Tom van Veen on internationalisation (and why it matters)

During the opening of this academic year, the President of Maastricht University, Prof. Dr. Martin Paul addressed rumours that the Netherlands will put restrictions on the internationalisation of universities, making it clear that Maastricht University will continue on its chosen path of an international and European profile.

As one of the first faculties to introduce English courses and exchange programmes in the 1990s, Maastricht University’s School of Business and Economics (SBE) has long been an advocate for internationalisation. One of the academics that has lead the way for SBE on its journey towards internationalisation is Professor Tom van Veen.

We reached out to Tom to find out how SBE became the international faculty it is today and to hear his thoughts on the recent pushback against internationalisation in the Netherlands.

SBE's origin story

Tom van Veen is considered one of the founding fathers of SBE: he was hired in 1983, fresh from university, with four other economists to build the programme from scratch. ‘When I joined the faculty, everything was a challenge. There was no curriculum, no teaching programme, no research programme… There wasn’t even an economics library!’

Tom also needed to receive training in Problem Based Learning (PBL). At the time, PBL was still a new concept and mostly used in medical schools. Tom and his colleagues were responsible for adapting this approach to economics. When reflecting on his first encounter with PBL, Tom notes ‘I was immediately attracted by the concept of PBL. Before arriving in Maastricht, I taught at the University of Groningen for large groups. I was a bit annoyed by this way of teaching as there was very little input from students.’

In Spring 1984, the first professors arrived at the faculty with the first student arriving a couple months later. At this point, all classes and programmes were in Dutch and the curriculum was Dutch-centric; however, this started to change by the early 1990s.

SBE opens up to the world

In the early 1990s, SBE was doing well and growing steadily; however, Tom and his colleagues noticed a trend: Dutch students were increasingly choosing to study close to home. This meant that it was difficult to recruit students from the more populated regions of the country. Furthermore, they realised that Limburg was ageing at a faster pace than the rest of the Netherlands, with families reducing in size significantly. If the faculty wanted to continue to grow, it became evident that SBE should reach out to international students only a few kilometres away in neighbouring Germany and Belgium.

At the same time that SBE started to welcome students from across the border, the faculty also started its exchange programme, supported by EU funding. This led the faculty to introduce some classes in English. For several years, the faculty was bilingual, offering both Dutch and English programmes. Eventually, it switched to English only. Tom recalls ‘When we made this decision, we were a bit worried that we might push away Dutch students. But in the end, we decided we wanted students who are looking for international exposure and who have an international mindset.’


Today, around 40% of SBE’s students and staff come from abroad. Furthermore, all SBE students are required to do a study exchange abroad. When reflecting on how the faculty has evolved over the years, Tom says ‘I think internationalisation was a blessing for the university and a blessing for Maastricht. I also think that both Dutch and international students benefit a great deal from this environment. Before they arrive here, many students think that they are international because they have travelled abroad or because they speak English. However, when they enter into one of our international classrooms, they quickly find that they are not as international as they thought. When students need to work in a group, they are faced with cultural barriers and other challenges they did not expect. By having students go on an exchange and follow PBL classes with other students from around the world, they truly become international. Learning how to interact, communicate and collaborate with people with a different background and culture is an invaluable skill for the labour market.’

The future of internationalisation

When asked what he thinks about recent pushback to internationalisation in higher education in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe, Tom says ‘I think this is a very strange development. We live in a globalised world. That also implies for me that even if you work for a local company in Maastricht, at some point in your career, you will work in an international context and with people from different countries and cultures. For this reason, I think that students need to have international exposure and to meet international students, either in Maastricht or abroad.’

Tom adds ‘At the same time, the Dutch Minister of Education has argued that Dutch universities should only teach in English if they can explain why this is necessary. In this case, I think here at SBE we can build a strong case. Furthermore, the Minister has put forth the policy that all international students be given the opportunity to learn Dutch, which is something that Martin Paul has already started to implement some years ago at Maastricht University. I am very much in favour of this, because it goes both ways: it’s also important that the international students mix and mingle with the Dutch community.’

‘I also understand that the Minister wants to avoid creating a dependency on international students. In some countries, such as Australia where I spent my sabbaticals, international education is one of their top export products. I think that if the Dutch Minister wants to prevent this from happening in the Netherlands, it’s a good thing. My position has always been that we are not in this game for the money. The goal of internationalisation is primarily to benefit the students by preparing them for the labour market.’

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