The perspective of Vietnamese student Thao Lam (left) on internationalisation is rosy

Why internationalisation should not come to a halt

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The debate the internationalisation of Dutch universities hits close to  home for Thao Lam. The Vietnamese student studied in Amsterdam and Utrecht. She claims the Dutch economy, culture and higher education all benefit from openness. “The difference that international students can bring is enormous.”

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My name is Thao Lam and I’m an international master’s student from Vietnam. For the past five years I was fortunate enough to call the Netherlands home, having pursued my undergraduate study at Amsterdam University College and my master’s degree in Toxicology and Environmental Health at Utrecht University Graduate School of Life Sciences. Currently, I’m a research intern at the Department of Environmental Health, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. Having led an international life, I appreciate my time in the Netherlands and hope to come back in August for a doctoral degree in Epidemiology.

My journey as an international student started exactly ten years ago when I took my first flight overseas to the sunny island of Singapore. After four fruitful years of secondary education, I decided to come to the Netherlands in 2013. Even though the two countries are oceans apart, my experiences have been quite similar: I always found myself in an international classroom with fellow students from diverse backgrounds, each with a different perspective on things. As a liberal arts and science student at Amsterdam University College, I have always taken this international environment for granted: after all, our motto was “Excellence and Diversity in a Global City”. But that was also why the recent calls for reconsideration of internationalisation (internationalisering) of Dutch universities hit close to home. Specifically: quality, sustainability and desirability of the growing English programmes are being questioned, especially where the national budget for education is concerned.

Internationalisation should be perceived as an expansion of budget

According to the opponents, universities are Anglicizing for the sake of squeezing out the budget without any clear vision nor rationale for doing so. However, reality is not just a duality of either English or Dutch-taught programmes, neither is it about having one at the expense of the other. Internationalisation should be perceived as an expansion and not as a rebalancing of budget, which could be made possible by increasing in both the number of non-subsidized students and their tuition fees. After all, it is a balance of supply or demand, and while it is true that education should not be a commodity, internationalisation does have several financial and non-financial benefits in the long run. In the aftermath of Brexit, the Netherlands stands a very good chance of attracting international resources including companies, organizations, human capitals, etc. as exemplified by the relocation of the European Medicines Agency headquarter to Amsterdam earlier this year. On top of that, the European Commission recently proposeddoubling the budget for education and research through programmes such as Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020. The scaling back of international education, especially on English-taught programmes, would prove a missed opportunity for the increasingly globalized Dutch economy.

I have found no major differences in standards of English

There are also concerns that Anglicization (verengelsing) of education would reduce the quality of teaching due to a language barrier. This argument underestimates two things: the linguistic abilities of the Dutch and the contributions by  the increasingly international teaching staff. In Singapore, most of my teachers had come from neighbouring Malaysia, Indonesia, mainland China or the Philippines; for whom English served as a second or third language. Grammatical and spelling mistakes are inevitable, but minor for understanding the content of the lectures. Even when English is localized- either in the form of Singlish (in Singapore) or Dunglish (in the Netherlands)- its functionality as a medium to communicate across countries remains. Therefore, increasing usage of English in academia and education far outweighs short-term, minor issues of proficiency. Personally, I have found no major differences in standards of English delivered by my Dutch teachers in the Netherlands compared to other, even native teachers in Singapore, Dublin or Boston. In fact, English-taught programmes in the Netherlands are regarded highly by both local students and international students from native English-speaking countries. Lastly, international programmes do attract teaching staff from all over the world, who do not only contribute to an overall higher English standard but also to the overall quality of education since universities are able to recruit from a greater pool of candidates.

The exclusionist thought is ironic and sad

Next to economic arguments, the worthiness of internationalisation is also being debated on cultural grounds. On the one hand, proponents are trying to push the boundary of education by English-taught programmes, international research collaboration and ultimately an exportable knowledge-based economy. Its desirability among students is evident in the most recent NSE results which showed that most students wished their universities were more internationally oriented than the status quo. Moreover, internationalisation has been said to improve socialization, personal development and qualification. Opponents, on the other hand, are concerned with more domestic problems, mostly looking inwards into how this would affect internal stability, especially among the non-English speaking population of the country. They further argue that English usage would reduce local engagement in Dutch culture, media and politics. Moreover, there are fears of international students outcompeting local students in admission and in theworkplace.

Implicit in these arguments is the exclusionist thought that the Dutch society, including education and the job market, should be structured to cater to Dutch(-speaking) people alone. This is ironic and sad given that the country and especially the city of Amsterdam have always been an embodiment of a metropolitan, one that does not only tolerate but also embrace differences and diversity. And the difference that international students can bring is enormous: their refreshing perspectives, perseverance, and adaptability contribute to greater quality of educational and research output, and at the same time add to an open and friendly society. For example, the international presence in liberal arts colleges helped change the 6.0 mentality (zesjescultuur): Dutch university students feel more comfortable being explicit about their ambitions in pursuing excellence, an attitude that was usually frowned upon in their earlier education. International students, in return, learn from their Dutch peers to lead a more co-operative, balanced and well-rounded life. Beyond being mere job competitors, international students can actually help solve deficits in the Dutch job market, especially in healthcare and technical fields. However, this symbiosis is only possible when there is a mutual recognition that international students can bring added values and are not just a financial burden to the Dutch education system.   

I agree that education should be planned in a sustainable fashion in terms of finance, curriculum and the potential output for the Dutch job market as a whole. I absolutely agree that some sectors of education should remain in Dutch so as to satisfy particular societal functions and public engagement. However, education and research in business, engineering, natural and life sciences and the liberal arts, among others, are already benefitting greatly from an international learning environment. I hope this visionary hard-earned success will not be easily hampered by populist fears.  

Sources:

-'European Commission proposes budget increase  for research, innovation and higher education onderzoek'
-Internationaliseringsagenda of the association of universities VSNU en the association of universities of applied sciences, Vereniging Hogescholen
-Nationale Studenten Enquête 201

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