The current nationalist, populist trends in politics around the globe have certainly had a serious impact on the internationalization of higher education. The anti-immigration and even racist environment created by the Trump administration, the attacks on higher education and internationalization in Brazil, the restrictions on academic freedom and operations of the Central European University by the Hungarian government, the negative consequences of Brexit on the internationalization of higher education in the United Kingdom, are all clear signs that internationalization is under global threat. In that context, how should we interpret the proposed drastic cuts to the budget of the Dutch Organization for Internationalization in Education (Nuffic) by the Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science?
Despite international trends, the proposal by the Dutch minister comes as a shock. Dutch higher education has always been at the forefront of innovative, inclusive and comprehensive internationalization of education and over the past few years the minister has sustained a remarkably positive and balanced approach with respect to the use of English and international cooperation in higher education despite the questioning by both extreme right politicians and concerned academics and students about the value of international student recruitment and use of English.
The minister, a representative of the moderate liberal center left party D66, managed to maintain a good equilibrium in the intense debate between those in favor of English as essential positioning Dutch higher education and those in support of a national language policy, by advocating that international student recruitment and the use of English as a scholarly language brought critical quality and value to Dutch academia.
The proposed budget cuts to Nuffic mark a surprising departure from this balanced approach and seem to signal a threat to the internationalization of Dutch higher education. The cuts imply the closure of the Netherlands Education Support Offices (NESOs) abroad in Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, Thailand and Turkey and of the Holland Alumni Network abroad. Perhaps more important is the proposed reduction of support to the internationalization of primary, secondary and vocational education activities of Nuffic.
On its website, Nuffic is clear about the negative potential of these plans, “Taken together, these developments will severely affect the activities through which we support education institutions in developing, as well as strengthening, high-quality internationalisation efforts, from primary and secondary education to vocational and higher education.”
The recent debate about the increase in numbers of international students and the necessity of assuring adequate infrastructure, integration and quality education for them, as well as the language debate, may have been one rationale for the closure of some NESOs. But by closing these offices, not only is the recruitment of international students at risk, but also the use of those offices to stimulate cooperation and enhance the reputation of Dutch higher education abroad. The cuts to the Dutch Alumni Network will have a broader negative impact on efforts to strengthen that reputation and link students, faculty and the private sector by diminishing support to its main ambassadors. An evaluation of results against initial objectives and the choice of NESO countries would be a far more appropriate measure than simply eliminating them.
It is impossible to understand the rationale behind the proposed cuts to internationalization activities in primary, secondary and vocational education. So far, the proposal remains only a threat as no concrete decisions on the what or how the cuts will be made and some of the activities might be assigned to a different entity. But the threat itself is already an absolute contradiction to what has been considered an essential strength of the internationalization policy in The Netherlands over five years: to merge different organizations dealing with different levels of the internationalization of education and coordinate internationalization initiatives across all levels of education as opposed to the fragmented and unrelated actions of the past. Bringing actions and strategies for each level under one umbrella offered the possibility to better align, strengthen and coordinate internationalization in education. With this approach, The Netherlands has been at the forefront globally and ending this innovation risks the whole of the internationalization effort as well as initiatives at each level.
It is still too early to conclude that the merger of the organizations dealing with different levels of international education under Nuffic has been negative. There is always room for improvement, but it is difficult to see how cuts and reversing the merger might be constructive or effective. Moving away from what was a major policy direction in 2015 should require (at least) a thorough assessment of results.
Is the innovative approach and leadership of Dutch international education policy coming to an end with these proposals? Not entirely, as many actions are implemented at the institutional level and a significant part of the funding for institutional activities and Nuffic comes from the European Union while another substantial part of Nuffic’s budget comes from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Development Cooperation with the South. Also, the minister has promised to embed other activities managed by Nuffic, such as credential evaluation and the management of scholarship and grant programs, in legislation in order to guarantee both their continuity and protect Nuffic as an organization.
Yet the main signal from these proposals, even though they are not yet completely implemented, is extremely concerning, in particular in relation with the current global political climate. When a liberal country such as the Netherlands cuts back on funding that is essential to support education in the global knowledge economy, other countries may follow with cuts producing a negative impact not only to Dutch international education, but also elsewhere.
Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. He was the founding Editor of the Journal of Studies in International Education, and is Consulting Editor of Policy Reviews in Higher Education.