Letschert: “I hope that this does not lead to polarisation within UM”

Letschert: “I hope that this does not lead to polarisation within UM”

Country-wide reactions to the proposed internationalisation legislation

19-09-2023 · Background

MAASTRICHT/ NETHERLANDS. More than 200 reactions are received to a draft bill intended to better manage the intake of students from abroad. Some organisations and individuals are enthusiastic, but higher education institutions are against it. There are also worries and questions at Maastricht University.

The first version of the ‘Internationalisering in Balans’ bill was available online for a process called internet consultation. Outgoing minister Robbert Dijkgraaf of Education was allowing everybody to give their opinion. In a nutshell, it boils down to the following: universities are receiving more opportunities to manage the intake of international students, but the government also wants to re-evaluate the working language in Bachelor’s programmes. Moreover, international students are required to gain some knowledge of the Dutch language.

Shortage of teachers

Universities have a number of issues with the current version of the proposal, according to the reaction of the umbrella association Universities of the Netherlands (UNL). They think that the plan isn’t feasible. Where, for example, are they going to find the teachers who will provide Dutch language tuition to international students? After all, there is already a shortage of teachers. The government should not be interfering with study programme curricula in the first place. And that includes language teaching.

Furthermore, some study programmes cannot continue without the international intake. “The continued existence of a number of unique small study programmes is under threat if there is an obligation for them to be taught in Dutch,” warn the universities. Leave language policy to us, they advise.

Border region

Maastricht University is also sending its own message out into the world. It does so “because of UM’s unique position as the most international university of the Netherlands”, its statement on the website says. It is not an unfamiliar story, because President Rianne Letschert has been hammering on about ‘having its own profile’ for months: an institute in a border region and a region with a shrinking population, which benefits tremendously from attracting international talent. In other words, if the bill is passed (which is by no means certain), UM with all its bachelor’s programmes in English will be facing an enormous problem.

This was also clear last week during a University Council committee meeting in which the proposed bill was discussed. If two thirds of the bachelor’s programme is in Dutch, the programme will be classified as ‘Dutch’, Daphne van Dongen, policy advisor at UM, explains. Is it less than two thirds, it will be classified as ‘in other language’ and the institute will have to submit an application to the minister and “jump through all kinds of hoops”.

Does this only apply to new study programmes, a student council member wants to know. No, Letschert emphasises, this applies to all UM bachelor’s programmes. An exception is made for the master’s programmes. Teun Dekker, University Council chairman, wonders what they mean by ‘Dutch’; is it the language used in lectures, the literature, or the talks in the tutorial group? That is still not clear, was the answer.

Dutch language lessons

International bachelor’s and master’s students will have to learn Dutch (5 credits in the bachelor’s, so 140 hours, and 2 credits in the master’s). “Can the Dutch language lessons be taken after graduation, before one enters the labour market?”, was asked during the committee meeting. No, the Dutch language lessons must be incorporated into the curriculum.

Letschert emphasises the complexity of the ‘internationalisation dossier’, certainly now that we’re about to have new elections. The fourteen universities in the Netherlands are trying to come up with a solution together, she said (sending a single joint proposal to The Hague is easier than fourteen different ideas), but there has to be more or less a consensus and we are not there yet.

Letschert: “Let me be clear: I am not against study programmes being in Dutch, absolutely not. Sometimes, it is very evident that they are in Dutch, think of Dutch Law or Dutch Language, Dutch Culture. But if you are asking me whether all universities should be offering these, I would say: ‘I don’t think so’.”


Letschert has noticed that opinions are divided within UM: “I hope that this does not lead to polarisation. Our foreign scientists and lecturers feel stigmatised and unwelcome because of this discussion in the Netherlands. Also, Dutch employees are frustrated because they can no longer teach in their own language.”


International talent is highly desirable in Maastricht and the region, says Letschert. But that course of action is also “selfish”. It causes a brain drain. “We have a responsibility to all those countries, Bulgaria, Spain, Croatia, you name it. How do you go about that in the right way? Let us think about that.”

Wendy Degens/ HOP

Individual reactions

Quite a few reactions can also be read online. “This is a great load off my mind,” writes one of them. “I think it’s very important for my children to pursue the studies of their choice in Dutch. This is necessary to bring their language skills – in a broad sense – to the right level.”

One international student reacts indignantly, however, to the proposed legislation. “Discontinuing small programmes that cannot function without internationals and teaching Dutch to students who will, by and large, not have anything to do with the language, will be an even greater burden on the system.” The student prefers to pay higher tuition fees to enable greater investments in education and housing.  


The proposal offers “no solution whatsoever”, writes one anonymous Dutch graduate. “I have myself completed a primarily English-language Bachelor’s programme. The language allowed for the creation of an international learning environment in which both the course material and the diversity of students and lecturers gave me fresh insights that a predominantly Dutch-language study programme could not have offered.”

Lotte Jensen, a professor of Dutch Cultural and Literary History in Nijmegen and an outspoken critic of anglicisation, calls it a balanced proposal that provides an answer to a “broadly shared desire”. In her view, it is definitely practicable. “Certainly when you consider the pace at which study programmes have transferred to English. A change in the other direction is just as conceivable and practicable.”


Author: Wendy Degens

Illustration: Simone Golob

Tags: internationalisation,language,dijkgraaf,brain drain,bill

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