“Internationalization!” and the student community – A case from a Dutch campus university
Author: Rainer Mensing
Internationalization has become a central theme for many universities around the world. Especially here in the Netherlands, this has become a major objective. Recently, the Vereniging Hogescholen, representing the Universities of Applied sciences, and the VSNU, the association of the Dutch universities, published a document in which they stated that they want to be one of the top five knowledge economies. Part of the strategy is to convey a common vision on internationalization (VH & VSNU, 2015). Next to these common commitments, there are also other developments that drive internationalization at some institutions.
“Many Dutch students choose to study in the more popular and prestigious Universities in the west of the Netherlands, which is especially the case for Master students after completing their Bachelor in the east. The traditional path through higher education, from Bachelor to Master and eventually PhD at one institution is not very common anymore.” Says the head of Internationalization, Sander Lotze, at the University of Twente. In combination with a growth in outgoing student mobility it is vital for institutions like the University of Twente, located in the east of the Netherlands, to fill the gaps with a higher influx of international students. In its most recent strategic statement, the ‘Vision 2020’, published in 2014, Twente commits strongly to internationalize. What the university however fails to do is to clarify the underlying drivers that lead to this decision, which have been explained before, as well as to state clear goals and objectives.
While the university staff is used to deal with international colleagues on a professional basis, cultural barriers can stir up conflict in the student community. This is a factor that has been vastly underestimated by university management. In my function as international student representative, I could observe the negative effects of the top-down internationalization process. A fitting example would be the housing situation on campus, which hosts around a quarter of the 9000 students. The university would like to make the campus accommodation more accessible for international students. However, most of the housing consist of shared flats with more than 10 inhabitants and due to a co-optation rule, the current inhabitants can decide who will move in. The problem arises when the Dutch “Huisgevoel” is clashing with foreign students. The house community is central to Dutch student life. They eat and cook together and value socializing with their housemates. International students often fail to blend into this lifestyle, which is why many Dutch houses do not accept them anymore. The reasons are that international students are not able or willing to learn the Dutch language in time, but most importantly, because they often do not value the house community as much. This picture is not only observed in the houses, but also in some of the sport clubs and especially in fraternities and cultural associations. The Dutch and the international community, which at the moment makes up 27% of the students, run almost parallel. The campus, which is concentrating everything on a small area, is leveraging this state by making it even more obvious.
Efforts by the Universities’ Student Union to make housing and facilities more accessible to international students and to create a better mix of the student community are practically backfiring. Attempts to “regulate” the problem, for example by changing the co-optation rule, created an uproar in the Dutch community. Associations and houses see an increased ratio of international students as a threat to their very own student culture. A strategic paper by the Student Union called ‘Vision to Internationalize’ did not state an effective compromise either.
What I personally observed to be the main driver of conflict is the fact the students are very poorly informed about the whats’ and most importantly the whys’. Most students think that the internationalization process is just a differentiation strategy and do not realize that it is in fact a necessity which is happening at other institutions in the Netherlands as well. The difference is that Twente is the only campus university, which creates unique problems that have a more direct effect in the student community.
The parallels to the current refugee crisis in Europe, on a more abstract and less serious scale, are oddly obvious. The Dutch students are concerned because changes, which are affecting their way of life, are implemented without their consent while the University is not reacting to their concerns. On the other hand, if the University would simply clarify why the internationalization is happening, how the ratio of international students is going to change and what other measures will be taken, much of tensions could be released.
The reasons why I think that this is important are twofold. I myself, as a student, would like to live in a community that is more welcoming, open and integrated. Many of my fellow students value a healthy student life. A student survey that I conducted with over 163 international respondents showed that students consider a positive atmosphere as an important factor when they choose a university. These findings have also been confirmed by other studies (Chen, 2007; Mazzarol & Soutar, 2002). It also showed that referral by others is a vital channel for foreign students, especially for institutions with little international reputation. If a polarization in the student community is leading to a dissatisfaction of incumbent students, it could constrain the influx of new Dutch as well as foreign students.
Chen, L.-H. (2007). East-Asian Students’ Choice of Canadian Graduate Schools. International Journal of Educational Advancement, 7(4), 271–306. http://doi.org/10.1057/palgrave.ijea.2150071
Mazzarol, T., & Soutar, G. N. (2002). “Push-pull” factors influencing international student destination choice. International Journal of Educational Management, 16(2), 82–90. http://doi.org/10.1108/09513540210418403
VH, & VSNU. (2015). Notitie Internationale Positionering / branding.
About Rainer Mensing
Rainer Mensing is a student of BSc programme International Business Administration at the University of Twente. From 2015 to 2016 he was part of the student representative board for Internationalization and Integration at the University of Twente as well as student member of the faculty council of the Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences faculty (BMS). As research intern at the Center for Higher Education Policy Studies (CHEPS) he did a market research about international student recruitment in cooperation with the Marketing & Communications department. He can be found on LinkedIn.