Recently published research reports: Students below 18 and justifiable causes

Research relating to international students below 18

At the end of last year, the National Commission (NC) put out a digital survey to all educational institutions included in the register of the Code of Conduct regarding international students below 18. Each year, several international students, some of whom turn 18 soon after the start of the academic year, graduate from Dutch higher education. Another part is just 16 or 17 years old when they start their education in the Netherlands. Each year, a few students are even only 15 years old at the start of their studies. These students, both from inside and outside the EU, form a young and vulnerable group. The Commission intends to use this research to positively enhance the students’ well-being by making an inventory of themes for which students under 18 may need (additional) support or help, which educational institutions may pay extra attention to. The research may also contribute to a clarification of the text of the Code of Conduct, which may also be addressed in the current evaluation of the Code of Conduct. The research was completed in March 2021. You can download the report here.

58 educational institutions (73%) completed the survey. The survey covered two academic years. In 2019-2020, the major part of the international students below 18 was admitted to regular (Bachelor’s) degree programmes; 7% of the students were admitted to a preparatory year. One academic year later, the majority of the international students below 18 were also admitted to regular (Bachelor’s) degree programmes, and 9% of the students were admitted to a preparatory year.

number student below 18The educational institutions answered that no – or only a few – problems occurred in the group of international students below 18. Additional information and supervision prevent many issues. However, several educational institutions indicate that it is essential to pay attention to the possible psychological, social-emotional or physical problems this group may encounter.

Initially, the educational institutions have the responsibility to develop and execute policies for this. This may, for instance, include a safety net. The safety net may be based on early identification: each international student may contact their study coach for questions or support. Depending on the question, the international student will be referred to a student psychologist, or a student counsellor may help the student finding other forms of care services. International students may also call on existing services in case of legal problems or complaints. The international student must report any issues, exceptional circumstances or help questions themselves. That is not always obvious. The influence of cultural differences, loss of face and pressure from the home country to succeed can be significant. Although this is the case for all international students, it is a particular point of attention for students below 18.

Practically speaking, the educational institutions would benefit from national agreements with banks and other bodies so that international students (below 18) would experience fewer obstacles and may start their studies in the Netherlands without problems. Examples are the inclusion in the municipal persons database and opening a bank account. Currently, the educational institutions offer additional services, for instance, in the provision of information. They also provide support services in the area of housing. A lease contract may be signed digitally, enabling parents of international students (below 18) to sign at a distance. If a digital signature is not possible, the international student’s parent/guardian must be present to sign the lease contract.

The next step
The NC thinks that particularly this group of very young and vulnerable students need a further detailing of the duty of care of the educational institutions since they have to deal with specific issues and require additional support. The role of the contact with the international student’s parents needs attention too, both before and during studying in the Netherlands. Regulations and procedures may apply to specific issues relating to international students below 18, such as compulsory education (for students of 15 years old), housing, including signing the lease contract and applying for housing allowances), registration in the municipal persons database, opening a bank account, taking out a healthcare insurance and the use of alcohol and other stimulating substances. The current situation relating to COVID-19 and the restrictions that apply both inside and outside of the educational institutions (including a quarantine requirement) make the above all the more urgent.

For this reason, the NC requested the umbrella organisations to discuss this in the current evaluation of the Code of Conduct. It suggests adding a provision to the Code of Conduct, which defines the extra duty of care that rests on the educational institutions concerning international students below 18. Adding such a provision will increase awareness relating to this theme. Ideally, the provision will mention one or more additional supportive actions or indicate which services may be available for this group of students for their questions or problems.

Furthermore, the NC thinks that the educational institutions may be helped when they share information of best practices with each other and can turn to each other with questions relating to international students below 18. That is why the NC asked Nuffic to have the theme of ‘international students below 18’ a permanent item on the agenda of the periodical Mobstacles meetings so that the educational institutions may specifically discuss the issues of the group of international students.

Research relating to justifiable causes
If a student does not make sufficient study progress, the educational institution is obliged to deregister a student with the IND. However, in case of justifiable causes, the educational institution may make allowances and skip deregistration with the IND once. In 2018, during the seminar organised by the National Commission (NC), it became apparent that educational institutions sometimes may run into problems when assessing the justifiable causes of a study delay. Occasionally educational institutions have to deal with the personal circumstances that may affect study performance for several consecutive years. However, the pandemic greatly affected the students and the possibilities they had for proper studying.

Furthermore, the circumstances and the measures that apply, may lead to increased physical complaints, resulting in study delays. For that reason, in April 2020, June 2020 and December 2020, a joint meeting of the umbrella organisations, the NC and the relevant government authorities drafted further guidelines to accompany the Code of Conduct. In addition to this, the NC intends to use this research to identify existing bottlenecks and to simplify the relevant provision of the Code of Conduct where possible. The research may generate input for a clarification of the text of the Code of Conduct, which may be discussed during the current evaluation of the Code of Conduct.

Survey results
Firstly, the NC had exploratory meetings with the student counsellors of three educational institutions. After that, a survey was put out to the national meeting of university student counsellors (KBS) and student counsellors in higher professional education (LOShbo). The members of the Mobstacles network were also approached (a Nuffic working group of staff and stakeholders of educational institutions to discuss the obstacles experienced in student mobility). A total of 22 educational institutions responded to the survey. The survey was completed in February 2021. You can download the report here.

The responses present a varying picture. Some educational institutions indicated to seldom or never having had to deal with a situation in which the study delay of an international student had to be checked for justifiable causes. A larger group of educational institutions have a more significant number of international students. Several dozens of students need to have their study progress checked, including whether justifiable causes have delayed their studies. Finally, to several larger educational institutions monitoring study progress is a time-consuming and extensive process as it must be done for quite a large group of international students.

The research shows that the educational institutions’ policies vary at specific points and that sometimes they use different procedures. However, most educational institutions have a policy in which they (digitally) approach international students several times per academic year. The students are reminded that they need to make sufficient study progress and must report any personal circumstances that may delay their studies. In such a case, the international student has to contact a study adviser or student counsellor. All international students who do not meet the programme’s requirement at the end of the academic year receive a (digital) message. They are then informed about their lack of study progress and the possible deregistration with the IND. At this stage, students may still report any personal circumstances to the student counsellor.

This research concludes that the educational institutions do not need or require major adjustments to the relevant provision of the Code of Conduct. On the whole, the educational institutions can work well with the current text. The text fully fits the conditions for the Graduation Fund and the Binding Study Advice. The educational institutions are not unanimous whether it is desirable to be able to invoke the same circumstance more often as a justifiable cause. It must be possible to consider exceptional situations such as prolonged, severe illness or personal circumstances that continue beyond the academic year. The current regulations have a hardship clause to request reassessing justifiable causes, should rejection prove unfair. However, in this respect, the educational institutions point out that a second time of applying justifiable causes is not always the best solution to the personal circumstances that may arise in the life of an international student. It is important that it must be realistic for the student to complete their studies (at a later date).

The next step
The educational institutions have proposed several adjustments that may improve the execution of the regulations. The first is that they would like the Code of Conduct to clarify that invoking justifiable causes in the case of study delay does not automatically mean that the request will be granted. Furthermore, the educational institutions indicate that it is helpful to distinguish between the tasks and responsibilities of the educational institution and the IND. This may be achieved by moving parts of the text of Article 5.5 to Article 5.6 of the Code of Conduct. The resulting text in Article 5.5 would then only refer to the educational institutions’ care of duty: monitoring the international student’s study progress and assessing any justifiable causes in case of a study delay.

dilemma's eng

It may be arranged in Article 5.6 of the Code of Conduct that the educational institution shall notify the IND. This is a factual act following from previous assessment. The educational institution bears no responsibility regarding decisions about the international student’s right to stay. That is the prerogative of the IND.

The NC asked the umbrella organisations to consider the above textual suggestions and dilemmas in the discussions relating to the current evaluation of the Code of Conduct, aiming at a joint conversation about textual adjustments of the Code of Conduct. Furthermore, the NC will start talks with the umbrella organisations, the relevant ministries, the IND and Nuffic about:

  • The development of a flyer about the procedure of study progress monitoring. The international student should know what is expected of them, and that they timely should report any personal circumstances that may lead to study delay. Such a flyer may support the educational institutions in the execution of this task.
  • The mismatch between the WHW (Higher Education and Research Act) and the Aliens Act 2000. International students who have been deregistered from the IND by the educational institution due to insufficient study progress and lack of justifiable causes may reregister for the next academic year in a regular way, even if the IND has withdrawn their residence permit for study. The educational institutions cannot terminate these students’ registrations. That is undesirable to both the educational institution and the international student. It is suggested to include in the WHW a provision to block the registration from the moment that the IND has been notified. Alternatives could be that the WHW would include reregistration as a so-called ‘might be possible condition’ (enabling the educational institution to refuse the registration in case of not meeting the study progress requirement in the preceding academic year, or in case of a lack of a residence permit), or that the WHW would create the possibility of a conditional reregistration that may be refused in case of insufficient study progress and rejection of justifiable causes. In this context, one educational institution asked to maximise the interim transfer of international students to another educational institution to two times, for instance.