May the future be orange!

Nieuws | de redactie
25 februari 2008 | I've heard professors at Berkeley talk about Europe and Asia; Germany and Japan are my Economics professor's favorite 'other countries', but I have never heard anyone speak of internationalization. While that of course may simply be the result of the fact that I don't get to speak enough people, I believe otherwise. It is my educated guess that (the concern for) internationalization is a very European idiosyncrasy.

This is not to imply that American academics are unaware of lifeoutside of their country and of phenomena that we like to captureby the word ‘globalization’. What I’m saying is that their interestin these phenomena seems to be focused mainly on topics such as(economic) outsourcing and environmental issues, not on academiccooperation and mobility. Not because they do not care, but simplybecause they do not have to worry: America already attracts themost ambitious students and most highly regarded scholars.

While I find myself surprised, from time to time, when I hearpeople around me speak Norwegian / Farsi / Serbo-Croatian orCantonese and while I’m still not used to the sight of 80 Asians inmy (Economics) class of 100, I seem to be the only one who notices.Both for Berkeley students and professors, international diversityseems to be nothing novel. Furthermore, when the public relationsoffice boasts “Berkeley’s rich diversity” or when the Chancellordeclares Berkeley’s “mission to support diversity, equity andinclusion” (preferably when funding cuts are looming), they arereferring to ethnic minorities within the U.S. rather than toforeign students and scholars.

For Dutch higher education, however, internationalization is stillmainly unclaimed territory. Admittedly, the number of studentsspending a semester abroad is increasing and our researchers arerelatively successful in obtaining European research grants (we didgreat, for example, in the first round of the ERC Starting Grandcompetition). But even though we offer the highest number ofEnglish programmes in Europe (excluding the UK), we do a poor jobof attracting foreign students: the percentage of foreign studentsof the total student population in the Netherlands is a mere 5.6%compared to the European average of 7.2% and top scores of 9.2% inSweden and 11.5% in Germany (Nuffic, Mobility Key Figures 2007). Apart of the explanation we will find in our strict immigrationpolicies and relatively high tuition fees (especially fornon-Europeans), a part we must perhaps look for in our academicculture.

I will conclude with my own experiences of studying abroad. What Ithink stands out is the ease by which I have settled here inBerkeley. Not through the help of some ‘internationalization’agency or the warm guidance of a ‘foreign student councilor’, butsimply because everyone seems to accept my presence as a naturalfact. One of my clearest memories is that of a mother crying, longand intense, as she was struggling to say goodbye to her son, whowas about to start his studies here at Berkeley. An Americanmother, I should add, of an American student. It was this sightwhich made me realize that I am not alone here. There are very few- very few – local students here. Undergraduate and graduatestudents alike come to study at Berkeley from every corner of thecountry. And while a Dutch student at the University of Amsterdammight still spend most of his time with his Amersfoort friends, ortravel to Middelburg over the weekend to visit her parents (and doher laundry), there is no way a Berkeley student would still hangout with his friends in Wisconsin, Madison, Miami, Florida or NewYork City, New York. The logical consequence: it is less of achallenge to ‘build up a new life’ when everyone around you isdoing the same thing.

I believe the opposite is true of the Netherlands. If my accountholds ground, it explains the complexity of getting moreinternational students to the Netherlands, for socio-culturalfactors underlying our countries’ unattractiveness to foreignstudents are unlikely to have a quick and easy solution. Let thisnot lead to negativity. Just like it was the ambition andpersistence of one professor at the University of Amsterdam thatled to the start of an exchange with UC Berkeley’s Sociologydepartment, the ambition and effort of good people, when wellguided by their institutions, can bring us much more. Add to thatthe ‘best practices’ that we find, for example, in our country’sArt Schools and let us conclude that ’the future is bright’ indeedand, with some effort, it will be orange.

Jonathan Mijs

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