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How international are Dutch universities?


It feels like there are not many other countries in which you can effectively communicate with staff and students in English (except for countries in which English is the official language of course, but definitely not in Germany for example). And generally, living in Holland as a non-Dutch is a delight, which adds to that feeling. One can see in so many places that Holland is an open economy that has a long tradition of opening up to foreigners.

Today, there was an article in the Volkskrant, one of the major Dutch broadsheet newspapers, in which an unpublished study by the association of Dutch universities was cited. According to the article, one third of the post-docs at Dutch universities has a foreign passport and 15 to 20 percent of the tenured faculty (associate and full professors) come from abroad. One has to keep in mind that this is across all universities. My feeling is that the top US schools are much more international, but when one takes the average across all universities in the US, then the number must be much lower (I’d be grateful if someone could point me to some numbers).

Nevertheless, it’s worth having a closer look. One challenge that the article did not talk about, and did not present any data on, is that people come to Holland because Holland is able to offer a competitive net wage in the first 8 years (because of the so-called 30 percent rule, which states that 30 percent of the gross income is not taxed). But Dutch universities are not prepared to top up the gross salary after those 8 years so that the net wage stays the same, and therefore many people actually leave. I know of at least two full professors who deliberately started to look for a new job about 1 or 2 years before their preferential tax treatment expired. They talked about it openly over lunch. I believe institutions still have to learn here, provided that they want to retain international faculty beyond the 8 year grace period.

This is one of the reasons why it is actually not the case that international faculty also climb up in the organization and become sufficiently involved in the decision making as heads of departments, members of the university board, or in the university council.

The university council is the highest committee in which employees and students have a say. The university board has to seek its approval for all major decisions. But in fact, the university council is one of the few places on campus where all documents are still in Dutch and where the rule is not followed that as soon as a non-Dutch speaker joins a discussion one would automatically switch to English. This is why in the spring we have founded a new initiative, TiU International. We have won 2 out of 9 seats in the council straight away. I will join as one of the two members. First, in the next days we will have to find out how we can overcome the reluctance of everybody to speak English.

Another reason why Dutch universities are less international than they could be is that institutions are sometimes not compatible with what is the international standard. For example, it is deeply rooted in the societal norms, and hence in all kinds of regulations and customs, that the top wage one can earn at a university should not be too high (there is a recent decision on the payment of top administrators). This kind of regulation is also the reason why banks now move whole departments out of Holland.

Besides, it always strikes me as somewhat odd that in Holland, Ph.D. students are also counted as scientific staff. By international standards, at least in economics (as I have described in an earlier post), they are still students who first take two years of courses and afterwards work on their dissertation. They then go on the international job market, join another university and only after that publish their work as a member of that new university. So, the name of a Dutch university will never appear on their best publications. This is perfectly fine, because they still contribute to the reputation of the university they got their Ph.D. from. For instance, the international academic community knows that Ralph Koijen who was first at the University of Chicago and is now at London Business School got his Ph.D. from Tilburg University. Just in the same way as firms would know that somebody got his Master’s degree from our university. The major challenge for us is that we have to pay our Ph.D. students as if they were regular employees. And there is no reason why we should. Instead, we could also pay them a scholarship (which saves us the high social security contributions). At the same time, it is of course true that they do some work that resembles work done by a regular employee. For instance, in my department, a Ph.D. student is supposed to spend 200 hours per year on teaching-related activities. For this time, they should indeed be paid as regular employees. But not for writing their thesis or attending courses. So also here, the institutions in Holland are lacking behind what is the international standard, at least the one at top US universities.

Overall, I believe Dutch universities are relatively international on the surface, but there is a long way to go until they are really international. 80 to 90 percent of the students at Dutch universities are still Dutch, which means that they are not yet successful in attracting international students. Moreover, institutions in Holland and also within our university are not yet prepared to support us in systematically retaining top international researchers and let them participate in the decision making. There is a chance that involving international staff in the decision making will help to overcome the former failure. We have started working on it here in Tilburg.