UvA Internationalisation Reaches Breaking Point: “They Shot Themselves in the Leg”

By Adesholla Bishop

Collage by Camie Clarkson

The last several years have brought a large growth in the student population – especially the international one – to the University of Amsterdam (UvA), which boasts its reflection of “the innovative and international culture of Amsterdam.” In comparison to the 997 foreign students beginning their Bachelor’s degrees at the UvA in 2017, there were 3,484 new international students this academic year – a staggering 250 percent increase in foreign students in the span of just five years.

There are currently 41,206 Bachelor’s and Master’s students enrolled at the UvA and, with a total of just under 9,000 new Bachelor’s students this academic year, international students comprise approximately 40% of the university’s first-year students this academic year. This figure is much higher than the national percentage of international students: provisional enrolment figures by the the Dutch Association of Universities (VSNU) state that there are 340,700 Bachelor’s and Master’s students currently enrolled in universities throughout the Netherlands, 23% of whom come from abroad.

Whether a result of the UvA’s recruitment efforts towards foreign students (a brief consultation of the university’s website reveals that students “come from around the world” and are invited to “know what it is like to study at the UvA as an international student” by chatting with a selection of International Student Ambassadors), its current ranking as the 55th best university in the world, or simply the spreading knowledge of the range of courses offered in English cannot be said for certain. Nonetheless, international students are flocking to the Netherlands’ capital city, bringing increasing diversity to a rapidly expanding university.

“That is certainly a compliment to the UvA,” Geert ten Dam, President of the UvA’s Executive Board, writes about the influx of students in a statement to Times Higher Education (THE) shared with The Herring by the UvA press office, “but we simply cannot handle these numbers.” She continues, “in concrete terms, our campuses are bursting at the seams.”

It appears that the internationalisation of the UvA has been marked by both positive and negative developments. For staff who have been at the university for years, the diversification of the student landscape – a natural result of the increasing internationalisation – has largely been a welcome sight. As the former dean of the Faculty of Humanities and former President of the UvA, and now the current Faculty Professor of Religion and Society, Karel van der Toorn has been working at the university for over two decades. He has witnessed the influx of international students first-hand. He finds that “the atmosphere in international classrooms is really much the same as in the Dutch ones, where there’s a lot of discussion going on all the time.” 

However, Van der Toorn also explains that having a mix of nationalities and cultures leads to the consideration of various perspectives, which he has come to value as a professor. “I’ve enjoyed having people from Turkey or from the Middle East, from India, in the classroom because that really brought another angle to materials we were looking at,” he says. “It’s very good for all students, certainly also for the Dutch students, to see that there’s more than one perspective on these things.”

Esther Peeren, professor of Cultural Analysis in the Faculty of Humanities and the vice-director of the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, holds a similar sentiment. “Given that we teach literature and culture from all over the world … it’s really a bonus to have students from different parts of the world who bring different expertise, different experiences,” she says. Peeren has worked at the UvA for 15 years and explains that her program had probably a 95 percent white student body before the change to an English language program. “Now we have much more diversity – still not enough, I think, but it’s gotten a lot better,” she says.

Students, too, evidently enjoy the diversity that they experience at the UvA. On the topic of being in an international classroom, Saurik Dheer, a second-year Media and Information major, says, “when you take into consideration different cultures and different ideas, you have more creativity, more innovation.”

Having a diverse classroom is not the only reason that students value the international experience that the UvA provides, though students and staff make clear that it is indubitably a benefit. Primarily, students who moved to the Netherlands from abroad, whether from within or beyond the European Union (EU), appreciate being surrounded by people who have experienced a similar lifestyle change. 

Elisa Palacios, a second-year Media and Information student from Spain, explains that “being in Amsterdam, a whole other country, having people that are really international and that share some experiences with you is really important for developing your life here.” 

Palacios is not the only foreign student that feels this way. “I love hanging out with mostly international people because I relate to them more,” says second-year Media and Culture major Jana Manna. “Even if they’re from a completely different country, they’re foreigners moving here,” she continues. Originally from Jordan, Manna moved to Amsterdam at the beginning of this academic year after following her first year at the UvA online from Lebanon, where she graduated from high school.

Dheer, who moved away from his home country of India to attend the UvA, similarly enjoys the “basic level of comfort” that arises from interacting with fellow Indians studying at the university. It is due to the shared commonalities between them that he primarily interacts with non-Dutch students, whether Indian or otherwise. 

While Palacios, Manna, and Dheer find comfort in the growing community of international students, it is having the reverse effect on the UvA, and the university hopes to find a manageable solution to the influx soon. One proposal put forth by the VSNU is that of a numerus fixus, or a cap, in universities throughout the Netherlands on students from beyond the European Economic Area (EEA). This would limit the number of spaces available to non-EEA applicants, simultaneously ensuring that Dutch universities accept only as many students as they can feasibly support, and limiting the number of foreign students who pursue higher education in the Netherlands.

In her statement, Ten Dam emphasised that “students from outside the EU should also be able to access education at the UvA” and that “equal opportunity is a value we [the UvA] must maintain.”

Rather than a numerus fixus on non-EEA students, Ten Dam would prefer for a cap to be imposed on English-language programs. If passed, Ten Dam says this policy would “allow quality and diversity to play a role in the selection criteria,” thereby preserving access to education for students of all nationalities. Notably, however, placing a numerus fixus on English-language programs whilst leaving Dutch-language programs open inherently means that it is primarily international students who will face the consequences of this new policy.

Considering the UvA’s recruitment efforts evidently aimed at foreign students (on a list of ten reasons to study at the university, for example, it states that “over 7,000 international degree and exchange students from over 100 countries are presently enrolled at the UvA”), discussions around the possible implementation of the proposed policy came as a shock to international students from both within and beyond the EU and the EEA. 

As an international student herself, Palacios was upset to learn about the current situation at the UvA, and she further stated that it was “ironic because they advertise themselves as a very international university, and it’s a very international city in general.” Dheer, too, had not expected the news: “They [the UvA] shot themselves in the leg, and then they’re like ‘oh, someone shot me’. It’s weird, it’s absurd.”

Manna, meanwhile, jumped straight to the economic side of the issue, noting that non-EU/EEA students pay higher tuition fees to the UvA than EU and EEA students do – generally, around four times more. “How are they going to accept more people and then not expect to change their facilities to accommodate those people?” Manna continues, “That just doesn’t make sense; where’s the rest of the money [from the higher tuition fees] going?”

Questions about finances within the UvA have already been taken into consideration, and have seemingly exacerbated the struggles to cope with the current student numbers. “University funding has not kept pace with the large growth in the number of international students,” Ten Dam writes. In fact, she states that “Dutch universities have lost more than 25 percent of funding per student over the past twenty years” and that these universities “need an extra 1.5 billion euros per year to guarantee the quality of education and research and to remain among the best in the world.”

Funding is not the only issue currently plaguing the UvA as a result of the growing student population – far from it, in fact. The growing housing shortage is also affecting the university’s ability to support students, and this is a major problem that Ten Dam cites in her statement to THE. “We [the UvA] currently accommodate international students in all kinds of emergency facilities, but after their first year they have to rely on the free market, where they often have to pay sky-high rent, if they can find anything at all,” she explains. “Meanwhile, Dutch students are forced to stay with their parents.”

Dheer attests to the difficulty of finding housing in Amsterdam: “housing is a clash, and if you want decent housing you have to pay big bucks,” he says. Currently, he is paying 850 euros per month for a room in an apartment that he shares with a couple that recently completed their Master’s degrees. “It’s pricey as shit,” he laments, “but if you want a decent place that doesn’t scam you, you have to pay for it.”

In lieu of relying on finding housing on the free market as Dheer did, Manna opted to live at The Student Hotel. There, she has a private bedroom and bathroom, as well as access to a shared kitchen, bike-sharing, and other amenities. “A lot of people wouldn’t pay this much for rent, so if you’re fast and you have the money, you get it [accommodation at The Student Hotel],” she says, adding that unlike housing on the free market, “it’s not hard to negotiate and the contract is pretty simple.” At the time of writing, the all-inclusive cost for a standard single room of approximately 14 square meters at The Student Hotel in Amsterdam West averages 1,030 euros per month.

Though it evidently poses a major impediment to students moving away from home – often for the first time, no less – the housing shortage is not the only issue that the UvA has had to grapple with as the influx of international students continues. Additional issues come in the form of limited lecture halls on campus and overworked staff, posing threats to the ability of lecturers to provide their students with quality education. 

“Within the UvA, teaching rooms are always a nightmare to get,” Peeren says. She describes this as a logistical challenge that has been a problem for the past few years, especially as the groups she teaches are around 25 to 30 students “which is the most difficult size to find rooms for.”

Though she struggles to find teaching rooms, Peeren is satisfied with her program’s staff-to-student ratio – currently, about one lecturer for every five students, she estimates. “It’s actually probably one of the best ratios [in the UvA],” she says. According to the UvA Fact Book, the Faculty of Humanities overall has about one professor (including primary, associate, and assistant professors) for every seven students, whilst the Faculties of Social and Behavioral Studies and of Law have greater disparities: about one professor for every nine students in the former, and for every eleven students in the latter.

Peeren admits that the UvA’s lacking number of lecturers has become more evident as the student body has grown. She explains that “logistical challenges like not being able to hire permanent staff immediately, or even after a few years of growing into a bigger program,” make it difficult for a program to remain stable and as a result, to ensure that lecturers are providing students with an excellent quality of education.

“The teaching load of the staff over the past 20 years has significantly increased, and that has happened to the detriment of their time for research,” says Van der Toorn on the topic of staffing. He notes that international students alone are not the reason for this. “I don’t find it harder to teach foreign students than I find it to teach Dutch students; I enjoy both,” he says. “But I don’t think foreign students are to blame for this, it’s just the increase in students – and Dutch students also have increased significantly over the past 20 years.” 

(The Herring is unable to account for the change in the Dutch student population over the last decades, but the UvA Factbook indicates that there has been an eight percent increase in first-year Dutch students between now and five years ago. This academic year, the UvA’s provisional figures on student intake state that the number of new Dutch bachelor students has decreased by approximately four percent in comparison to the 2020-2021 academic year.) 

Much of the influx of students that Van der Toorn describes stemmed from the offering of English-language programs in addition to Dutch-language ones and it is likely for this reason that international students have been placed at the center of the ongoing situation. “The fact that they have so many programs in English […] really influences the choice of many of us [students], because if we cannot speak or live or study in a language that we know then we probably would have chosen another university,” says Palacios, exemplifying the role that a program’s language plays in attracting students.

“When I started as Dean in 1980, there was a lot of attention given to attracting foreign students and the university found it difficult to attract them because the perception was still very much that you had to learn Dutch in order to go to a Dutch university,” Van der Toorn says, reflecting on how student numbers rose as the UvA began offering more programs in English. He further explains that international recruitment efforts have reduced as knowledge of English-language programs within the Netherlands has spread to both other countries and continents.

Peeren witnessed a similar rapid growth of students more recently. “We changed the Dutch-language Bachelor’s program to an English-language Bachelor’s program five years ago now,” she says. Since then, her program has grown in size as international students from all corners of the world have applied, contributing to the diverse classroom she teaches in today.

It is evident that the measures proposed to reduce the UvA’s student population to a more manageable number is not borne out of any distaste for international students (as some students initially feared) but rather out of the desire to provide all students with the highest quality education possible.

As a public Dutch university, it is natural for the UvA to want to encourage more Dutch students to attend the school, something they have been struggling with even as international interest has increased so dramatically. 

Despite her initial outrage over the possibility of a numerus fixus, Manna admits that she has come to understand the reasoning behind the potential cap on English-language programs. “Imagine being Dutch and not being able to go to university in your country because they have too many internationals,” she says. “That’s kind of odd.” 

Peeren expresses a similar view: “We cannot be a university in the Netherlands and have all our programs in English; that would just be going too far,” she says. Nonetheless, she adds that before any policies are implemented, “careful consideration should be given to programs where it makes sense for them to be in English and programs where it makes sense for them to be in Dutch.”

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