Politics is threatening to deal a blow to the internationalisation of higher education and research. Don’t let this happen, warns Freddy Weima of Nuffic.
Director of Nuffic Freddy Weima in The Hague. (Photo: Alex Schröder)

Politics is threatening to deal a blow to the internationalisation of higher education and research. Don’t let this happen, warns Freddy Weima of Nuffic.

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Weima is about to step down from his position as director of the Dutch organisation for internationalisation in education Nuffic. The arrival of foreign students at Dutch universities is encountering increasing resistance. In his eight years heading up the internationalisation agency Nuffic, Freddy Weima has seen a turnaround in the former enthusiasm. He is leaving to become chair of the PO Council, the umbrella organisation for primary schools.

Is it strange that people are starting to question internationalisation? The number of foreign students just keeps rising.
“Yes, especially for universities. That growth has received massive support from the government for many years. It was a joint ambition to attract more international students to our universities and the Netherlands has become very popular. The value of having these students has not declined, but a number of universities are now nearly at full capacity and we have to guide things in the right direction.”

How is that going to work?
“There is currently draft legislation waiting approval from the Senate which would make it possible for English-taught programmes to apply quotas. In practice this would allow you to control the number of international students while continuing to grant access to Dutch students.”

‘Internationalisation is good for higher education’ 

Could you also say, everyone who wants to pay tuition is welcome to study here?
“That is in fact what they do in Australia. Higher education is one of their top sectors, like horticulture in this country, and they recruit international students with a profit margin. I myself see more in a good strategy aimed at attracting talent. That is something totally different from trying to bring as many students as possible into the country. We also don’t have enough teaching faculty or student residences to accommodate much more growth.”

The outgoing government wants to particularly attract students in technological fields and ICT.
“This is a viewpoint that arose in splendid isolation, without consulting those in higher education. It is somewhat short sighted. We currently have many foreign lecturers in all disciplines who often came here initially as students, just like many Dutch researchers also go abroad to work. Internationalisation is good for higher education.”

We are reading more often about Russian spies and Chinese influence. Do these change the attitude?
“Geopolitical tensions have increased and there are a greater number of ways of digitally infiltrating other countries. Knowledge security is a much bigger concern than eight years ago. But what is the solution? You can’t isolate yourself from these other countries. You need to acquire knowledge of the Russian and Chinese language and culture, if only for the reason that these countries are increasingly exerting their influence on the world stage.”

‘You can’t act as if all Chinese students have suspicious intentions

A knee-jerk reaction would be: just shut the borders.
“That would be like killing a fly with an elephant gun. You have to stay alert, but there are around five thousand Chinese students in this country and you can’t act as if they all have suspicious intentions. We should be aiming at maintaining good relations with them in the future, in business and in diplomatic terms. It helps that they can take a positive picture of the Netherlands home with them.”

What policy do you think a new coalition government should pursue?
“I would continue the Orange Knowledge Programme, a programme set up by outgoing Minister Sigrid Kaag of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation with around fifty partner countries. It is primarily focused on Africa and funds collaborative projects and provides student grants. It sometimes seems as though the Netherlands pays little attention to that continent even though it is emerging as a strong global player. And here at home the Dutch Minister of Education wants to get rid of the NL Alumni Network, which is the way we keep in touch with our international graduates. That’s a real destruction of cultural and political capital. The costs are relatively low, and it is extremely important to maintain a good alumni network for business and diplomatic relations. In addition, I would keep at least a few of the NESO offices open that the current government is planning to close.”

NESO offices are like embassies for higher education. Is it so strange that the government wants to turn over that role to the real embassies?
“I hope that the new coalition government will take another close look at them. Educational attachés are important, but they can’t assume the same role as the NESO offices. Our NESO offices include local staff who have a good understanding of higher education in those countries. That is something greatly appreciated by both diplomats there and universities here. At times of geopolitical tension, higher education and research are sometimes the only areas in which you can maintain good relations.”

‘The sole focus should be on quality and talent’

There’s a political desire to protect the Dutch language and reign in English-taught education. Is that going to undermine internationalisation?
“We have to have a more nuanced discussion. It’s become highly politicised, and that’s a shame. The sole focus should be on quality and talent. It is also peculiar, for example, that just two percent of Dutch people complete a full educational programme outside the country. This number could easily be doubled. For example, why do so few Dutch students go to study in Germany? Their universities are excellent, tuition is relatively cheap, you can transfer your student funding and you will learn a language that will be an asset for the rest of your life.”

Has the coronavirus crisis thrown a wrench into internationalisation?
“The number of international students has kept rising over the last year, particularly students from other European countries. The number of those interested in doing a degree in the Netherlands remains high. But I have to say that right now is a difficult time to be an international student in the Netherlands. Everything is online, which leads to high levels of loneliness. Remote learning is not a magic bullet.”

HOP, Bas Belleman
Translation: Taalcentrum-VU