’Shortage of engineers is a threat to a sustainable world’

Recently, the Danish education minister called for more international students to be admitted. This was just two years after the Danish government had drastically reduced the number of English-language courses. This U-turn stems from significant labour market shortages Denmark is now facing, costing the country billions of euros, according to the Danish Chamber of Commerce.

Dit opinieartikel verscheen vandaag, maandag 13 november 2023, in De Volkskrant, en is geschreven door  Tim van de Hagen , rector magnificus en voorzitter Technische Universiteit Delft,  Robert-Jan Smits , voorzitter Eindhoven University of Technology,  Vinod Subramaniam , voorzitter Universiteit Twente,  Sjoukje Heimovaara , voorzitter Wageningen University & Research en  Jacquelien Scherpen , rector magnificus Rijksuniversiteit Groningen.

This opinion article appeared today, Monday 13 November 2023, in De Volkskrant (in Dutch. It was written by Tim van de Hagen, rector magnificus and president of Delft University of Technology, Robert-Jan Smits , president of Eindhoven University of Technology, Vinod Subramaniam , president of the University of Twente, Sjoukje Heimovaara , president of Wageningen University & Research and Jacquelien Scherpen , rector magnificus of the University of Groningen.

As presidents/rectors of the Dutch universities of technology and the University of Groningen, we are aware of problems posed by the international influx in some places. At the same time, we are very concerned that the Netherlands is making the same mistake as Denmark, drastically curtailing the global intake across the board without paying attention to the shortage sectors. The Netherlands cannot afford that.

We need all technical talent, both from the Netherlands and abroad, and from mbo to hbo and wo. In that light, we are also very concerned about severe budget cuts in education and science, as proposed by a number of political parties.

The Netherlands faces major social transitions in healthcare, energy production, food supply, climate, digitalisation, security and housing. To make these transitions successfully, knowledge is needed from STEM, social, medical and human sciences.

Engineers play a decisive role in this, as they develop technologies that are indispensable for successful transitions, as well as collaborating with others to make these technologies land in society. However, we train far too few engineers in the Netherlands, even compared to our neighbouring countries. Among 37 OECD countries, the Netherlands ranks 27th in the percentage of master’s graduates in engineering (8.7 per cent). This has to change.

As universities with programmes in the engineering domain, we would like to take responsibility for this and train more engineers. This is a big challenge because there are also shortages in other sectors (care, education), but they are badly needed in order - together with everyone else - to realise the transitions.

Decline

The recruitment of Dutch students has been declining for years because Dutch pupils are less and less likely to choose a science subject cluster and, within that, less and less often choose an advanced technical programme. It is necessary to turn this tide by stimulating children’s interest in engineering from an early age and making science and technology education a more substantial part of primary and secondary education.

Moreover, we need to encourage secondary school pupils to choose an advanced technical programme more than we do now, for instance, by making science subjects more attractive and showing that you can make an essential contribution to society as an engineer. Other countries show that this is possible. In neighbouring Germany, for example, the percentage of MSc graduates in engineering is twice as high as in the Netherlands (19.1 per cent).

The demographics of the Netherlands and shortages in several sectors mean that the shortages in engineering cannot be solved with Dutch students and engineers alone. The international inflow of students remains absolutely essential, even in undergraduate programmes. Figures show that within engineering, relatively many international students continue to work in the Netherlands after their studies.

These international talents are indispensable, so the Netherlands cannot afford to make engineering bachelor’s programmes completely or largely Dutch-language again, as advocated by some political parties. The Danish minister’s call shows that we would shoot ourselves in the foot with this.

Challenge

The Netherlands has always been known for its open, internationally oriented attitude, which is vital for attracting the talent we so desperately need. We find that the mere discussion about limiting English in academic education is causing international talent to doubt coming to the Netherlands, and international students and scientists in the Netherlands are wondering whether they would not be better off looking for a job elsewhere. In this way, we quickly destroy our good reputation as an attractive place for international talent, after which we need decades to rebuild it. The Netherlands cannot afford that.

It is known from the literature that investing in education and science pays off. A 2022 study commissioned by 4TU (an alliance of the four Dutch technical universities) also showed that every euro of government investment in technical universities generates 9 euros of gross value added in the Dutch economy.

However, in the models used by CPB to calculate election programmes, investments in science are only included as costs and the benefits are omitted. As a result, cuts in education and science, as proposed by many parties, may seem a logical choice, but will end up costing society billions. The Netherlands cannot afford that either.

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