That Dutch taxpayers are footing the bill for foreign – especially German – students at Dutch universities is “absurd”, says Ferdinand Mertens, former Director-General of the Dutch Ministry of Education. In a recent interview with Transfer, the Dutch magazine on internationalisation in higher education, Mertens called for a ban on recruitment campaigns for EU students. But Tom Van Veen, Maastricht University’s Dean of Internationalisation, says this would change little for UM: “We get so much positive publicity through the press, social media, rankings, accreditation, and word-of-mouth advertising.”
Ridiculous or rational?
European students have long crossed borders in the quest for more study options, better degree programmes, and lower tuition fees. But Mertens claims that some universities have gone to ridiculous length with this. As a case in point, he refers to Maastricht University – where one third of all students hail from Germany – as “the largest German university outside Germany”. Mertens points out that the government covers a large part of the costs for each and every student, be they from the Netherlands or elsewhere in the EU. The more students there are, the lower the budget per student.
Mertens’s comments prompted concern in the Dutch parliament. Anne-Wil Lucas of the ruling liberal VVD party questioned whether the decrease in budget per student poses a threat to the quality of education. According to Lucas, “international students should be welcomed, but this should enrich the academic climate and not come at the cost of quality”. On the other hand, Lucas has also questioned whether banning active recruitment is desirable within the European context. Would this harm the position of Dutch institutes in the European higher education market?
Who reaps the rewards?
“Europe wants to promote mobility and has chosen for the free movement of people. Students can go and study wherever they choose”, explains Van Veen, professor in Economics of International Education at the Maastricht University School of Economics and Business. He stresses that education and research at UM thrive thanks to their international focus, and students reap important benefits from being exposed to different cultures and languages: “It creates understanding, broadens your view; all of which is important for Europe.”
Mertens, however, claims that a less noble intent underlies the recruitment of students from abroad. It is mainly the institutes themselves, he says, that benefit from bringing in EU students. Dutch universities receive public funding each year based on their number of students, regardless of whether these students are from the Netherlands or other EU member states. “This has nothing to do with internationalisation.”
Van Veen acknowledges that there may be legitimate concerns about the Dutch being saddled with the costs of European students. One way of addressing this may be to introduce market-based lecture fees for all master’s students, as in the US. But he believes there are other, better solutions. “We should look for a different concept. We could set up a European settlement fund that would pay out – at a European level – to countries that take more students than they send off.” Or, better yet, he suggests creating a number of European universities, financed with EU money. “That would be a great opportunity for Maastricht University.”