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Universities in the Netherlands will have a legal duty of care for their international students’ Dutch language proficiency under controversial proposed legislation designed to deal with a rapid growth in foreign admissions and English-only courses.

A new bill stops short of mandating that all international students take part of their courses in Dutch, as some universities had feared.

But the new language and accessibility bill, based on a major review of internationalization on campuses, does recommend several significant measures, some of which have universities worried.

One is the extension of an existing duty to promote Dutch for all students, not just locals. “This will enhance the students’ links with their host community and the regional job market, increase their employability and strengthen the position of Dutch as a language of scientific research,” the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science argues.

In the decade to 2018-19, international student numbers more than doubled, according to the policy review on which the new bill is based.

“Forcing foreign students to learn the Dutch language is nationalism at its worst,” said Jo Ritzen, a former minister of education, culture and science for the opposition Labor Party and now a professorial fellow at Maastricht University. “It is simply meant to keep them away.”

But Martin Paul, president of Maastricht University, said the proposals were much less severe than feared and even called some quite “sensible.”

“We have to prove that Dutch proficiency is developed,” said Paul. However, how this is done is “up to the universities,” he said.

At Maastricht, 80 percent of international students already learn Dutch, he said, so increasing that figure to 100 percent was “not a big step to take.”

The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) said it had some concerns about the requirement, which had to be balanced with Dutch universities’ international reputations.

In addition, universities will face tougher criteria when they have to justify teaching a course in a language other than Dutch. The VSNU fears that this will lead to a big increase in paperwork.

Universities will also be able to cap numbers on courses not taught in Dutch. “This will safeguard access to the Dutch-language course variant,” the ministry argues. But institutions will have to get the minister’s permission to do so, something the VSNU says could infringe on their autonomy.

Scholarships for incoming students will be cut, but they will be increased for Dutch students who go abroad to learn.

Although the recommendations are not as tough as some had feared, the ministry’s focus on preserving Dutch has irked Ritzen. “There is not one positive word about the role of an education in English for Dutch students,” he said.

“All research shows that graduates on average have at least once-a-day contact with someone across the border in another language. Dutch graduates are in high demand on the international labor market because they often have had part of their studies [taught] in English,” he explained.

And the bill could be toughened when it goes for discussion in parliament in October, warned Paul. The Dutch Council of State -- a government advisory body -- has already described it as too lax and wants stronger regulations to increase the study of Dutch, he said.

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