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For the president, travelling the world promoting the RUG is part of the way to ensure that the University of Groningen can keep growing as it has done in the last few decades.We may have gotten used to it, but there is no guarantee that growth will continue on its own – in fact, we know that the numbers of Dutch students in the near future will go down dramatically. Demographic research says so. Starting in 2002, the net growth of the Dutch population has virtually stagnated. The effects from this development will reach the universities in 2020 – by then, there simply won’t be enough Dutch students left to keep schools from shrinking. ‘For the university, it’s very important that that does not happen’, Poppema says. ‘Professors are being paid based on the number of students we have, and if there’s no students, there’s no money.’
What is now 12.8 percent internationals out of the total student population of the RUG would need to become 20 percent by 2020 in order to maintain the university’s current size, Poppema says. ‘I’d like the percentage of internationals to be at 20 or 30 percent, but where will they be coming from?’
Poppema has made it his mission to go and find them – personally, if necessary.
He became the president of the RUG in 2008 and has really pushed the internationalisation agenda, which had its humble beginnings in 2004. At that time, 1,217 foreign students – less than six percent of the student body – studied at the somewhat quiet university in the Dutch countryside, and lecturers were just beginning to have their English skills more rigorously tested by the Language Center.
Now? In 2014, 5,000 of the RUG’s bachelor, master and doctoral students come from abroad – that’s 18 percent of all students. Twenty percent of the staff is non-Dutch. There are also 121 English-language degree programmes offered at the RUG – that’s two-thirds of the master’s and about half of the bachelor’s.
Poppema and his fellow policy makers take pride in how far the University has come, but they all know it’s not far enough. There’s more to internationalisation than numbers.
The real challenge is to take all the different cultures, languages and people that come to Groningen and stir them together in order to create graduates who are truly ready for a globalised world.
That may sound a little pretentious, but that is really the challenge the RUG has set for itself for the near future. It doesn’t hurt that, in a time of government cutbacks, non-EU internationals pay between 7,500 and 32,000 Euros per year in tuition fees – at least four times more than what it costs a regular student to go to university.
That much sought-after mixing hasn’t been achieved by far, but it has to happen if Groningen really wants to get the Distinctive Quality Feature for Internationalisation from accreditor NVAO. The DQFI is a badge of honour for universities who have proven that they are really international on all levels. If nothing else, it improves the reputation of the university abroad and it’s a great way to encourage more diversity.
The RUG has until 2017 to prove itself, and the International Classroom project is one way the university hopes to get there. There have been two pilot programmes already that try to deal with the problem of Dutch and international students failing to mix more naturally.
Project manager Franka van den Hende is trying something different: in the International Classroom, the two groups are simply forced to work together. Van den Hende and her team know that integration in academia is good for everyone, whether they like it or not.
Another requirement is that everyone working at the university can speak English adequately, even the lunch lady. That’s also part of the newly proposed Dual-Plus language policy, which Van den Hende is working on, too. Basically, it means that the university wants everybody to speak English, at least a little Dutch and, ideally, a third language.
However, some lecturers see the language requirements as a burden, and the chances are slim that a professor who refuses to improve would be fired. That’s exactly the problem that arose with earlier attempts to regulate language at the RUG – improving your skills pretty much has to remain voluntary.
Anje Dijk, director of the Language Center, also thinks it’s a pity that there are fewer and fewer options for students to learn this recommended third language. ‘We used to offer French and Spanish within certain programmes, but it was decided to take that out because of budget cuts.’
At least the university is actively stimulating international students to learn Dutch by offering it for free, but how can you really get the internationals and Dutch students on the same page? Even in English-taught classes, Dutch students tend to revert back to their mother tongue whenever they get the chance: take the Math and Natural Science department, for example. They introduced 10 English-taught bachelor programmes in 2013, but since most of the students are Dutch, questions in the lectures and conversations over lunch inevitably return to Dutch, leaving internationals out in the cold.
When it comes to housing, the international students are on the outskirts in more ways than one. While Dutch student rooms are tucked throughout Groningen, the non-Dutch students are often relegated to massive international student housing blocks like Winscho and Selwerd. These temporary homes typically have more than just an air of neglect.
International students in Selwerd were victims of fraud after their DigiD usernames and passwords were fished out of their mailboxes, but at least they managed to find housing. At the beginning of the 2013 academic year, the housing office only had 1,450 rooms for international undergraduates and 65 for PhD’s – less than enough for one-third of the students at the RUG right now. Also, several Asian international students have faced discrimination from Dutch students – even in their student homes.
For the RUG to be able to honestly call itself international, students have to be treated the same, no matter where they’re from, and language can’t be used as a tool of division. Franke van den Hende wholeheartedly agrees: ‘As I see it, English is a tool to create diversity.’
Even though the university is working hard to get its act together, they aren’t the only ones. Wageningen UR and Maastricht University are going global too, and fast. Both have already been awarded the Distinctive Quality Feature for Internationalisation in 2012 and 2013 respectively.