A top education official in the Netherlands has threatened universities and colleges in the east of the country with closure if they continue to recruit students from just across the border in Germany.
Deputy Education Minister Halbe Zijlstra drew up a profit-loss analysis of student-exchange programmes between EU countries, Radio Netherlands reported. The analysis had been requested by parliament.
His conclusion was that the Netherlands spends more than €90 million a year providing higher education for 34,000 foreign students - most of whom leave the Netherlands after completing their education. In comparison, 19,000 Dutch students are studying abroad.
Of the 34,000 foreign students at Dutch universities, 24,000 are German. The Dutch government wants Germany to start making a contribution to the cost of educating these students. It points out that the number of Germans studying in the Netherlands is increasing by 14% annually.
In a letter to parliament, Zijlstra says he fears "an unbridled increase" in the numbers could lead to "seriously negative consequences" for some courses.
He says some colleges in the border region appear to recruit German students mainly because of a shortage of Dutch students. Some classes are taught exclusively in German and "do not appear to meet a strong demand from the Dutch labour market".
Zijlstra says he will take up the issue of financial compensation with the German government.
However, the minister also sees advantages in the exchange programmes. Foreign students are often highly motivated and have a positive effect on the results of Dutch students, provided they are in internationally mixed groups, not just among compatriots, he said.
Similar problem with Austria
But German students are crowding not only Dutch schools - Austria faces similar challenges. Since 2000 the number of German students in Austria has increased fourfold - to nearly 25,000, 9% of the student body in Austria.
There are some departments at the master level where one in three students are German.
The most crowded department is medicine. For nearly seven years Austria has been limiting the share of foreigners to one-fourth of the total.
Efforts to restrict foreign students violates the EU principle of non-discrimination. But the European Commission has been tolerating the limitation so far because of the huge number of German "numerus clausus refugees". Numerus clausus is a method to limit the number of students in the most sought-after studies.
In Austria too, there is a political debate about the costs of the academic education for foreigners, and the need of financial support either from EU structural funds or from Germany directly. But there has been no official bilateral claim so far.
Faced with a similar problem, Denmark and Sweden introduced cost-sharing systems in 1996.
Cool response from Berlin
The German government reacted negatively to the Dutch demands. Helge Braun, an official at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, told EurActiv Germany that Berlin "does not think much of an isolated solution for an isolated viewed problem."
Braun said Germany receives more foreign EU students than it sends abroad and, as a result, the country would earn more money than it paid from any system of compensation for foreign students. He added that the issues of bi-national compensations and quotas for students have yet to be discussed by EU education ministers.
A similar position was evidenced at a recent meeting between Austrian Minister of Science and Research Karlheinz Töchterle and his German counterpart Annette Schavan. Germany indicated that it would not be willing to pay compensation for its abroad students.
Schavan said Germany was already spending money to expand the capacity of its own universities. Töchterle's office indicated the issue of imbalances in student flows must be discussed in Brussels.