The effect of COVID-19 on the Netherlands' international student numbers

  • 8 min read
The effect of COVID-19 on the Netherlands' international student numbers

The number of international students enrolling in Dutch higher-education institutes has steadily increased year after year. In 2005, international students represented only 5.5% of the Dutch student body. By 2019, this had climbed to 12.3%.

Just as the Netherlands was beginning to tighten its grip on the lucrative overseas market, the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to halt, or even reverse, its progress.

Figures from the Dutch Immigration and Naturalization Service (IND)1 reveal a 50% reduction in international student applications to Dutch universities.

Travel restrictions, application delays, and scholarship cuts could have plunged the nation into higher-education turmoil, but sustained student interest seems to have kept its institutions afloat.

How important are international students to the Netherlands?

International students are a welcome source of revenue for the Dutch government.

A recent study by the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis2 found that each non-EU student studying at a university of applied sciences contributes €68,500 to the Dutch economy per year. If they’re enrolled at a research university, this figure can reach up to €96,300 annually.

Overseas pupils are a huge financial asset to the country, so claiming and maintaining the market share should be a top priority.

Joreon Wienen, spokesperson for Nuffic2, the Dutch organization for internationalization in education, summarizes: “From the moment internationals arrive as students, they add to our country, both in the classroom and beyond”.

Where did international students come from before the pandemic?

According to statistics gathered by Nuffic3, over 72% of foreign students studying in the Netherlands came from inside the EU. European, EAA, and Swiss nationals benefit from affordable tuition fees of just €2,140 per year.

With pupils receiving a top-notch education at a fraction of the price of other countries, the Netherlands cemented its position as one of Europe’s cheapest study abroad destinations.

The remaining 27% or so of international students in the Netherlands hail from a non-EEA nation. Of this cohort, 16% originate from these ten countries:

  • Brazil
  • China
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Mexico
  • Russia
  • South Africa
  • South Korea
  • Turkey
  • Vietnam

These nations have been identified as key markets by the Dutch government, so they’ve established Netherlands Education Support Offices (Neso) in them. The offices aim to maintain and improve relations between these supply countries and the Netherlands.

Have international application numbers suffered?

Much like many other countries, international applications to Dutch institutions have plummeted in the past year. According to a report by the IND1, only 8,440 applications for student visas were processed in the first seven months of 2020, compared to 14,350 in the same period in 2019.

Nuffic conducted two surveys3 to monitor and understand the far-reaching impacts of the pandemic on international students’ plans to study in the Netherlands.

Published in May and July, the studies showcase the detrimental effects of the pandemic on student mobility but highlight pupil’s continued commitment to a Dutch education too.

Have students been deterred from studying abroad in the Netherlands?

Despite the delays, uncertainties, and stress, 69% of respondents who’d received a formal decision from a Dutch university still planned to travel to the Netherlands. Of these students, 39% were preparing to begin on-campus classes, while the remaining 30% would learn online.

In further promising news, only 15% of respondents wanted to begin their online studies from their home country. This illustrates that there’s still an appetite amongst international students to explore Dutch culture and immerse themselves in new surroundings, despite the difficult circumstances.

However, differences in attitude did exist between students from European and Neso countries. While 61% of EU students stated that they weren’t deterred from studying in the Netherlands, just 37% of Neso-country students felt the same.

Since Neso nations are of great strategic importance to the Netherlands, this poses a significant challenge to international recruitment efforts.

What are students’ concerns?

To better understand the reasons behind falling application and enrolment rates, the survey asked pupils to share their concerns about studying in the Netherlands:

  • Travel restrictions (62.8%)
  • Visa procedures (46.4%)
  • Finances (40.3%)
  • Scholarship possibilities (35.6%)
  • Mode of instruction (34.4%)
  • Concerns about access to healthcare (27.7%)
  • Concerns about personal health condition (24.1%)
  • Admission conditions (23.5%)
  • Enrollment decision (9.6%)

By appreciating the unprecedented challenges that international students are facing, your institution can work to alleviate at least some of these difficulties.

To build pupil confidence, the Dutch government and its universities need to be totally transparent with prospective students. Clear information on what teaching and learning will look like must be provided, and student’s practical concerns should be addressed quickly.

Taking a nationality-specific approach to uncertainties also helps to explain the higher percentage of Neso-students who’ve been deterred from studying in the Netherlands.

For instance, applications for governmental scholarship programs in Indonesia, Mexico, and Brazil were delayed after the Coronavirus outbreak. So, students who were set to begin their studies in September 2020 may not have had sufficient funds to cover their costs and follow through with their plans.

Moreover, trade sanctions, low oil prices, and drops in exchange rates continue to cause havoc for Brazilian, Turkish, Russian, and Mexican students. Many can no longer afford to study in the Netherlands, and any scholarships awarded in local currencies are unlikely to cover pupils’ tuition fees and living expenses.

Finally, Chinese and South Korean students were reported to be the most concerned about healthcare provision in the Netherlands. This is possibly because these countries were some of the first to experience a severe outbreak of the pandemic.

To minimize the detrimental effects of the pandemic on student recruitment, your university must tailor its marketing and communications to align with the queries and concerns of specific student cohorts. Generic messaging simply won’t cut it and could result in a severe drop off rate.

Has the pandemic affected students’ post-study plans?

It looks like the Dutch graduate market could be hit hard by the pandemic too. The Nuffic survey found that international graduates were now more eager to return home after completing their degree, compared to their pre-pandemic views.

Pre-pandemic, 57.3% of graduates wanted to continue living and working in the Netherlands. However, this dropped to 53.5% in recent months.

Moreover, the number of students planning on applying for a residence permit decreased from 72% to 56%, and the percentage of students who were positive about their career prospects in the Netherlands fell from 57.3% to 45.8%.

Although these changes are subtle, they indicate the negative effects of the global health crisis on internationalization.

What actions have Dutch universities taken?

Despite the problems it’s faced, the Netherlands has taken steps to actively mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. For instance, higher education institutions began accepting online language tests that students could easily complete from their homes.

Many universities also made adjustments to their admissions criteria so that students could enroll as long as they met the original entry criteria within a year.

The success of these strategies remains to be seen, but the sustained interest in the country as a study abroad destination is a positive sign.

What further actions could be taken?

In the Nuffic survey, over 20% of respondents asked extra questions in the open response field. This emphasizes a need for open, honest, and clear communication between institutions and their students.

Some of the most frequently asked questions related to whether classes would be online or in-person, as well as adjustments to admission criteria, student housing, tuition fees, and scholarships.

Providing students with clear and up-to-date information is crucial. Since most students use the internet as their primary research tool, you need to update your university website with the latest news on these topics of concern. This prevents students from feeling out of the loop or forgotten about.

A chance to rise up the ranks?

In an unexpected twist of fate, the Netherlands ’ efficient handling of the pandemic could increase its popularity with overseas pupils.

Historically popular destinations, like the UK and USA, have blundered their way through the pandemic without clear direction and by deploying often-divisive politics.

Such actions could have caused lasting damage to their international reputations. This leaves room for the Netherlands to make its mark as an affordable, inclusive, and high-quality option for international students.

What is the current picture?

Nobody can be certain of the long-term impacts the COVID-19 pandemic will have on the Dutch higher education system. On one hand, continued restrictions and lockdowns could hamper international student mobility for years to come.

On the other, sustained interest and predicted popularity increases could futureproof recruitment strategies and diversify supply countries. Only time will tell.


1 Minder aanvragen buitenlandse studenten door corona (IND, 2020)

2 Netherlands: fewer int’l grads likely to stay (The PIE News, 2020)

2 How is COVID-19 affecting international students’ plans to study in the Netherlands? (Nuffic, 2020)