Minister wants Confucius Institutes dropped

Dutch universities and universities of applied sciences worried about the erosion of academic freedom would do well to end their association with China’s Confucius Institutes.

photo XiXinXing / Shutterstock

That is the advice given by Education Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven in a written response to parliamentary questions from the Christian Democrats (CDA). This position goes a little further than statements made in her previous letters on this issue.

The CDA asked the questions after investigative journalism platform Follow the Money reported on the financial interests and restrictions on academic freedom that accompany cooperation with China.

Critical report

The aim of the Confucius Institutes is to promote education in Chinese language and culture. There are currently two institutes in the Netherlands, one affiliated with the University of Groningen and the other with Zuyd University of Applied Sciences in Maastricht. Leiden University ended its collaboration with the organisation in 2019. Last year, the Clingendael Institute of International Relations published a critical report about China’s influence on higher education.

Concerns are especially strong among students from Hong Kong, where China continues to step up its efforts to restrict freedom and democracy, and to imprison its political opponents. In Groningen, they have launched a petition against the Confucius Institute. This year, the contract of a Professor of Chinese Language and Culture at the University of Groningen made the news for obliging the professor not to say or do anything that might damage China’s image.

Armed forces

But other forms of academic collaboration can also pose problems. Dutch politicians were shocked by a report that Delft University of Technology’s links with Chinese universities are working to the advantage of China’s armed forces.

In previous statements, the Dutch Education Minister’s tone had been more non-committal. She expressed her intention to enter into discussions about the Confucius Institutes with the organisations concerned, insisting that the option of ending cooperation would be “emphatically” on the table. But her latest letter shows a firmer position in recommending outright that the contracts should not be renewed.


Perhaps her confidence that the organisations would take the right decision themselves has started to wane. In her first round of talks with universities and research institutes, she noted “varying levels of awareness regarding knowledge security”.

Zuyd University of Applied Sciences has its doubts about the Minister’s position. After all, Zuyd is not conducting scientific research on China. “You can think what you like about China, but if you are teaching Chinese language and culture to people in the Netherlands, you have no choice but to introduce them to today’s China, with all its pros and cons”, the former President of the Executive Board told Follow The Money. And meanwhile the cooperation ensures “part of the funding”.

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