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Forced dismissals, no obligation to learn Dutch and more details



It’s a far-reaching bill that has already been the subject of much discussion: ‘Internationalisering in Balans’ (Internationalisation in Equilibrium). Outgoing Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf took his time, while all kinds of parties in the House of Representatives were telling him to hurry up.

The bill’s main elements were already out in the open, but it does contain a number of striking details. For example, international students will not be obliged to make an effort to learn Dutch. And yes, language policy at higher education institutions may lead to forced dismissals. Below we’ll discuss some of the details.


It’s a much-discussed topic: language of instruction. The bill is to strengthen the position of Dutch in higher education. Even international students in non-Dutch-taught programmes have to learn a little bit of Dutch. This increases the chance they’ll stay here to work.

At the moment, education institutions have the duty of care to promote the Dutch ‘communication skills’ of their students, but international students are exempt from this duty. Language education is generally not up to scratch: in practice, not a lot of attention is paid to it, writes Dijkgraaf.

So this has to change. The minister wants to make ‘administrative arrangements’ with clear points of departure and measurable results. The word ‘communication skills’ has been replaced with ‘language skills’. And international students are no longer exempt.

Or are they? The bill doesn’t mention a ‘best effort requirement’ for students. This was considered, says Dijkgraaf. ‘In that case, an institution would only be able to present a student with a diploma once it has been determined they have met this best effort requirement.’

The bill doesn’t state a required level of language skills, nor will a legally required number of credits for Dutch as a subject be introduced. Dijkgraaf prefers to leave this up to the institutions. His example: law students may need other competencies than chemical engineering students.

He does warn the higher education institutions that they have to demonstrate they can handle that freedom, otherwise stricter rules will be introduced after all.

Dismissal of staff

Some programmes will go back to being Dutch-taught, or will get a Dutch-taught track. The higher education institutions have announced resolutions to this end, but it could be that the minister (or his successor) will go even further in the future. There will be a one-off assessment of existing English-taught programmes: is it actually effective to teach this programme in another language than Dutch?

This may have repercussions for staff members. ‘This could mean non-Dutch-speaking staff will leave, or will have to be dismissed, because they’re not able to teach in Dutch’, the minister acknowledges. ‘Another option would be to make it mandatory for these staff members to learn Dutch.’

The universities estimate it would take about five years to get the teachers’ Dutch skills up to a sufficient level. The minister (or his successor) will take this into account when determining a ‘reasonable term’ in which English-taught programmes have to go back to being Dutch-taught – if this is indeed decided.

Freedom of educational institutions

Why is politics getting mixed up in this in the first place: aren’t higher education institutions autonomous? Dijkgraaf makes short work of this argument. If they insist on being autonomous, they have to make more of an effort. ‘The government observes that the autonomous choices made by individual institution boards have not been sufficient to solve the societal issues that have arisen with respect to international student mobility.’

Now he’s forcing them to engage in mutual consultation, aka ‘self-regulation plans’. This relates to such topics as agreements on student housing, the administrative language at institutions and the Dutch skills of foreign teachers. On top of this, there are the ‘administrative arrangements’ with the ministry.

If the system doesn’t yield the desired results, the minister can intervene. He may, for example, refuse to grant permission for starting a non-Dutch-taught programme (which also goes through the Committee for Higher Education Effectiveness), restrict the number of students and even, in the most extreme of cases, revoke the permission for having such programmes.

Emergency fixed quota

Higher education institutions will be given the option of setting an ‘emergency fixed quota’: if they’re faced with an unexpectedly large amount of interest in their programme, they can restrict the number of first-years. They have until 1 March to decide to do so. Such an emergency fixed quota is ‘exceptional and very drastic’, writes the minister, because the conditions change during the registration process.

The date of 1 March has been chosen so Dutch and EEA students hear about it in time and aren’t taken by surprise. Of course it’s also possible an emergency situation arises after 1 March, but Dijkgraaf doesn’t think this is very likely: in practice it really only concerns students from outside the EU and those students have to express their interest at an early stage given their visa requirements.


It sounds easier than it is: introducing a Dutch-taught and a non-Dutch-taught track within the same programme. The various systems won’t be able to cope. Studielink, where students register, estimates the modifications will take around four years.

This means that in the short term, programmes will not be able to distinguish between Dutch and non-Dutch-speaking students in their fixed quota. An amendment by VVD, which was adopted by the House of Representatives a few months ago and that anticipated this development, won’t save any time.

The previous bill

A bill had previously been passed that had roughly the same goal: the Language and Accessibility Bill. The House of Representatives approved this in 2019, so it was down to the Senate to debate this. When Dijkgraaf took office, he shelved this bill, but why?

The old bill said that non-Dutch-taught education needed to have an ‘added value’ for the students. This phrasing was vague and Dijkgraaf adapted it. His bill centres on effectiveness: from added value for the student ‘to added value for society’.

The ramifications of this are interesting. In the old bill, the Dutch-Flemish accreditation association NVAO would assess the choice of language of instruction. In other words, the language needed to contribute to the quality of the programme. In the new bill, this task is assigned to the Committee for Higher Education Effectiveness. This issues an advice and the minister is the one who ultimately decides.

This means the language of instruction is being made more political, or as Dijkgraaf puts it: the minister is given ‘overriding authority’ as a ‘last resort’. If the institutions don’t play by the rules or if the Committee isn’t strict enough, the minister can intervene.

Another striking difference: the Language and Accessibility Bill only provided the option of setting a fixed quota for non-Dutch-taught tracks in Bachelor’s programmes and the two-year associate degrees. Dijkgraaf is also including the Master’s programmes.

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