“Axing the International Classroom would set us back decades”

“Axing the International Classroom would set us back decades”

Are UM students and staff concerned about the outcome of the upcoming election?

14-11-2023 · Background

The Dutch general election is coming up. High polling parties like VVD and Pieter Omtzigt’s NSC are advocating for bachelor’s programmes to be taught in Dutch again. Are UM students and staff concerned about this? Are they worried that English-taught programmes will be cut and everyone, staff and students alike, will be forced to take Dutch lessons? Or do they think that Maastricht University will remain unaffected?

“There’s an election coming up? I didn’t know that. I split my time between Maastricht and London, and I live in Germany, just across the border from Nijmegen. I’m from Greece and I mostly follow Greek news. I’m afraid I hadn’t realised we may have a problem here.” Michalis Moatsos, a relatively new assistant professor of International Economics at the School of Business and Economics (SBE), seems quite cheerful. He recalls that it has come up in meetings that certain political parties (see box under this text) are critical of the increased use of English and number of international students in Dutch higher education. “But I keep hearing that Maastricht University will be granted exceptional status, which sounds like music to my ears. I’m not going to worry about things I can’t control.”

"I think Omtzigt doesn’t understand what happens in schools like SBE"

One floor up from Moatsos, the mood is very different. “I’ve been following the national political debate with astonishment and disbelief”, says Gaby Odekerken-Schröder, vice dean of internationalisation at SBE and a member of the university-wide Strategic Board Internationalisation. “Since the 1980s, we’ve been working tirelessly to establish an international university. It’s in our DNA; it’s who we are. It’s about so much more than just providing education in English. I think Omtzigt doesn’t understand what happens in schools like SBE. If he did, he wouldn’t propose introducing Dutch as the language of instruction in all higher education institutions. It’s surreal.”

Jan Super, a master’s student at the Faculty of Science and Engineering (FSE), feels the same way. “It only makes sense for my programme to be taught in English. Artificial intelligence is an international discipline. It’d be absurd to teach it in Dutch.” He laments the right-wing attitudes in The Hague: “Omtzigt won’t just drop the subject of reducing international student numbers if his party wins the election. Pushing Dutch as the primary language of instruction is a clever way for him to cut English-taught programmes so as to deter international students from coming here.”

His dean at FSE, Thomas Cleij, thinks it won’t come to that. “It’s obvious that UM should be granted exceptional status based on its location and the labour market”, he says matter-of-factly. But what if the new government tightens legislation? “They’re saying that educational institutions will need to justify why programmes are taught in English, not that we won’t be allowed to teach in English. Take our faculty – English is the universal form of communication in science and engineering fields, just like in European Law, International Business and European Public Health. It’s only logical that we target an international student group.”

Bo Schmeitz, a third-year student of Tax Law – “a Dutch-taught programme with Dutch-language learning resources, tutorials and lectures” – agrees with Cleij, as does Odekerken-Schröder. Schmeitz thinks it makes perfect sense for UM to be granted exceptional status, especially considering its location in the Meuse-Rhine Euroregion. Odekerken-Schröder concurs: “If any university will be granted exceptional status, it’ll be UM. That’s what I tell concerned staff members. We’ll fight tooth and nail to make it happen.”


"The International Classroom fosters intercultural understanding"

According to Odekerken-Schröder, most SBE students are not all that worried about the national debate on internationalisation in higher education. “But if it comes up, they say, ‘Well, where else can I go to prepare for an international career?’ You can’t teach an International Business programme without an International Classroom. It’s like teacher training without children. Axing the International Classroom would set us back decades.”

The International Classroom, adds Moatsos, not only prepares students for an international career, but also fosters intercultural understanding. “The recent wars in Ukraine and Palestine show how important it is that parties sit around the table together and talk to each other. That’s what we instil in students in our International Classroom.”

"It is starting to get out of hand. It’s like we have to fight for courses to be taught in Dutch"

Has UM gone too far when it comes to English as a medium of instruction? Does the university teach too many programmes in English? Yes, say some people at faculties that still teach partly in Dutch, like the Faculty of Law. To be clear, he isn’t opposed to internationalisation, stresses Jacques Claessen, endowed professor of Restorative Justice and coordinator of the Dutch track of the Master in Forensics, Criminology and Law. “It would be narrow-minded to close the borders to students and researchers.” But, he says, “It is starting to get out of hand. It’s like we have to fight for courses to be taught in Dutch. More and more electives are offered exclusively in English. It has to end.”

Frank Huisman, emeritus professor of History of Medicine and one of the founders of Science in Transition (an organisation that has been fighting to reduce workload in academia and reform research assessment since 2013), is also of the opinion that the situation in the Netherlands has got out of hand. Like Claessen, he acknowledges that internationalisation is a fact of modern life, “and English-medium instruction supports internationalisation. But we should decide for each individual faculty, each individual programme, whether teaching in English is necessary. Dutch as a language of instruction has completely disappeared from my own faculty, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS).”

He continues, “The Netherlands is at the top of the class in Europe when it comes to English-taught curricula. If you look at the Language Matters report by the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts (KVAB), the situation in the Netherlands is Flanders’s greatest nightmare. Dutch has been brushed aside as an academic language; the number of international students has skyrocketed; there’s a student housing shortage; the faculty-student ratio is out of balance. UM once aspired to be the Dutch Harvard or Oxford. But Harvard has more money than all Dutch universities combined. At Oxford, the faculty-student ratio is one to three; here, it’s one to thirty. They use that money to buy quality, consistently scoring high in rankings like the Shanghai Ranking. Here, the quality of education has been adversely affected by growing student numbers – workload has become excessive, lecturers are burning out and students are getting pity passes.”

In stark contrast, Odekerken-Schröder at SBE resolutely believes that UM hasn’t gone too far. “And I’m not just preaching to the choir here. SBE introduced its first English-taught programme, International Management, around 1988, and we’ve continued to build from there. UM is still a bilingual university; just look at Dutch Law or Medicine.”


"The trend has been the same for years – the same pile of money and an increase in students"

What makes this issue so complex is the funding system, explains Huisman. Government funding for Dutch universities is linked to student numbers and the number of PhD graduates. “The university that attracts the most students gets the biggest slice of the cake. It’s a perverse incentive. The trend has been the same for years – the same pile of money and an increase in students.”

Janosch Prinz, assistant professor of Social and Political Philosophy at FASoS, also points out the adverse effect of the funding system. “Universities all fight for the same pile of money. One grows at another’s expense. Dutch universities are united in Universities of the Netherlands (UNL), formerly the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU). But how united are they really? Why have they never told the government ‘We refuse to grow more’? If you close ranks, you’re better able to withstand the pressure.”

Some say that international students are sought after because they’re cash cows. Odekerken-Schröder emphatically rejects this view. “Our International Business programme admits a maximum of 750 first-year students”, she explains. “Without that cap, we’d get four times as many. We recruit students for the International Classroom; our focus is on quality.”

There are no winners in this funding system, concludes Huisman. He thinks it would be better if universities received a fixed amount of funding and had fewer students. “So, yes, I’m in favour of a smaller university and selective admissions. Not all of our current students are suitable for their programmes.”


"I feel social pressure to switch to English during council meetings"

“Officially, UM is a bilingual university, but in reality, it’s mostly an English-language university. Just look at the number of English-taught programmes, the increasingly international staff, the language of communication in meetings”, says Claessen. “If you think the use of English is getting out of hand, you’re quickly dismissed as conservative. But I believe that people can express themselves best in their native language. I’ve noticed it myself, too. If I want to express a nuanced idea, I prefer to speak Dutch. But in meetings, almost everyone automatically speaks English without thinking twice about it. I often wonder why.”

Schmeitz, who studies a Dutch-taught programme and lives in a “Dutch bubble”, is a student member of the Faculty Council of Law. He feels “social pressure” to switch to English during council meetings. And he, too, struggles with this when “I want to express a very nuanced idea. It’s just easier in my native language.”

The same thing happens in tutorial meetings, says Boy Houben, associate professor of Internal Medicine and chair of the Faculty Council of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences (FHML). “That goes for both students and tutors. You get less depth. People have to search for words; discussions are more superficial. Giving a lecture is different – you prepare it in advance, it’s about your own field, all the literature is in English.” He says the FHML community doesn’t seem too concerned about the upcoming national election, “neither students nor staff. If the government decides that the Dutch language should play a role in all programmes, our lecturers can easily adjust. It’d be a problem for international students, though.” And ultimately for the university, which would see the number of international students drop.

To return to the language of communication in meetings: Super, who is a student member of the FSE Faculty Council, believes that everyone should be able to participate. Meetings should therefore be held in English, the language all students and staff understand. He brings up the issue of the FHML Faculty Council (see box), which holds meetings in Dutch despite the fact that one of its student members doesn’t speak the language. “She’s being excluded. They can’t do that. It’s a democratic body of a university with a lot of international students.” Houben, chair of the FHML Faculty Council, says it’s an “unfortunate situation” for which the council has found the best possible solution “for now” (see box under this text).


"If you don’t know what bitterballen and Sinterklaas are after spending four years here, something’s wrong"

UM requires international employees to reach B1-level Dutch. Moatsos (SBE) was unaware of this clause until he actually read it in the contract. “No one told me about it during the recruitment process. I don’t feel the need and I don’t have time for it either to learn Dutch from my own initiative. But if it’s required, I’ll do it.” 

“It’s part of your commitment”, says Odekerken-Schröder. “Even if you’re only here for four years, it’s nice if you can make yourself understood on the bus, at yoga class or in a shop. If you don’t know what bitterballen, Sinterklaas and stroopwafels are after spending four years in the Netherlands, something’s wrong. UM gives you the opportunity to learn a new language for free. It’s part of being a good employer.”

Houben couldn’t agree more. “If you move to a country, don’t you want to participate in its society? Don’t you want to integrate into the culture? Besides, knowing the language makes you more likely to stay.”

Claessen thinks the language policy should be more strictly enforced. “UM has taken away every incentive. That said, permanent international staff does make an effort to understand Dutch, exceptions aside. I don’t want to be accused of excluding people; I don’t do that. But if UM wants to be a bilingual university, it should put its money where its mouth is.”

Having joined UM in 2019, Janosch Prinz now speaks fluent Dutch. “When I signed my contract, it said that I’d have to reach B1-level Dutch within three years. That was the last I heard of it until two weeks ago, when I got an email saying that FASoS will begin enforcing the policy. They gave us two years to learn the language.” He didn’t need the external motivation. “I wanted to integrate into the culture, get to know it, and learning the language was fundamental to that. I’m from Germany, so I had it relatively easy. I studied a lot during the pandemic, together with my American wife, who also works at UM. After that, I practiced a lot. Is it a good policy? B1-level Dutch is not sufficient for teaching and research, but it’s sufficient for chatting over drinks, at the school playground or in the supermarket. I’d like to keep improving so that I can teach in Dutch as well. No language is neutral; each language offers its own perspective on the world and therefore on research.”

Wendy Degens, Riki Janssen

Observant interviewed a total of nine UM employees and students to see if they are concerned about the possible consequences of the upcoming Dutch general election on 22 November. Certain political parties are highly critical of the increased use of English in higher education, and a lot could change if they came to power.

For reasons that are not entirely clear to us, many of the international employees we approached declined to be interviewed. Students weren’t exactly queuing up to share their thoughts, either. Some told us they didn’t know enough about the topic, whereas others simply said “No comment”.

During University Council meetings in the previous academic year, there were repeated discussions about international employees feeling increasingly out of place in the Netherlands because of the political debate on the internationalisation of higher education. Despite our efforts, we were unable to find any international employees who no longer feel at home here.

English vs Dutch in the Faculty Council

This academic year, a Czech student was elected to the Faculty Council of the Faculty of Health, Medicine & Life Sciences (FHML). The council has always communicated in Dutch, and most of its documents are written in Dutch. But this student doesn’t speak, read or understand Dutch. What now?

The student’s fellow party members (NovUM) have already raised the issue twice in the University Council over the past few months. In September, student council member Andrew Scrivener addressed Vice President of the Executive Board Nick Bos: “Isn’t it absurd that someone who was elected by the student body cannot perform her duties because she doesn’t speak the language? I think it’s safe to assume that everybody in the room speaks English.” In reply, Bos pointed out that UM is a bilingual university, and faculty councils are free to choose their language of communication. “At the same time, it’s important that everyone understands what is being said.” Students who don’t speak Dutch should get “all possible support”, said Bos, such as English summaries of important documents. But he also advises these students to learn Dutch.

The student in question, Olga Kosjakova, raised the issue with the chair and vice chair of the FHML Faculty Council, Iwan de Jong and Boy Houben. “It’s an unfortunate situation”, comments Houben. “Apparently, the student didn’t know that we hold meetings in Dutch. The council has discussed it, and several members feel that it’s more challenging to have discussions in English, especially when it comes to complex issues like the budget or things outside your area of expertise. They prefer to communicate in Dutch.” Eventually, it was decided that Dutch will remain the primary language of communication and Kosjakova can raise her questions in English. Her fellow student party member in the council can bring her up to speed on discussions and documents, which will also continue to be written in Dutch. “There are simply too many documents to translate. We’ve asked the faculty board, but they don’t have the resources. There are too many vacancies in the communications department.” Houben suggests using machine translation software, “but a budget plan of more than a hundred pages is a different story”.

While Kosjakova understands that most council members prefer to conduct meetings in their native language, “in an academic/professional environment, I believe you should communicate in a language that everyone understands. As an elected student representative, I would like to be able to follow everything. I can’t follow four-hour meetings in Dutch. For me, it would be best if important documents were translated into English and spontaneous discussions took place partly in English.” “That’s what happens when she raises a question”, responds Houben.

What do taxpayers pay for?

FSE dean Thomas Cleij seems irritated by the notion that Dutch taxpayers pay for the education of international students. “Anyone who believes that should take a moment to think about who they’re paying for. You’re paying for my salary and that of my colleagues, the people who teach, clean, do research, and so on. People tend to forget that students contribute much more to the economy than they cost. They live here, go out for drinks here, go shopping, eat at restaurants, you name it. Moreover, quite a few students end up staying, especially in science and engineering fields. By ‘delivering’ graduates, universities also make it more attractive for international companies like Medtronic and ASML to stay in the Netherlands. It’s actually a great deal – these young people have been educated elsewhere for 18 years, then we educate them for a few more years and then they stay here. If you look at it objectively, without feelings and opinions, you can’t be against internationalisation.”

His colleague Frank Huisman at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences sees it a bit differently. In his view, Dutch taxpayers do “end up paying for the education of international students. The EU wants free movement of persons and student exchanges; let the EU pay for it.”

What do the parties say?

Observant looked at the manifestos of the highest polling parties to find out where they stand on internationalisation and/or the language of instruction in higher education.


The People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) deems the current influx of “student migrants” to be too high and unchecked. They want more control over who comes to study in the Netherlands. “Educational institutions should be able to restrict the number of places available for international students.” In restricting the influx of international students, the party does aim to take regional circumstances into account. VVD wants bachelor’s programmes to be taught in Dutch, unless the industry, discipline or society necessitates English-language instruction.


New Social Contact (NSC) advocates for restricting the number of international students in the Netherlands by tying it to factors such as the availability of housing and university places in university cities. “This can be differentiated by region and sector.” NSC also wants to make Dutch the standard language of instruction at universities. Additionally, the party wants to introduce a waiting period for EU students to qualify for financial support in the Netherlands and require these students to work a lot more than the current requirement of at least 32 hours per month. The latter would require EU rules to be amended.


The left-wing coalition of GroenLinks and the Labour Party (PvdA) calls for an overhaul of the current funding system, proposing that educational institutions receive bigger fixed budgets while reducing student-based budgeting. They aim to tighten the Higher Education and Research Act (WHW) to encourage programmes to be more deliberate about their choice of language of instruction. “We expect closer ministerial supervision.”


The Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) aims to restrict the influx of international students by changing the business model of higher education. However, the BBB manifesto states that international students who are deemed to “add value” to the Dutch economy are welcome, provided that sufficient housing is available.


The Party for Freedom (PVV) advocates for fewer international students in the Netherlands. “We will restrict student migration by offering bachelor’s programmes exclusively in Dutch and capping the number of international students in master’s programmes.”

Author: Redactie

Photo: Joey Roberts

Tags: elections,omtzigt,nsc,vvd,pvv,bbb,groenlinks,pvda,internationalisation,bilingual,political parties,english,students,instagram


Lea Bilic

Instead of coming together as a bilingual university to improve UM, the situation in FHML Council is an example of polarisation and exclusion under the excuse of bilingualism. There is a democratically elected student who is being stripped of her opportunity to represent students at the faculty council level and perform her duties. Budget training, documents, discussions etc. are all in Dutch and the FHML Council Chair is unwilling to facilitate her participation. It’s unreasonable to state that “if she raises a question, we respond in English” because how can she even raise relevant questions when she cannot understand what is discussed? Excuses are thrown around while a discriminatory practice persists. It sets a bad tone for the international students who would like to participate the FHML faculty council in the future, but don’t speak Dutch. It also creates tension between Dutch vs non Dutch speakers because it shows that if you don’t speak Dutch, there is no space for you at FHML council. Your rights, opinions and concerns will only he addressed if they can be expressed in Dutch. The point of bilingualism is inclusion not exclusion. Therefore, is heartbreaking to see a person in a position of authority continue this treatment. As a University Council member of NovUM, we will continue to take action and use all the tools at our disposal until Olga is allowed to fulfil her representative duties.

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