Growth international student population declines further

The international student population in the Netherlands is growing more slowly than in previous years. This is according to our latest research on incoming diploma mobility in Dutch hbo and wo. In the academic year 2023 - 2024, 5% more international bachelor's and master's students were studying in the Netherlands than the previous year. This growth is the slowest since the academic year 2014-2015.

This seems to show a flattening of the growth curve in the international student population. ‘While we are still seeing growth, it is a world of difference from the double-digit growth rates we saw in previous years’, argues Nuffic researcher Saoradh Favier. ‘Indeed, in university undergraduate courses, it is the first time we have seen no increase in the number of new international students.’

An earlier version of this article stated that 1 in 6 international bachelor’s students at research universities is enrolled on a Dutch-taught study programme (8,915 students in total). This was based on an error in the research report, which we have now corrected.

Every year, Nuffic researches incoming diploma mobility. We do this based on data from the Education Executive Agency (DUO). By 'incoming diploma mobility' we mean the international students following a full bachelor's or master's programme at a Dutch higher education institution. Students who spend a semester in the Netherlands, and/or are here on an Erasmus scholarship, are not included.

In total, some 128,000 international students were enrolled in full degree programmes last year. This amounts to 16% of the total student population in higher education in the Netherlands. In the previous academic year, it was 14.8%.

Causes for declining growth

‘The declining growth is in line with the trend that started last year’, explains Saoradh. ‘Then, the growth rate was 7%, and now it’s down to 5%." The declining growth could have several explanations, the researcher suspects.

Scarcity of student housing may, for example, play a role, Saoradh (photo) thinks. ‘For example, more and more institutions are discouraging students from coming to the Netherlands if they have not found a room a month before their studies start. We don’t know exactly what effect this has, but we can note that institutions were already taking this measure during the period when growth was levelling off.

In addition, the call by outgoing minister Dijkgraaf to stop actively recruiting international students may have been influential.’ She also notes that after a period of strong growth, a flattened curve may be in line with expectations. ‘Of course, you can't sustain such relatively high growth indefinitely. At some point such a steep curve will flatten out.’

No growth in enrolment at university undergraduate level

Out of all international students in higher education, 44% are pursuing a university bachelor's degree. What is striking is that for the first time, the new intake has not grown. In the academic year 2023 - 2024, about 20,600 international bachelor's students started at Dutch universities. That is the same number as the year before. Again, we can see that a previously strong upward trend has now flattened out’, Saoradh says.

'The intake of higher education students from Ukraine is still increasing.'

In 2022-2023, the number of new students from Ukraine doubled compared with the previous year. The most recent figures show that the number of new students grew again, this time by 18%. ‘The explanations are obvious: due to the outbreak of war in that country, a relatively large number of students from Ukraine came here in 2022. That growth is continuing, but clearly at a slower pace.’

According to Saoradh, students from Ukraine mainly end up in higher professional education (hbo). ‘The majority of students from Ukraine are doing a bachelor's degree at a university of applied sciences. A high school diploma in Ukraine is the equivalent of a Dutch senior general secondary education (HAVO) diploma. Moving on to higher professional education is the obvious choice from there.’

High percentage in North and South Holland

In higher professional education, engineering is the fastest-growing discipline for the second year in a row, the survey further shows. 8,300 international engineering students were enrolled at Dutch universities of applied sciences in 2023-2024. That is 13% more than the previous year.

Besides the type of studies, the research report also shows for the first time the region where international students ended up. For instance, 44% of international students in the Netherlands in the academic year 2023-2024 study in the provinces of North and South Holland. The two provinces thus account for the lion's share of the international student population.

‘That makes sense, because those places also host 40% of all higher education students’, Saoradh points out. ‘Nevertheless, the national distribution of international students seems to differ slightly from the general student population. Less than 1% of the international student population is studying in provinces like Zeeland and Drenthe.’

'You do need to have a certain level of Dutch to take these courses.'

International students in Dutch-taught programmes

Another striking point revealed by the study is that not all international undergraduates at universities opt for a purely English-taught degree programme. Indeed, 2,200 international undergraduate students here are enrolled on a Dutch-taught programme.

‘It is not the case that in these courses, all subjects and texts are in Dutch’, Saoradh points out. ‘But you do need to have a certain level of Dutch to take these courses, typically C1 or C2.’

Read the full report