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A proposed bill wants schools in the Netherlands to hold more classes in Dutch

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

After Britain left the European Union, universities in the Netherlands saw an opportunity. They began offering more courses taught in English, drawing students from the EU and beyond. But a proposed bill could force universities there to switch most of their coursework back to Dutch. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: The obsession of getting your kid into the best university is a familiar one to Americans, where admission rates can be low and demand high. Across the ocean in the Netherlands, it could not be more different.

ANOUK TSO: For the majority of our programs, there is no entrance examination required.

SCHMITZ: Anouk Tso, director of international affairs at the University of Amsterdam, says all that's required of incoming college freshmen is a high school diploma. If you've earned that, you are in. Tuition is only around $10,000 a year for Americans, and your classes are all in English. Combine that with universities that routinely place among the world's best, and the Netherlands looks like an attractive option.

TSO: In recent years, some of the study programs we offer, either as bilingual programs or fully English top programs, have almost become too popular. The challenge is that we mainly see that for some study programs, the influx is too high when it comes to maintaining the quality of education.

SCHMITZ: Tso so says the University of Amsterdam can manage its 42,000 students, but the university does not house them. And this seasonal influx of residents has contributed to a housing shortage for a city already suffering from high rents.

ROBBERT DIJKGRAAF: It's wonderful to see so many international students, but there are several issues.

SCHMITZ: Robbert Dijkgraaf, the Dutch minister of education, says the Dutch university system is largely a victim of its own success. Forty percent of incoming students are not Dutch.

DIJKGRAAF: This has grown rapidly, and I think we all feel that we want to be in a situation where the system is sustainable.

SCHMITZ: Dijkgraaf points out that Dutch universities are publicly funded by Dutch taxpayers, and with more students coming from outside the country, he wants to ensure Dutch students have equal access to courses in their native language. That's one of the reasons he supports limiting English language coursework. A proposed bill would cap the number of students from outside Europe in some subjects and force universities to offer at least two-thirds of undergraduate content in Dutch, unless a university justifies an exemption. Dijkgraaf says he wants to ensure Dutch universities have at least some control over their ballooning student populations. He likens the situation to a speeding car.

DIJKGRAAF: We have an accelerator, but we do not have a brake, and we do not have a steering wheel.

SCHMITZ: But for some Dutch universities, the thought of switching coursework to two-thirds Dutch is unthinkable. Robert-Jan Smits is president of the Eindhoven University of Technology.

ROBERT-JAN SMITS: We don't find for many of the complex engineering subjects Dutch speaking professors anymore, and secondly, the whole study books and the whole curricula, everything is in English. So it will be for us a major setback, and we will lose not only international students because of this, but also international staff because they can't teach in Dutch.

SCHMITZ: He says all of the university's classes are taught in English. The vast majority of its students, Dutch and foreign, find their first engineering jobs in Eindhoven, one of Europe's fastest-growing technology hubs and home to some of the world's most advanced semiconductor factories. Smits says limiting English to just one-third of the university's coursework would lead to an exodus of students, faculty and some of the world's top researchers, threatening an industry in the region worth billions.

SMITS: It's not good for the country. It's not good for the region. It's not good for the industry. They are in desperate need for top talent, and we are a key provider of that top talent for our region.

SCHMITZ: Smits says this proposed bill also threatens the Netherlands' long history as a culture of openness.

SMITS: So you look in history, the Portuguese Jews, which came to the Netherlands, or the Huguenots from France, or the Flemish artists and scientists who have come throughout history to our country because they were not welcomed at home, this has always been the strength of our country and also the reason of the success of the country.

SCHMITZ: Smits says he's secured exemptions for his university with the current education minister, but an upcoming national election in the Netherlands could erase those exemptions, something he's very worried about.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FOUNTAIN)

SCHMITZ: On the campus of the University of Amsterdam, anthropology student Abel Klem says the Dutch language proposal would be catastrophic to anyone who has his major.

ABEL KLEM: I just went to some conferences in the U.K., and it's just so much easier if you can interact with people from different countries. And if your bachelor's is in Dutch, you're limited to Dutch gatherings.

SCHMITZ: The fate of this bill will lie with whichever coalition of parties forms a government after the Dutch election on November 22. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Amsterdam. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.