Hans de Wit's blog

Shifting Views on International Students and Teaching in English in the Netherlands

While, elsewhere in the world, universities compete fiercely with each other to attract international students and increase the number of courses taught in English, in the Netherlands—a country that has been on the forefront on these two issues over the past two decades—an intense debate is taking place in politics, in the media, and in the higher education sector itself, on the risks and challenges related to the increasing international commodification of higher education.

Dutch higher education has the highest percentage of courses taught in English among non-English speaking countries and has seen its number of international students increase every year, to a total of 112.000 in 2016–2017, the majority coming from Germany followed, far behind, by China. Dutch higher education also received permission from the former government to engage in cross-border operations, as long as no public funding is invested in them and there are sufficient guarantees of academic freedom. All in all, the picture looks bright, in particular compared to other countries such as the United States, where the combination of a changed political climate and the high cost of study threatens international student recruitment. But, over the past months, an intense debate has emerged in the Netherlands about the effects of these developments.

Opening a Branch Campus in China

Current plans by the University of Groningen to open a branch campus in Yantai, China, are fiercely opposed by students and academics within the university as well as the media and some political parties. High costs, a lack of interest from Groningen faculty to teach there, fear that the project will distract the university from addressing quality issues at home, and concerns about academic freedom, are the main points of discussion. Whether the university council will support the leadership’s plans in China remains to be seen.

Teaching in English

The increased number of courses taught in English is also being questioned by Dutch academics, students, the media, and political parties. The leading conservative party in government is advocating a massive increase in the recruitment of international students. Last year, amid heavy protest from the academic community, Pieter Duisenberg, the conservative party’s higher education spokesperson in parliament, was appointed president of the Dutch Universities Association, signalling a support for that policy. But other political parties, the media, and representatives of student and faculty groups have begun to question this pressure to increase the number of courses taught in English. Psychology students at Radboud University in Nijmegen protested the fact that they had to take courses in English, even though they had selected a program taught in Dutch. A Danish (!) faculty member at the same university criticized the fact that her master’s students had to use the English translation of Vondel, a classical Dutch author, in their master theses. Last September, Annette de Groot, a retiring psychology professor at the University of Amsterdam, made this issue the topic of her farewell lecture under the title “Dutch required!” These are just a few of many cases that caught media attention.

The issue is not so much that English is used as a language of instruction; what is questioned is the presumed inevitability of English “in our age of globalization” and the potential impact on the quality of teaching. A 2017 study by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences addressed some of these issues. In a balanced way, the study raises issues of quality, implications for the labor market, participation, and social impact. The academy recommends that the language of instruction must be a conscious choice. It also recommends that, although language policy is set at the institutional level, the language of instruction is best decided at the department or program level, with due consideration for the nature of the program of study, the educational resources to be used, the specific profession for which students are being trained, and so on. It states that institutions must be aware of the associated costs and benefits, opportunities and risks, and advantages and disadvantages. And the decision to use a particular language of instruction should be firmly anchored in a language and internationalization policy.

The study has been well received by the higher education community in the Netherlands, since it provides a balanced and nuanced approach to teaching in English, compared to the polarizing debate taking place in the media. But it remains to be seen whether its recommendations will help slow momentum towards more English language incorporation or if those opposing the use of English will be satisfied.

More International Students?

The issue of international student recruitment was also heavily debated in 2017. In the first place, it was related to the issue of the increasing use of English in study programs. Second, due to the lack of sufficient services to support those students, in particular, accommodation, also in short supply for local students. And, third, because of the increasing student/teacher ratio. From 2012 to 2016, overall enrollment grew by 11 percent, while the number of teachers only grew by 6 percent. To a large extent, the growth in the student population is the result of growing numbers of international students. This has led to serious concerns about the quality of teaching.

In reaction to all these developments, the rector of the University of Amsterdam— a key institution in numbers of both international students and courses taught in English—addressed the need to limit internationalization in her anniversary address to the university. Karen Maex, a Belgian national, made her speech in English and stated that the University of Amsterdam is at risk of becoming a hostage to its success in internationalization, stating, “What we spend too little time thinking about is the optimal balance on three different levels: the balance between Dutch and international students; the balance between English and Dutch in the wider university environment; and the balance between programs taught in Dutch and English.” Maex made an appeal for a more balanced international approach, less dependence on international (in particular German) students and asked the new minister of education to address these challenges and limits in her new strategy of internationalization of higher education.

Setting Limits and Focusing on Quality

In an increasingly polarized world, a nuanced approach is important. Internationalization should not be a debate about the numbers of programs taught in English, international students, or branch campuses. The discussion should be about why, what, how, and when, focusing on improving the quality of higher education. The address of the rector of the University of Amsterdam and the study of the Academy of Sciences are important signals on how the higher education community should address the limits and effects of internationalization. Opponents on both sides in the Netherlands—in the media, politics and academic circles—should give up extreme positions and pay greater attention to issues related to relevance and quality. The minister of education should not succumb to pressures and take an extreme stand. And other countries should follow the debate and its outcomes closely.


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Shifting Views on International Students <br>and Teaching in English in the Netherlands
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Tuesday, January 23, 2018
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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Walls in Unexpected Places

The news since November 8 has been both confusing and shocking. The election of Donald Trump came as a tsunami for the higher education community in the US and elsewhere in the world. The election results in the US followed the growing trend of nationalist populism in countries like Hungary, Israel, Poland, Turkey, The Philippines with similar movements growing stronger in Austria, Italy, France and The Netherlands. But polls and the seemingly self-destructive nature of Trump’s campaign distracted many of us from another half of America’s population — many individuals who didn’t share our values and concerns, just as much as we didn’t understand theirs. Globalization, for a long time perceived by the anti-globalists as negative, neo-liberal and for greater profit, has gradually and silently become confused with a progressive agenda to save the planet, at least for many of us who see ourselves as cosmopolitan global citizens, advocate for the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, and are connected to our peers around the world by technology. We seem to have overlooked our local neighbours who were not as comfortable or secure to feel the same way and Trump’s election is a wake-up call to recognize that global and local must go hand in hand.  

Where Trump’s election, like Brexit and other anti-globalist trends, has become synonymous with anti-immigration, building walls and the inevitable decline in international student and scholar mobility, the 2016 Open Doors report showed a different picture: 1 million international students are now in the US with an increase in American students studying abroad.  These are record numbers! What do these conflicting realities tell us about prospects for the future? Do we foresee that these record numbers will now decline or stagnate for at least the coming four years? Will international students (be forced to) go to our northern neighbors in Canada, no longer as welcome in the US and UK where there are strong anti-immigrant movements?

Who will be the beneficiaries and losers going forward? We may assume that the Ivy League universities in the US and the UK will not be affected by recent developments or populist movements, rather it will be those universities located in more remote areas with lower rankings that will most likely have trouble attracting international students.  At the same time domestic students might be less enthusiastic about exploring the dangerous world outside their home country, not to mention the lack of support from their anxious parents. Institutions located in areas with low employment and low enrolments, are most likely to be the losers in the near term when they lose the significant revenue that international students represent. Trump and his supporters might be shooting themselves in the foot with their anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The growing dysfunctionality of globalization

On Thursday, November 10, without much advanced notice, Canada introduced a new online visa application for non US-citizens, eTA, similar to ESTA, online screening used by the US[lr1]  to register inbound foreign visitors. One has to wonder why Canada, generally seen as an exception to the international trend of growing xenophobia and increased anti-immigration policies around the world, suddenly decided to do this. Did they not recently sign a free trade agreement with the European Union and have they not announced that as of December 1, Mexicans will no longer need a visa to enter the country? It might be that the Canadian government intended only to get a better grip on incoming mobility. Fine, but then they might have implemented this increased screening in a more customer friendly way or at least have employed better technology to make it possible to obtain the visa quickly at the departure airport.   

My personal experience with this seemingly abrupt policy to make the Canadian border tighter, cost me a flight to Ottawa where I was scheduled to present a keynote at the 50th anniversary conference of the Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE), on the topic (of all things!) of the implications of Brexit and US elections for Canadian higher education. After three attempts (!) over 7 hours to secure the visa, I was finally successful, but too late to arrive at the conference in time for my presentation. So much for national security.

The irony of the story is that while my American and European friends were teasing me when I told them that I was traveling to Canada after the election, asking, “Are you going to emigrate to Canada because of Trump?”, the first country to deny me access is (supposedly) the most welcoming country for immigrants and refugees in the world.

These are confusing times! Yet, I remain more concerned about Trump by Trudeau!


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The Increasing Dominance of English

Teaching in English was introduced in Dutch research universities, and later also in universities of applied sciences, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was the result of increasing cooperation and student exchange in the framework of European programs, in particular Erasmus, and bilaterally with other countries. The University of Amsterdam was the first to introduce teaching in English, and I played an active role as senior international officer and later as vice-president for internationalization. To exchange students and scholars with universities in other countries, a research university in a country with a language as little used as Dutch would have to offer a package of courses in the most widely spoken second language in the world, English. This had a very positive impact on both our incoming and outgoing student flows.

Other research universities soon followed. And in addition to offering a selection of modules, the universities introduced full degree programs in English, mainly at the graduate level. Since then, every so often there is a debate in the academic community, the media and in politics on the increasing dominance of English in Dutch higher education, its commercial motives, its lack of quality, and the fear of loss of Dutch language and culture as a result. This is in itself a valuable, but, most of the time, the discussion lacks nuance.

As Times Higher Education wrote (see also Inside Higher Education), 60 percent of courses in Dutch research universities are now taught in English, and for the master level it is 70 percent. The engineering universities in Delft and Eindhoven stand out with 100 percent of their graduate courses taught in English. The Universities of Groningen and Maastricht call themselves bilingual universities.

This increase in the use of English is not welcomed by everybody. As I wrote in The World View last year, teaching in English is a contentious debate not only in the Netherlands but also elsewhere, from the smaller European countries to bigger ones like Germany, France, and Italy—as well as in China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia. In Italy, where a few years ago the rector of the Politecnico di Milano, following his Dutch colleagues from Delft and Eindhoven, announced the shift from Italian to English for all graduate education, the issue is still waiting a court decision. Rankings, reputation, and competition are mentioned as the main drivers for this shift to English, which is already quite a common language for research.  

Opponents criticize the trend to commercialize higher education through the recruitment of international students and scholars, according to them the main reason for teaching in English. Those in favor emphasize the importance of an international classroom environment. Bastiaan Verweij, a spokesman at the Netherlands’ Association of Universities, that represents the interests of the country’s 14 research universities, told Times Higher Education that the elements that make up an international classroom include “a good mix of students from home and abroad and an approach to content that integrates the students’ cultural backgrounds into the teaching.”

These two arguments, commercialization and international classroom, are not in themselves in conflict with each other, but I notice that in several countries, for instance Russia, Korea, and Japan, teaching in English is indeed driven by the recruitment of international students—but international students are rarely placed in classrooms with local students and local faculty, who may not have enough knowledge of English to participate in an international classroom. In such cases, one can wonder about the added value of teaching in English, other than to generate income and try to move up in the rankings, based on quantitative indicators and not qualitative arguments. In the Dutch universities, this is not the case.

Quality is an argument used by both opponents and defenders of teaching in English. The first refer to the fact that teaching in another language than your mother language reduces the quality of transmission of knowledge, due  to the poor levels of language skill of local teachers, students and international students, none of whom have English as their mother tongue. The Dutch, a population always rather critical about its own qualities, have even a word for it: “Steenkolenengels” (“coal English”), which finds its origin in the rudimentary communication of port workers with English coal ship crews at the beginning of the twentieth century. ‘Dunglish’ is another word used in this context. My experience is that most foreigners, also those with English as their mother language, are very positive about our language skills in general, and about our mastery of English in particular. My Dutch countrymen instead tend to be very critical about other Dutch using English, while, in my opinion, participating in a scholarly debate in a language other than your mother tongue is a brave, stimulating and rewarding endeavor.

Those opposing the use of English in teaching should consider the following counter argument: in surveys, international students do not complain so much about the quality of the English of non-native, English-speaking teachers, but more about the quality of the English of native English-speakers, who tend to speak too fast, often with a dialect and who tend to dominate during discussions. On the other hand, non-native English-speakers who have to read and make presentations in English, often take—in my experience—much more effort to prepare and express themselves clearly, than those whose mother tongue is English.  

The quality of the language of communication in an international classroom is a central issue, concerning both the teacher and the students. In Times Higher Education, Verwey enhances that: “Of course, it is important to continuously work on the improvement of English teaching skills.” Yet it is too simple to say that “the presence of international students produces a more ambitious study culture, which acts as a major impetus for improving the quality of teaching,” and that “the international study programs will in turn enhance the quality of education itself.” This requires serious attention and action. To teach in regular classes in Dutch universities, teachers are required to get a certificate indicating their qualification as a teacher. Likewise, a special certificate is needed for teaching in an international classroom, as recommended in a study about Internationalization at home by EP-Nuffic, the Dutch agency responsible for international cooperation in education.

To conclude, it is my opinion that, in the Netherlands and elsewhere, there has emerged a trend to move from teaching in the local language to English, but in most cases the move lacks a serious debate about the why, what, and how, as well as about the assumed qualitative outcomes of such a measure. To teach in English only because it is assumed to be needed for reputation, rankings, and to beat competition is too simple and too risky. Universities should be more cautious and strategic about the need and consequences of teaching in English. It is not a matter of doing so because others do it and needing to be part of the game. But when done well and based on clear rationales, it can indeed contribute to a higher quality of teaching and learning.



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Commercialization and Fraud in International Student Recruitment

Over the past weeks a series of reports and articles have circulated addressing issues related to the increased numbers of international students coming to the US. It is important to look at those publications together to gain perspective on the commercial (and potentially corrupt) activities resulting from the trend.

During the NAFSA conference in Denver, May 28 - June 2, 2016, a Bridge/StudentMarketing survey was released indicating that 37 percent of U.S. institutions are now using recruitment agents, a significant increase from previous studies that showed the use of agents in the 20-30 percent range. The institutions that work with them report that on average, 22 percent of their international students are recruited through agencies. The average number of agent partners per institution is 33..

These are remarkable, if not shocking, data. International education in the US, as in Australia and the UK, has apparently become an industry, in which international marketing and recruitment is increasingly outsourced to commercial operators.

Interestingly, while the use of agents is rapidly increasing, more than 70 percent of institutions in the survey expressed concern about possible fraud when working with commission-based intermediaries. The top three reasons not to use agents that resulted from the survey are: a lack of trust of agents, the reputational risk posed by working with third-party agents and financial reasons. The lack of accountability, integrity and transparency are all seen as major concerns. Apparently there are universities that are still strongly reluctant to use agents – either because they are confident that that international students will enroll anyway and/or because of ethical concerns.

The trend towards reliance on intermediaries is evident in another report presented at the NAFSA conference—The Landscape of Pathway Partnerships in the US. More than half (56%) of the 45 universities analysed in this report are not ranked by the US News and World Reports. “Given that many international students consider rankings in their decision-making process, some of these institutions struggle to attract international students,” said Rahul Choudaha, CEO of DrEducation and principal researcher of the report. Ironically, the survey indicated that that 12 percent of the institutions that don’t work directly with agents are working with third-party English as a second language or pathway providers that contract agents to recruit students on their behalf. In other words, there is a direct relation between the increase in pathway programs and use of agents by universities, particularly those that are not highly ranked— in other words, the institutions most likely to be confronting the increased demographic and economic pressures resulting from a dwindling local market and that are making up shortfalls by pursuing international enrollment.

The New York Times recently illustrated the risks of using commercial agents and pathway programs by highlighting the case of Western Kentucky University, that has used an Indian agency to recruit students from that country, evidently, without adequate quality control. As a result, 25 students out of 60 graduate students recruited through that channel had to be sent home, as they did not meet the program requirements.

Another example of how easily agents exploit the current situation for financial gain was demonstrated when Homeland Security announced recently that it had created a fake university in 2013 to tackle visa fraud and uncover a network of individuals using supposed university enrollment as a means to live and work in the US . As a result of the sting, 21 persons, recruiting agents, were arrested, with 1,076 international students involved.

What do these reports and incidents tell us? The competition for international students is becoming more intense, more commercial, more-frequently outsourced, and with increased risk of corruption. Universities and students are both actors and victims of this development, in particular institutions that are not highly ranked and less-competitive and less-sophisticated international students. What is the solution? It would be in the interest of governments, universities and students if the participation of commercial recruiters, for-profit pathway providers and other intermediate businesses would be stopped. This is not likely to happen. An increasing number of commercial enterprises, international students and universities at the lower end of the higher education hierarchy are using loopholes and the current lack of oversight to engage in varying degrees of fraud, contributing to a mismatch between students and institutions and (ultimately) to the decreased quality of education at the institutions involved. It is good that Homeland Security is focusing on corrupt recruiters, that faculty of Western Kentucky University and similar institutions are taking action against these practices, that two-third of US universities still do not use agents, and that most international students are not seduced by the temptation of commercial recruiters. But by addressing the gaps in visa regulations and by being more aware of the dangers of commercialization, governments and universities could spare international students the risks of being misled and (worse) the risk of legal repercussions.



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Internationalization, more than revenue

Over the past weeks some interesting commentaries have been made about the state of internationalization and the dominance of international student recruitment. In his article in University World News, (based on his inaugural Burton R Clark Lecture at the UCL Institute of Education’s Centre for Global Higher Education) Gary Rhoades notes that in a study of six universities in the UK, US and South Africa that “ the four UK and US universities studied are setting their sights on the same privileged populations of well-resourced students from China and India interested in the private purposes and consumption value of higher education.” In contrast, he observes that South African universities “clearly evidence an orientation to regional student markets as well as to contributing to nation and continent building for South Africa and for Africa, partly by serving as an intellectual hub and partly by engaging in projects aimed at enhancing life in the region.” He concludes: “ the “academic capitalism” that is expressed in recruiting international students for revenue is turning universities away from their public purpose, including the public good of internationalisation aimed at enhancing the collective quality of life for communities locally, nationally and globally.”

The strong focus on recruiting international students for revenue generation as the key rationale for internationalization is not unique to the four universities of the UK and US he studied, but is manifest in many other universities as well as national policies. Governments and international agencies such as IDP in Australia and associations such as  NAFSA in the US, proudly publish figures touting the economic contribution international students make to national and institutional revenue in their country.

South Africa, mentioned by Gary Rhoades as a positive exception, was not unique until recently. While the UK and Australia have for more than 40 years had a policy to see international students as a source of revenue, other countries treated them the same as their own students. Only over the past decade can we see other countries moving in the direction of the UK, US,and Australia. Canada, The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and recently Finland have started to introduce full cost fees for international students. Germany and Norway are two of the few exceptions among the developed countries.

The role of higher education in capacity building and as a public good in the international context is more common in the developing world than in the so-called North, but one can wonder if the emerging economies, such as the BRICS, will continue in that vein that much longer— Russia is beginning to look to international students as a source of revenue.

In an interesting statement in Pienews, Vicenzo Raimo, Pro-Vice-chancellor of Global Engagement at the University of Reading states that “it’s clear that too often internationalization within our universities is too narrowly defined as the inward mobility of international students, and then generally only for the economic benefit they bring.” 

In whatever country or region of the world where I discuss the internationalization of higher education, there is always a discrepancy between what governments and institution leaders express—development of global citizenships, internationalization for all— and what they do. The main focus is almost always on the recruitment of international students and (related to this policy) to develop programs in English and increase their position in the international rankings. What contribution they make to the public good by doing so and how it helps their local students to become global citizens remains in doubt.  One can wonder if in the long run this focus on revenue generation from elite, rich international students is sustainable. The development of higher education capacity in the developing world, the political and economic instability, the limited capacity of families that can afford international education, all make the long-term predictability of revenue generation pretty uncertain and certainly, unstable. Recent data from China show already a slowing of the growth in students going abroad.

Study abroad is important, in general, and certainly for developing countries. But with a focus on revenue generation, only a very small elite will benefit, and from a capacity building perspective that is not enough and also not wise. It can only be hoped that in the end the higher education sector becomes aware, in the words of Vincenzo Raimo, that “if we want longer term sustainability then we need a more encompassing approach which thinks about the curricula and our environment and how relevant they are to the communities of staff and students we welcome to our universities, and how they and we support all of them in developing a wider perspective on the world.” It cannot be repeated enough, internationalization should be much more than student recruitment to generate revenue. 


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Measure of Internationalization?

The new International Outlook Ranking (IOR), also referred to as the International Universities Ranking, presents quite a different list than the overall World University Rankings (WUR). Very few universities ranked high in one are also listed high in the other— 14 out of the top 25 in the WUR list (six American, six UK, one Canadian, and one Swiss university) are also ranked in the International Outlook Ranking. ETH Zurich is also the only university present in both top 10 lists, although Imperial College London (8th in the WUR and 11th in the International Outlook Ranking) comes close. Only 97 of the top 200 universities in the WUR are included in the International Outlook Ranking. Even more telling: only 45 universities listed among the first 400 in the WUR, have made it to the International Outlook Ranking— Qatar University is in the IOR’s first position but in the 601-800 category in the WUR.

The use of only quantitative three indicators in the International Outlook Ranking— the institution’s proportion of international students; the proportion of international staff; and research papers that have at least one international co-author, explains, to a large extent, these differences. Other important indicators of how international a university is, are not included, such as:

  • the proportion of students studying abroad as part of their home degree (something U-Multirank measures in its ranking of international orientation of universities)
  • the number of strategic partnerships and/or joint or double degree programs
  • the proportion of international research projects/funding 
  • transnational operations
  • reference to the international dimension in the mission of the university

These omissions limit the scope of the ranking and have implications for the results. For instance, including the proportion of students studying abroad would already have a substantive impact on the ranking, because this measure, more than the three used by THE, is the result of a strategic decision. The other three are, at best, a mixture of strategic decision and geography.

In my opinion, location influences the results of the International Outlook Ranking more than an institution's strategic decisions. It does not come as a surprise that universities in small countries with many borders, and universities located close to borders, are listed higher on the ranking. This manifests itself clearly in the positions of the first nine universities in the ranking. Not surprisingly, as a result of their location, these universities have more international students and more international staff than other universities. As for co-authorship, universities in small countries will be more inclined, or will even be forced, to look abroad for co-authors. It would be interesting to study whether the ranking would be different if international students and staff from neighboring countries were not counted. For instance, the presence of German students and scholars in neighboring countries like Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, and Denmark, has a big impact on the number of international students in the universities of those countries.

Maastricht University, a young university, is ranked relatively high, number 14, in the International Outlook Ranking, and even higher if one looks only at the number of international students. This comes from its position on the border with Germany and Belgium, with as a result a very high number of in particular German students and staff. The university could easily pursue a further increase in students and staff from those countries and move up in the THE ranking, but it would be better served by a more diverse and comprehensive approach. And that is something the university – like others — strives for, even though it will not impact their standing in this ranking.

Why does the UK do better than the US in the International Outlook Ranking, and more generally, why are American universities ranked so low? Two reasons might explain the higher ranking of UK universities. In the first place, the proportion of international students at UK institutions is much higher, around 20%, compared to 4.8 percent for the US.  As a proportion of overall international enrollment, US institutions are far below UK universities.  In the second place, UK universities collaborate in EU research projects with institutions from other EU countries, resulting in more internationally co-authored publications. In the US, co-authorship occurs more with domestic colleagues, including international staff already residing in the country.

Besides location, why do several universities not ranked at the top of the WUR, do better in the International Outlook Ranking than universities that are ranked highly in the WUR? And are there possibilities for universities to improve their ranking in the IOR, or is location such a defining factor that no effort can influence? These are relevant questions if we take the three indicators of the THE ranking as definitive for assessing how international a university is. I think that it is more important to look comprehensively at universities as international players, than to focus only on these three indicators.

Universities that have a strong focus on recruiting international students and staff find themselves already high, or can move up, in the International Outlook Ranking. But how much does this really tell us about how international they are? In the long run, an exclusive focus on recruitment of international students and staff is dangerous, as fluctuations in the market can have a positive but also a negative impact as evident in the recent cuts to Brazil’s Science Without Borders program. A more comprehensive approach to internationalization will provide a more significant pay off, as it not only diversifies the student population but benefits all students and staff, inlcluding those who remain local, are not mobile and are overlooked in the current ranking.









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Critical Reflections on 2015 Open Doors Numbers

Nearly one million (974,926 to be exact) international students are now studying in the US, an increase of 10% over last year, and 304.467 American students are going abroad for academic credit, an increase of 5.2%. Remarkable figures were presented by the Institute of International Education in its annual Open Doors survey over 2014-2015.  NAFSA also presented new growth numbers: 373,381 jobs (an increase of 9.8%) and 305 billion dollars (13.8% increase) resulted to the US economy from the presence of international students. These are impressive figures. But some perspective on these data is required and some concern for the future warranted.

The increase in international student numbers came to a large extent from India (29.4%), Saudi Arabia (11.2%) and Brazil (78.2%). China remains the primary sender of international students (nearly 1/3 of all international students and an increase of 10.8%). The only key country showing a serious decline is South Korea (down 6.4%), but still the third largest sender of international students to the US.

What do these figures tell us and how is the US doing in comparison to Europe and other parts of the world? 

Possible fluctuations

In the first place, three countries: China, India and South Korea, still make up 50% of the total number of international students in the US. That is not so different from previous years and makes the US rather sensitive to economic and political fluctuations in these countries.

Secondly, two countries: Saudi Arabia and Brazil, saw substantive growth, but most of their students are funded with government scholarships. This is not the case for other major sending countries, at least not in the same substantive way. There are dark clouds hovering over the future of these two scholarship schemes. The new Saudi government is going to place restrictions and conditions that will limit future access to scholarships, and the Brazilian government has been forced to drastically reduce the budget for its Science Without Borders program. So, it is highly unlikely that numbers from these two countries will continue to grow.

In the third place, the increase from India reflects the stabilization of the rupee after years of steep devaluation, and increased visa restrictions placed by the UK government, previously the main recipient of Indian students. It is uncertain whether this growth will continue. As for China, the slower increase in 2014-2015 over previous years happened even before the downturn of the Chinese economy, so future numbers are not likely to go up again.

Fluctuations from other countries do not portend serious changes to the overall trend. The only country where current realities might have an impact is Syria, but there are currently only 800 Syrian students in the US so if the US would allow more Syrians to come to study, this would have an extremely positive impact on overall numbers, but the reactions from (mainly) Republican governors and members of Congress towards refugees after the recent terrorist acts in Paris make this unlikely. A missed opportunity to use education as an anti-terrorist weapon!

Europe is still seeing increases in the number of international students. No data comparable to Open Doors exists for the region as a whole, but while the percentage of international students in the US is only 4.8% of total enrollment, the average percentage in The Netherlands was 10% of enrollment in 2014-2015. Numbers for the UK and Australia are around 20%. New Zealand showed an increase of 12% this year, 2% more than growth in the US. Sweden, after several years of decline due to the introduction of full-cost fees, has seen a high increase in graduate students, mainly from China and India. More and more countries around the world are targeting international students, so competition is increasing, especially for students from China and India.  While 1 million international students is impressive, as 4.8% of the total, it’s less so!

Study Abroad

The same pattern of issues and concerns applies to the numbers of US students who study abroad for academic credits. The increase in numbers is certainly positive and the campaign to double the numbers is off to a good start with the 5% increase. But the figures also reflect some persistent challenges. In the first place, 53.3% of the students go to Europe and, despite attempts made to diversify destinations, this has not changed from previous years. One might think that the events in Paris will change that, but likely only if more terrorist attacks occur in Europe. Previous attacks in Madrid and London had no serious impact.

Secondly, the duration of study abroad is getting shorter and shorter. Only 3 percent go for a whole academic year while 2/3 go for eight weeks or less.

Thirdly, the dominance of white students continues with only a very small shift,  from 76.3 to 74.3% of the total.

Again, it is good to compare these numbers to what is happening elsewhere. After Europe, the US is still, in raw numbers, the largest sender of students   abroad, but in the percentage of students, participation remains low, around 1.5% of the total enrollment and 10% of graduates.

Countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Norway send far greater percentages abroad, having surpassed 20% of graduates, the target set by the Bologna Ministers of Education.

Internationalizing the Faculty

A third study published during International Education Week, Internationalizing the Tenure Code, by Robin Helms of the American Council on Education (ACE), received less attention and shows that American higher education is less internationalized than the data of IIE and NAFSA seem to indicate. She underscores that faculty are essential to the internationalization process in higher education and an essential condition for campus internationalization is to incentivize and reward them for things such as, integrating international students and study abroad experiences into the curriculum. She found out that teaching with any international reference is rarely considered relevant to tenure and promotion criteria at American universities, “ a trend at odds with institutional goals for internationalization.”

Her study coincides with the conclusions of other studies—not only for the US— that what institutional leaders preach and what numbers pretend to show, not always is an accurate reflection of reality, and that internationalization remains an isolated and marginalized process. As long as we do not stimulate and reward faculty to internationalize their own activities, numbers of mobile students will stay small and the impact of the experience on the quality of education will be minimal.  

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The International Classroom

On October 19, Inside Higher Ed published an essay by Adele Barker, a professor at the University of Arizona, titled, “A professor’s experience with unprepared Chinese students.” She addressed two related questions: “What are all these Chinese students, coming in increasing numbers to the US, doing here in the first place?” and, “Are they getting the education they are expecting?”

Readers may have been surprised or even upset by the first part of her essay, where she describes the lack of English, poor communication skills and limited rationales for studying in the US. In combination with references to cheating and fraud, one might misunderstand her message and intent.

Let me first address the negative perceptions about Chinese student qualifications and motivations with respect to study in the US.

There is indeed evidence of cheating and fraud by Chinese students, as we have similar evidence about this for other international students. American newspapers describe the new inflow of Chinese students as students driving Porsches, Maseratis and Lamborghinis (Boston Globe, 11 October 2015).  It is important to note that there are many similar US students who dress in designer clothes and drive luxury cars, but the very large majority of students enrolled in the US—Chinese and others—study with limited financial means and work hard to get their degree. The reality in a massive higher education system is that some students will have very rich parents, but the large majority do not, whether Chinese, Indian, African, Latino or white Americans. And some get access to our higher education system even if they do not deserve to, whatever selection mechanisms or tests one uses.

When the “push factor” is very high, as is the case with international students and in particular students from countries like China, the students are likely to take chances. Should we blame them for that? Of course, cheating and fraud are not to be tolerated, but as long as our tests and selection mechanisms cannot consistently identify cheaters, and as long as universities (as Adele Barker correctly points out) are inclined to admit large numbers of international students for financial reasons, there will be limited inclination to evaluate the effectiveness of the selection mechanisms. And unqualified national and international students will continue to be admitted, either because revenue is needed or because the applicant cheated the system.

There are three ways for universities to overcome the risk of admitting incoming students without adequate preparation or skills. In the first place, the institutions can invest in more individualized selection systems. When selecting doctoral students and increasingly also master students, we study their dossiers with great attention; we interview them by Skype or FaceTime to evaluate their level of English; and we select only those who we confident are qualified. Given the numbers of candidates at the undergraduate level, this is time consuming and costly, so less practical.

In the second place, we might refer more students to pathway or foundation year programs, where they receive special attention in order to overcome deficiencies in skills, such as English, but also in other areas. Private pathway programs are rapidly expanding and haves become a global industry and an increasing number of universities outsource this process to big companies such as Navitas, Kaplan International Colleges, Study Group, Cambridge Education Group and INTO. According to Studyportals, this is an industry now worth over USD 835 million with more than 1,000 programs worldwide. One might wonder if third-party intervention truly helps to create the right fit between the students and the institutions and programs where they ultimately enroll.

A third solution demands more and better training of the teaching staff to deal with a diverse and international student body. In my experience, deficiencies do not necessarily have to persist throughout the whole study period. Given the high motivation often typical of international students, the large majority study extremely hard, read with great care, and do their utmost to get involved in classroom discussions and assignments. Much research has been done over the years about the integration of international students in the classroom, and a general lesson learned is that the teaching staff is key to the success of this group. Teachers have to understand the implications of cultural diversity, how different students learn and which teaching methods are most familiar to different cultures; they have to learn how to stimulate the quiet students (those who are silent because of limited command of English, their culture or their character) to participate. Professors need appropriate training for this. All this costs money that many universities are not willing, or not able, to invest, despite the benefits they receive from enrolling these students.

For all students, international and national, to be successful and to receive the best education, we should avoid seeing them as “cash cows,” but rather as motivated students in search of a quality education who may need special consideration and support from the institution and professors who receive them. The combination of shrinking public funds, increasing tuition fees and the growing trend to outsource services to commercial operators, decrease the likelihood that students will receive the quality education they seek. Recently a journalist asked me, “Should parents of US students be worried about their investment in the education of their kids, as a consequence of the increased number of Chinese students in their classrooms?” I could only answer, “Yes, but the parents of the Chinese students should perhaps be worried even more, because they are paying even more money to send their kids to that classroom, and those students have the same right to a quality education.”  It isn’t at all clear that everyone is getting what they need or what they deserve.



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Internationalization as National Policy

The internationalization of higher education (IoHE) is a relatively new but broad and varied phenomenon shaped over the past 25 years by the globalisation of our economies and societies and the increased importance of knowledge for sustaining them. IoHE is driven by a dynamic combination of constantly evolving political, economic, socio-cultural and academic rationales. Motivations take on different forms and dimensions in different regions and countries and in different institutions and programs. There is no single model that fits all nations. Regional and national contexts are varied and changing, and the same is true of their universities.

Recent surveys such as the Global Survey on Internationalization administered by the International Association of Universities IAU) and similar surveys by the European University Association (EUA) and the European Association for International Education (EAIE) indicate that the majority of institutions of higher education in Europe (and increasingly elsewhere in the world) have an explicit internationalization policy and increasingly integrate internationalization as a key pillar of their overall institutional mission and strategies. But at the national level, such strategies and policies were rather absent until recently. A study completed for the European Parliament, a project of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalization (CHEI) in partnership with the IAU, and another by the EAIE have analysed seventeen national policies— ten from Europe and seven from the rest of the world. The study identified ten key developments reflecting the increased interest of national governments to internationalize their higher education sector:

  1. Growing importance of internationalization at all levels (broader range of activities, more strategic approaches, emerging national strategies and ambitions);
  2. Increase in institutional strategies for internationalization (but also risks of homogenisation, focus on quantitative results only);
  3. Challenge of funding everywhere; 
  4. Trend towards increased privatisation in IoHE with the intention of revenue generation for multiple parties; 
  5. Competitive pressures of globalisation, with increasing convergence of aspirations, if not yet actions; 
  6. Evident shift from (only) cooperation to (more) competition; 
  7. Emerging regionalisation, with Europe often seen as an example; 
  8. The number of international activities is rising everywhere, with challenge of quantity versus quality; 
  9. Lack of sufficient data for comparative analysis and decision-making; 
  10. Emerging areas of focus are: internationalization of the curriculum, transnational education and digital learning.

Internationalization has now become a mainstream issue at the national level in most countries of the world, and particularly in Europe. The rhetoric speaks of more comprehensive and strategic policies for internationalization, but in reality there is still a long way to go in most cases. Even in Europe, seen around the world for best-practices in internationalization, there is still much to be done, and there is an uneven degree of accomplishment across the different countries, with significant challenges in Southern and, especially, Central and Eastern Europe.

Most national strategies, including within Europe, are still predominantly focused on mobility, short-term and/or long-term economic gains, recruitment and/or training of talented students and scholars, and international reputation and visibility. This implies that far greater efforts are still needed to incorporate these approaches into more comprehensive strategies, in which internationalization of the curriculum and learning outcomes as a means to enhance the quality of education and research, receive more attention.

The study concludes that the future in Europe looks potentially bright, but further positive development and impact will only occur if the various stakeholders and participants maintain an open dialogue about rationales, benefits, means, opportunities and obstacles in this ongoing process of change. And one cannot ignore the fact that Internationalization of Higher Education is also being challenged by increasingly profound social, economic and cultural issues, such as the financial crisis spreading across Europe, unfavourable demographic trends, immigration and the growing ethnic and religious tensions. Some of these negative trends have become particularly evident during the past few months, such as government policies in China and Russia that block open collaboration and exchange. That internationalization in many national policies is viewed primarily as a scheme to serve national interests——capacity building, talent recruitment, income generation, national security and so on—is understandable. But internationalization without open lines and unimpeded linkages operates in contradiction to its generally accepted intentions and objectives that are to promote cooperation and exchange across borders.


The study, edited by Hans de Wit, Fiona Hunter, Eva Egron-Polak and Laura Howard is available as: European Parliament, Directorate-General for Internal Policies (Ed.). 2015. Internationalisation of Higher Education.

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Teaching in English: A Contentious Debate

One of the more controversial issues in internationalization is the dominance of English as language of instruction and the dissemination of scholarship.

Recently, two countries seem to be at the forefront of the debate. In Europe, The Netherlands has been implementing courses and degree programs in English since the mid-1990s. In Asia, South Korea leads other countries in developing English taught courses, a trend provoking considerable debate; In the Netherlands attitudes are shifting from rather positive to more critical assessments, resulting in a national discussion led by key scholars to abandon the unconditional use of English in the classroom.

Clearly the use of English dominates research and scholarly publications. The ranking of academic journals, their impact and their ownership is dictated by the Anglo-Saxon world. More and more academic journals, books and articles as well as doctoral theses are written in English, as this is perceived to be the only way to merit international recognition. The use of English in doctoral studies—in particular in the sciences—has become accepted as the international norm.

In teaching and learning though, the importance of English has been more gradual. Beginning in the 1990s, English-language instruction expanded in Scandinavia and the Netherlands to stimulate participation in European exchange programs such as ERASMUS. The only way to create a balanced exchange within Europe where French, German, English and Spanish dominate, was to use a language that was (and still is) the first or second language of communication—English. Gradually, complete courses and degree programs were taught in English, in the face of protests from the political sphere and the media asserting that the trend could subjugate national language and culture.

By the 21st century opposition began to disappear and other European countries like Germany, France, Spain and Central and Eastern Europe started to develop courses in English as well, followed by countries like South Korea and China. This trend was so powerful that in 2011, I felt compelled to point out that teaching in English was not synonymous with internationalization. Still, the trend continues and national and international leaders in higher education around the world strive for more English-language instruction, justifying this policy with the need to compete for international students and talent and creating an international classroom environment for domestic students. English is becoming a key factor at all levels with an increase of bilingual and English language programs in primary and secondary schools.

Opposition tends to come from older professors who are not capable of teaching in English and defend their opposition as preserving national language and culture against foreign influences. A recent article by Ursula Lindsey in the Chronicle of Higher Education illustrates this: The enthusiasm for English isn’t universal. Skeptics note that switching to English does not solve all the underlying problems of troubled educational systems. Some see the turn away from their native language as a threat to Arab identity. Others worry that English-language education exacerbates the divide between the haves and have-nots.” Ignoring such sentiments is a mistake.

In South Korea, as a recent article by William Patrick Leonard notes that, one third of the courses are taught in English and some new universities teach completely in that language. On the one hand, this is intended to prepare Korean students for a global workforce; on the other hand it is designed to attract more international students in a competitive global market. It also makes Korean higher education an interesting work place for international faculty, as there are too few Korean academics capable of teaching in English.  

In The Netherlands, research universities now teach predominantly in English at the graduate level, while undergraduate education is still mainly in Dutch. But at the primarily vocational universities of applied sciences, English is also becoming a standard. There are over 200 bachelor programs in English at Dutch Universities of Applied Sciences. Following the lead of important research universities— Maastricht, Groningen and Wageningen—several institutions of applied sciences— Stenden, Hanze Groningen —are advocating bilingual instruction.  NHTV Breda University of Applied Science has decided to teach completely English.

Opposition to this trend is growing, not so much from the conservative nationalists as in the 1990s, but from academics. They understand and recognise the importance of globalisation and the implications of an English-dominated global workplace, but they question the enthusiasm with which university leadership promotes English instruction, even when the quality of delivery not guaranteed. In a recent statement, titled ‘The great manifesto of the Dutch Language’ a group of eminent academics— ironically some affiliated with English-named research centers —defined ten actions needed to limit the unqualified advance of English in Dutch higher education.

The manifesto asks for compliance with the law of higher education, that states that teaching and examinations should be in Dutch unless there are good reasons not to do so. They ask for open debate within the universities with all stakeholders about the compliance with the law and more attention to languages in general—the Dutch language as well as foreign languages. They make an appeal to base decisions on English instruction on content-based arguments and not on economic or ideological grounds, such as the recruitment of international students or progress in international rankings. They also call for a better preparation of students for a career in Dutch society and for a stronger link between higher education and society. They demand more attention to educating students in speaking, reading and writing in their own language.

Several of these actions make absolute sense, even for doctoral theses. Reading an interesting Dutch thesis as member of the reading committee recently, I wondered if the thesis would have been more relevant and interesting if it had been written in Dutch. There has to be a stop to the automatic move to English in Dutch higher education and elsewhere.

Still, while I agree with the need to connect higher education and learning to Dutch society, at the same time I recognize the importance of preparing students for a global workforce and global citizenship, and that requires foreign language proficiency. Arguments that attention to foreign languages in higher education threatens the level of Dutch are not sustained by research. In other words, the manifesto is a strange mix of solid arguments and too much nationalistic and inward looking sentiment. Regardless, the manifest is an important wakeup call.


What lessons can other countries learn from the debate in the Netherlands?

  • Internationalization of higher education does not necessarily imply the need to teaching in English
  • There has to be academic rationale for teaching in English rather than economic and ideological motivations
  • Decisions about teaching in English have to be considered in an open debate between internal and external stakeholders
  • Teaching in English is more than simply translating a course or program from one language to the other but must consider implications for content, teaching strategy and learning outcomes
  • Foreign language education should not focus exclusively on English and should find a stronger base in primary and secondary education
  • Teaching in English should not replace the importance of providing national and international students with opportunities to learn and use the local language and culture.

These arguments apply to countries where the national language has limited global presence but also in countries where the primary language is Spanish, Mandarin, French, German, and even English. The fact that half of the UK universities allow foreign students to use dictionaries during exams but not local students is an illustration of how absurd we are in addressing language issues in higher education.



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Teaching in English: <br>A Contentious Debate


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