 Chinese students and 21 Russian students. The latter can be found at Aerospace Engineering and Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science (EWI). Chinese students are represented in all eight faculties, but especially at EEMCS, Civil Engineering and Geosciences and Architecture. (SB)
The thinking goes like this: we may have issues with Vladimir Putin and his government, but not with the Russian people themselves. In the words of Sjoerd Sjoerdsma (D66), speaking at the end of September in a parliamentary debate on the Netherlands’ Russian strategy, we should be welcoming ordinary Russians and showing them the value of living in a free society.
But parliamentarians take a different line when it comes to China. The fear is that Chinese students could be coming here in order to gain valuable and sensitive knowledge. And also that China wants to exert more political influence abroad and is using its students to achieve that goal. This could jeopardise academic freedom, it is argued.
A parliamentary motion to screen Chinese students before they arrive, proposed by the CDA and the VVD, was passed unanimously before the summer. The motion originated from the Parliamentary Committee on Education. The call for more visas and scholarships for Russian students came from the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs. But is it possible that a double standard is being applied?
No, says Sjoerd Sjoerdsma of D66, that’s not the case. When Russian students and researchers come to the Netherlands, there is also a risk of espionage and attempts at political interference. There is little difference between Russian and Chinese students in that respect, he argues.
But there are good reasons to enable more Russians to come here, he says. ‘Putin is trying to drive a wedge between ordinary Russians and the West,’ he says. ‘But the average Russian is fairly well-educated and could be won over to greater freedom and equality. And there are also decades-old links between Russian and Western artists and scientists, and it would be a shame not to maintain those links.’
Perhaps the key factor in the attitude of Dutch parliamentarians is that China is an emerging new superpower, including in the fields of knowledge and innovation. The country is said to be seeking to acquire economic and business data and innovative ideas that could help it to boost its own burgeoning knowledge economy.
Partly for this reason, partnerships between Dutch universities and colleges and Chinese technology giants such as Huawei have met with such strong political resistance. Parliamentarians have all kinds of doubts about this.
But this is not the case with Russia. Granted, there are issues with Russian hackers and disinformation around flight MH17 (the aircraft shot down over Ukraine in 2014), but there is no Russian equivalent to a company like Huawei trying to partner with Dutch universities.
Weight of numbers
Perhaps the numbers involved also play a role. Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, there were about a thousand Russian students in the Netherlands, compared to around 4,500 Chinese students. Dutch higher education has seen China as a growth market. The University of Groningen even wanted to open a campus in China. In the end nothing came of the plan, partly because of issues around academic freedom in that country and the political resistance that ensued.
But it is also possible that, in practice, the differences between Russian and Chinese students may be less significant than they seem. Because despite all the rhetoric, the Dutch House of Representatives has no plans to stop Chinese students coming to the Netherlands.
HOP, Bas Belleman