Recruiting foreign students runs counter to growth complaints

Universities have been pushing for more legal options to curb the influx of foreign students for years. However, private providers of expensive bridging programs that bring foreign graduates are still welcome on campus.

Again, universities are attracting more students, even though the growth is not as spectacular as last year when the student population grew by 8%. 340,700 students are enrolled this year, according to provisional data published by the University Association (VSNU) at the beginning of November. A growth of 4 percent. This is due to the influx from abroad, which continues to grow. In total, nearly 80,000 international students study at thirteen Dutch universities, nearly a quarter of the total.

The University of Amsterdam (UvA) is still growing slightly faster than the others, with the number of students increasing by 6%. For the first time, the university has more than 40,000 students. Over the past five years, nearly 13,000 students have joined, the size of a small university like Wageningen or Twente. Two thirds of the growth is represented by international students. Before long, the UVA will have more international students than Dutch students. This year, 40 percent of hiring for undergraduate programs and 60 percent of new masters students come from overseas.

The UvA can no longer cope with this growth, said board chairman Geert ten Dam in Parool. The hall market is overheated, campuses are overcrowded, and teachers and support staff face a growing workload. “The groups are expanding, the teachers have to supervise more theses, it is completely overflowing”. Without substantial overtime, employees can no longer complete the job, according to the chairman of the board. The limit has really been reached, he added in the university magazine Folia. ‘The Hague has to help us do something about the influx. This won’t stop by itself. ‘

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Image: Len Munnik

Student break

In recent years, universities have presented themselves as victims of their own success. Studying in the Netherlands is too attractive. Dutch universities top international rankings, tuition fees for EU students are reasonable, and there are hardly any restrictions on entry. As there is free movement of people within Europe, universities cannot refuse EU students who meet the admission requirements.

VSNU has been lobbying for further legal options to stem the flow of international students for four years. The only option universities have now is to lock students on folk studies. But Dutch students are also victims of it. This is why universities want the possibility to limit only the number of study places on study paths in the English language. They were heard by the outgoing Minister of Education Ingrid van Engelshoven. But the bill that makes numerus clausus possible for English-language passages has been shelved for nearly a year due to the downfall of the cabinet.

The impotence that universities claim is questionable. Last August they announced that they would stop actively recruiting international students. Richly late, and furthermore, the question is what such a hiring freeze would entail. Universities may be less present on overseas scholarships, but there were hardly any last year due to crown restrictions. They participate fully in virtual trade shows and online recruiting events and also recruit through their own social media channels and websites. And a number of universities in non-EU countries work with local recruiting agents who are paid per reported student.

The complaint runs counter to the persistence with which universities stick to the controversial transition years for international students who do not meet Dutch pre-education requirements.

Complaining about the lack of tools to keep international students out is also at odds with the persistence with which universities stick to the controversial transition years for international students who do not meet Dutch previous education requirements. Three years ago, Education magazine revealed that five universities and three higher education colleges partnered with UK recruiting agencies Study Group and Oncampus and Australia’s Navitas. These companies bring ineligible students to the Netherlands for a Foundation year which allows access to a university degree. This will cost them from fourteen thousand to eighteen thousand euros, about double the tuition fees that non-EU students pay for a Dutch bachelor’s degree. The bridging program is run by companies, but is preferably offered on the Dutch university campus. This gives international students the feeling that they are already studying at a world-class university while they are in a commercial refresher program.


Recruiting agencies are looking for many more students thanks to their large network of agents. Australian Navitas, a partner of the University of Twente since 2019, has 5,000 educational agents in 125 different countries, the company reports on its website. Eighty percent of Navitas students use such an agent.

In 2019, 37 percent of Twente’s graduate recruitment – around a thousand students – came from abroad. Thanks to the Navitas bridge program, hundreds of international students are added. At the beginning of Via Venti as Navitas calls the preparatory year, it was agreed that 270 students would be enrolled each year. This year, 371 students have already started the bridging program.

The British company Oncampus has been organizing a preparatory year for the UvA since 2013. That collaboration was put to the test last year after university magazine Folia showed tricks are used to grant a visa to students who come to Amsterdam to study the numerus fixus Business Administration. The IND issues a study permit for a preparatory year only if a student is already enrolled in the follow-up study. This is not possible with a numerus fixus study because selection occurs only after a student has successfully completed the preparatory year. This is why the UVA enrolls Oncampus students who want to do Business Economics with another course of economic studies.

The publications in Education and Folia magazines led to a series of parliamentary questions and an investigation by a national commission

The publications on Onderwijsblad and Folia led to a series of parliamentary questions and an investigation by the national commission that monitors compliance with the code of conduct drawn up by universities and colleges to regulate the recruitment of international students. The committee determined that universities and private providers of the transition years are exaggerating the rules. A preparatory year is intended for students who have an equivalent level of Dutch VWO, but who lack specific professional knowledge or who still need to brush up on their English. At Study Group, Oncampus and Navitas, the preparatory year has transformed into a recruitment channel where hundreds of international students are recruited at the HAVO level. A quarter of students do not successfully complete the transition year, which raises questions about how providers select students.

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Image: Len Munnik

From the complaints submitted in September to the Education Inspectorate (owned by the Education Magazine) it appears that last year Navitas admitted a student with a diploma which, according to the internationalization organization Nuffic, is comparable to the VMBO level. TL. Another Navitas student had a HAVO-level subject package, but grades were too low to be admitted to a Dutch HBO program. These students should therefore never have been admitted to a transition program that provides access to a university degree.


Minister Van Engelshoven wants to put an end to the misuse of the preparatory year. Universities must apply stricter selection criteria so that admission of non-EU students with a HAVO-level degree becomes an exception, he wrote in a letter to the House of Representatives in early January. However, the offer of a preparatory year for a program with a numerus fixus must end, as this is contrary to the code of conduct.

A complicating factor is that the minister doesn’t have much to say about the preparatory year because nothing is regulated in the Higher Education Act.

A complicating factor is that the minister doesn’t have much to say about the preparatory year because nothing is regulated in the Higher Education Act. The routes of Oncampus and Navitas therefore do not result in a recognized diploma. A loophole in the law which means that the Education Inspectorate is not authorized to take action against private providers admitting students on a pre-professional level. The minister therefore depends on a more rigorous self-regulation on the part of the institutions that do not intend to give up the preparatory year just like that. One third of all countries in the world, including China, Russia and Indonesia, do not have a secondary school diploma at the pre-university level. The havo level is the highest attainable there. “The preparatory year offers talented students from those countries the opportunity to study here,” says VSNU spokesperson Ruben Puylaert.

Under pressure from the minister, universities have now developed stricter selection criteria. “Students with a HAVO degree need to have higher grades and the level requirements for English are also getting higher,” says Puylaert. The new agreements are recorded in the code of conduct under evaluation.

yells for help

Despite cries for help from Prime Minister Ten Dam to The Hague, UVA signs a new agreement with Oncampus. This takes into account the objections of the Minister and the Code of Conduct Committee. What exactly is in the contract has not been revealed. In any case, the UVA interprets the agreement to stop recruiting for studies on numerus fixus in a broad sense. The Business Administration program still refers international students who do not meet the admission requirements to the Oncampus website. It states more clearly than before that the Oncampus program prepares for this degree, but that the number of study places is limited. Oncampus students therefore pay 18,375 euros for a course that does not guarantee admission to the chosen course of study.

The code of conduct committee has to keep an eye on whether the Amsterdam interpretation is too broad and whether pre-vocational secondary education students are re-admitted. It is not yet clear how this should work. The education ministry will check whether the stricter admission criteria lead to fewer recruitments in the preparatory year and better data transfers at graduation, a spokesman for the minister said. What should happen if this is not the case is a question for his successor.

This article comes from the December issue of Education magazine, which is sent to AOB members eleven times a year. Want to find out more about all the benefits of joining AOB? Look here.

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