Below is a guest column I wrote that appeared in the February 2013 issue of The International Correspondent, a journal published from the Netherlands. This draws from my experience working in two Dutch universities and a longer association with universities in the United States. Reader’s comments are welcome.
The Future of Internationalization in Dutch Higher Education
According to a report published by the Netherlands Organization for International Cooperation in Higher Education (NUFFIC) last year, the number of international students studying at Dutch universities has grown steadily over the past five years. The number of German students, who make up nearly half of the 56,000 or so international students on Dutch campuses, are growing, as are those from other big-sending countries – China, Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece, the United Kingdom, Italy and France.
But will the growing internationalization of the student body on Dutch campuses continue in the medium and longer term? Also, will they have the intended benefits for the universities or for the Dutch society and economy?
A number of factors will affect this trend. For one, the number of students enrolling in massively open online courses (MOOCs) has grown very rapidly in the past year. Top research universities, primarily in the U.S., have joined one consortia or another in offering their courses to hundreds of thousands of students from around the world for free. Although the business models surrounding the current MOOCs initiatives remain undeveloped, the rising cost of higher education and cuts in public funding to universities worldwide mean that innovations such as MOOCs are here to stay. Over the longer term, they will shake up the league tables in higher education – perhaps making a number of higher education institutions redundant. This could also trigger the collapse of the current model of university research being subsidized by student tuitions, and a possible disaggregation of the learning/teaching component from the credentialing of students for employment. Dutch universities will not remain unaffected by these changes.
Second, demographic shifts in other countries will affect international student numbers in the Netherlands. Europe, the source of 60% of the international students in the Netherlands, is aging. Chinese students make up nearly a quarter of the non-European international students at Dutch universities. But China’s one-child policy will also result in a sharp drop in the number of college-aged students in the coming years.
Moreover, the Netherlands does not systematically assess the academic quality of its international students. Rising international student enrolment does not necessarily enrich the campus learning environments or add to the talent pool feeding the local economy. With cuts in public funding, universities in the Netherlands will likely attract international students hoping to secure more tuition money, instead of their potential to excel. Such short-termism would greatly harm their future brand value.
These trends offer clues to the way forward for Dutch universities. Dutch universities will succeed if they adapt themselves to changes brought on by the proliferation of MOOCs instead of resisting or ignoring them. They can start by joining one of the global consortia offering MOOCs, innovating in the MOOCs credentialing, and somehow integrating MOOCs into their degree programs. They will also have to reduce dependency on tuition fees to meet their expenditure needs.
For Dutch universities, another key to sustaining future internationalisation and diversity is attracting students from regions of the world with more favourable demographic trends than Europe’s and China’s, including Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. Exploring partnerships with universities in these regions would be a good place to start.
Last but certainly not least, Dutch universities must create admissions criteria based on a student’s intellectual contributions to the campus’ learning environment and its diversity–not merely on how much she/he can pay. International students and scholars should not be seen merely within a mercantilist context, one in which the Dutch export educational services, but rather in a context of global competition. The goal of the latter is to attract and retain top talent from around the world and requires focusing heavily on attracting international talent in research and knowledge creation instead of merely attracting self-paying international students looking for affordable higher education.