Shock election win by the far right worries academics in the Netherlands

Geert Wilders in 2014. Bron: Rijksoverheid

If Geert Wilders’s party can form government, it could restrict international students and scrap key climate policies.

Science Magazine

Last week, a day after voters in the Netherlands delivered a surprise victory to far-right parties that have vowed to restrict immigration, Vinod Subramaniam, a nanoscientist and president of the board at the University of Twente, sent a letter to students and employees. “We are concerned about the effects of these results on higher education in general, and about the feelings within our community,” Subramaniam wrote. “As a university, we stand for an open, diverse and inclusive community, looking outwards.”

Subramaniam was reacting to the unexpected victory of the Party for Freedom (PVV) led by anti-Islamist Geert Wilders. The PVV won roughly 23% of the vote in the 22 November election, making it the largest party in the Dutch parliament and first in line to attempt to form a coalition government. Those potentially lengthy negotiations began this week, and political analysts say they could ultimately produce a government dominated by Wilders’s right-wing allies—a prospect that worries many Dutch researchers, who see their nationalist and anti-immigrant agenda as a threat to the scientific community.

One concern is that a Wilders-led government would place major restrictions on international students, who make up 15% of students at Dutch universities. The country has recently been debating how to cope with the pressure placed on universities by the “internationalization” of higher education. The outgoing science minister, theoretical physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf, has proposed reducing international student numbers by mandating that two-thirds of bachelor’s courses be taught in Dutch and not, for example, in English.

A government led by Wilders is expected to push a lot harder on this issue. In its election manifesto, the PVV writes that universities’ primary responsibility should be to Dutch students; the party wants student migration to be “rigorously limited” and plans to eliminate all English-language undergraduate courses. Several other potential coalition partners, including the center-right New Social Contract, have expressed similar desires.

A large reduction in international students would create financial challenges for most Dutch universities, Subramaniam warns. And he asserts that an exodus of English-speaking staff and foreign students would lower the quality of education. “Our Dutch students learn a lot from their international peers,” he says.

Subramaniam notes that another European nation, Denmark, took steps in 2021 to reduce its cohort of international students. But it is now partly reversing course because these students are needed to fill jobs in many sectors. Subramaniam hopes that scenario can be prevented in the Netherlands. “Once talent leaves, it takes a lot of time to get them back,” he says.

Wilders also wants the Netherlands to leave the European Union, stating that the country pays in more than it receives. But in the science funding arena, the opposite is true, says Marcel Levi, chair of national science funder the Dutch Research Council, because Dutch scientists are so successful at applying for funds from the EU’s Horizon Europe funding scheme. A so-called Nexit would also restrict the ability of Dutch scientists to study and work elsewhere in Europe. “Knowledge doesn’t stop at the border,” says Marileen Dogterom, president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. “It harms Dutch students and academics if they cannot go abroad.”

The PVV also intends to scrap climate policies aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions and focus only on adaptation measures, such as raising dikes to prevent flooding. It wants to get rid of measures to reduce nitrogen emissions—such as limiting livestock numbers and closing farms—which have been a point of contention among the nation’s farmers. Eliminating the nitrogen rules is also a key goal of the Farmers and Citizens Party, a potential coalition partner that emerged in protest to these measures in 2019.

The PVV’s manifesto is light on detail about other science-related policies. Although Wilders wants to abolish government subsidies for arts and culture, party platforms don’t mention investments in science and technology. But the PVV’s potential coalition partners seem relatively positive about the value of research. “That offers some hope,” Levi says. “We will continue to emphasize our message that investing in science is an investment that pays for itself.” On the other hand, Wilders has a reputation for refuting facts and data that contradict his opinions and framing experts as part of the elite he is opposing.

A Wilders-led government is not yet a sure thing. This week he appointed Ronald Plasterk, a former molecular biologist and science minister who has criticized the Dutch government’s climate policy and reliance on renewable energy, to explore possible coalition options. In the meantime, Subramaniam is trying to send a clear, reassuring message to the international members of his community and the academic community as a whole: “You belong here. You are welcome.”


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