Development of guidelines for the Code of Conduct for Higher Education

In April the Commission published an extra edition of this newsletter to inform you about the guidelines established in coordination with the umbrella organizations, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, the Ministry of Justice and Security, and the Immigration and Naturalisation Service. These guidelines concern the option to excuse international students who fall behind in their studies due to the coronavirus and the requirement under the Code of Conduct that these students take an English-language test. As the chair indicated earlier in this newsletter, measures to combat the coronavirus are having a major impact on higher education. That applies equally to the implementation of the Code of Conduct. The Commission and other stakeholders hope that the guidelines will help in dealing with some of these challenges. We are well aware that the Code of Conduct is just one piece of a larger puzzle. Here, we would like to give a sense of how the guidelines came about and which factors were important.

The first questions about the Code of Conduct started to trickle in approximately a week before the Dutch government announced that higher educational institutions would also no longer be allowed to give physical instruction. The questions grew as it became clearer that these measures would be in place for some time. For the Commission it was apparent that further provisions were urgently needed for the Code of Conduct, in particular to explain how the Code should be understood in these times of corona and to create room to manoeuvre. First of all, this meant making decisions about international students enrolled now who may fall behind as a result of the coronavirus. Many students would clearly be unable to take classes for a long time and that would have certain consequences. Furthermore, prospective international students were having difficulty taking the language tests accepted under the Code of Conduct. Many testing locations were (and remain) closed due to the measures in their home countries. This made it impossible to take language tests as required.


Role of the Commission
As you know, the Code of Conduct is a product of self-regulation by the higher education sector, as represented by the umbrella organizations (the Netherlands Council for Training and Education (NRTO), the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences and the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU)). The Code of Conduct exists thanks to the trust and cooperation of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, the Ministry of Justice and Security and the Immigration and Naturalisation Service. In the event of changes to the text of the Code or, as is the case now, of adopting temporary guidelines, it is vital that decisions are supported by all parties. The Code stipulates that the umbrella organizations must come to a consensus proposal. Once approved by the Commission, the proposal can be presented to the government stakeholders for their assent. In drawing up the guidelines, the Commission has taken on an intermediary role by drafting proposed texts and repeatedly consulting with all parties. As previously stated, it was essential to first bring the education sector into alignment, since after all the Code belongs to the whole sector. After around three weeks it was clear that the text of the (by then adopted) guideline was supported. In situations like this faster decision-making is of course always preferable, but the Commission greatly appreciates the efforts made by the various parties, both administrative and ministerial. An additional valuable informative role was also played by Nuffic in this process.

Language tests accepted under the Code of Conduct 
The Commission has received many questions about which language tests are permissible under the anticipated eased guidelines and why these tests were chosen in particular. The main argument for only permitting language tests administered by the Code of Conduct’s accepted providers was pragmatic. We have sought to stay as close as possible to the existing text of the Code. We know that these providers are independent. Their tests were already assessed previously and are regarded as being reliable by the international sector. A second step is assessing individual language tests on quality assurance. The reason for this is that these are online tests that diverge from the regular language tests administered at testing locations. It must be determined whether providers have taken due care in verifying test-takers’ identity and if sufficient anti-fraud measures are in place. The test content is also evaluated. Is it set up to assess language proficiency at the academic level and does it cover all components of reading, speaking, writing and listening? Tests must furthermore result in a certificate. For this assessment we are relying on the expertise of members of the umbrella organizations, and especially on advices of the NUT (Network of Language Centres of  Eductional Institutions).

Lastly, the Commission wishes to emphasize that language policy is not only an issue that is at the heart of the Code of Conduct, but that it is also a sensitive topic. The influx of English-speaking international students was one of the original reasons for creating this Code in 2006. Since then, many steps have been taken to elaborate the language policy laid down in the Code, which serves as a basis for assessing international students’ eligibility for admission. This has been crucial for creating trust in this policy among government parties over the past years. That trust has helped make it possible to roll out the Modern Migration Policy in 2013, substantially reducing procedures and also convincing the Immigration and Naturalisation Service that the higher education sector is carefully developing an admission policy for non-EEA students based on the Code of Conduct. For this reason the Commission and the aforementioned parties wish to ensure careful assessment of language tests in accordance with the above criteria. It is vital that we retain the government’s trust and cooperation in the Code of Conduct – now and in the long term. The Commission therefore calls on everyone involved in admitting and informing international students to continue taking due care in these chaotic times – perhaps even more than ever.