Jobs, language, the weather: why don’t international students stay on?


A record 90,000 international students are currently studying at Dutch universities and now account for some 10% of the student body. Despite programmes encouraging them to stay, most of them leave when they graduate – even though many would like to make the Netherlands their home. Molly Quell finds out why.

In 2013, EP-Nuffic, the organisation for international cooperation in higher education, started a programme called Make It In The Netherlands (MIITN), aimed at retaining the foreign students who studied in the country, but left after graduation.

When MIITN was launched, the numbers were pretty bleak. According to Nuffic, 70% of international students wanted to remain in the Netherlands when they graduated, yet only 27% actually did so.

International students are said to cost the Dutch taxpayer an estimated €108 million per year and that money, according to official reasoning, is only recouped if those students stay on after graduation and work.

‘The recruitment and retention of talented international students is of great importance to the Dutch knowledge economy,’ says education ministry spokesman Michiel Hendrikx.


Yet, despite the increasing internationalisation of the Dutch economy, the number one reason the students depart is because they are unable to find a job. ‘My decision to stay or leave is based purely on career prospects,’ says Molly Harper, a bachelor’s student from Britain studying plant biology.

Bulgarian Marko Markov, who is taking international business and management studies, agrees: ‘I would stay on in the Netherlands as long as I can find a job,’ he says.

The MIITN research shows the main reasons for the lack of employment options are the subject studied, the language, legislation and being unfamiliar with the Dutch labour market. Aastha Tyagi who is pursuing a degree in international relations at the VU university in Amsterdam, cites discrimination as another reason. ‘It seems as if it is harder for international students to get jobs,’ he said.


However, there is a mismatch between the subjects students are taking and the jobs market. ‘Students’ study choices could be better, given the demand in the labour market,’ says MIITN. This is an issue which affects Dutch as well as international students and a number of programmes are underway to try to improve the balance.

International students themselves cite the language barrier as the most difficult obstacle to overcome. Lucas Milani, despite studying one of the more in-demand specialties by pursuing a master’s degree in medical and pharmaceutical drug innovation, does not expect to remain in the Netherlands, as he feels he would ‘need to speak Dutch fluently’.

Language barrier

Not being able to speak Dutch weakens students’ positions in the labour market but efforts to stimulate more students to study the language are also failing to have much impact.

MIITN originally proposed developing online courses or MOOCs, and encouraged universities to make their language courses more accessible. Ultimately the MOOC became an app. And at the same time the Dutch government was acknowledging that learning the language is crucial to integration, it was cutting the subsidies for low cost language courses offered through local councils.

The Dutch government’s own statistics suggest one needs 500-600 hours of study to master Dutch at a level of work proficiency. Bachelor’s students would need to tack 5-6 hours on to their study schedules to obtain that proficiency before they graduate. The prospects are even worse for master’s students, whose programmes typically only last one or two years.


Yet even if students learn Dutch, there are still serious problems with integration. ‘The Dutch students that I know have been really nice and helpful but when we socialise, I feel like I am not part of their group,’ says Tyagi.

MIITN acknowledges the integration issue and has instituted, among other things, a buddy programme to facilitate understanding between Dutch and international students. Even within English-language programmes, integration is an issue.

‘I was also put on an entirely Dutch team for one of my latest projects and I was constantly being mocked for not being Dutch. The teachers would come to us,
speak Dutch all the time and ignore me,’ says Desislava Petkova, an art and technology bachelor’s student.


But not all the problems are social and cultural. There are many very practical problems such as residency permits for non-EU nationals. International students who have graduated from a Dutch university can now take one year to search for work upon graduation through the orientation year programme.

Even getting internships to complete their degrees can be difficult. ‘I am looking for internships in government offices over the summer, but the language has been a
barrier,’ one international student said.

Further adjustments also now allow employers to employ recent graduates as highly skilled migrants without meeting the normal salary requirements. Morshed Mannan, who recently completed an LLM in law, credits the orientation year permit with helping him stay here. ‘This means you can search for jobs and even start working as soon as you graduate,’ he says.


While Nuffic and other agencies can certainly make improvements for foreign students, all the resources of the Dutch government cannot change another factor that is often cited by international students for leaving after graduation: the weather.

Desislava Petkova says ‘I dream about sunny beaches and palm trees’. Milani also cited the dark and cold weather as the main reason why he plans to move back to his native Brazil.

Yet, despite the uphill battle, the MIITN programme has shown some improvement in retention rates. A recent study by Nuffic showed that 38% of international students who wish to stay are now doing so, compared with the 27% when the programme began.

Ultimately, however, there may simply not be much any government programme can accomplish. And the MIITN programme doesn’t credit itself for the positives of Dutch society either. Bulgarian student Marko Markov says:  ‘As a gay man, the experience of not being discriminated against or abused is just amazing.’

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