Lifestyle & Culture

Tilburg University: Record-breaking international student enrollment leads to growing pains

(Editor’s note: Tilburg University is a research university focused on social and behavioral sciences, economics, law, business sciences, theology and humanities. Many – though not all – classes are taught in English. Full disclosure: Dispatches’s co-founders have enrolled their daughter in Tilburg.)


When students from abroad think of studying in The Netherlands, they typically want to study in Amsterdam or Rotterdam. Or Utrecht. Or Nijmegen. Or perhaps Leiden. But they are gradually finding their way to a little city in the southern part of Holland that happens to have a really good vibe when it comes to international student life. That city is Tilburg, where Tilburg University is an increasingly popular destination for internationals.

Located in the province of Noord-Brabant, Tilburg might not seem as lively as the big cities of this small country. But with around 210,000 people in the municipality, it is the sixth-largest city of Holland. Of this total, there are – according to the latest city reports – 29,000 students. That means that around one in nine Tilburgians – or Kruiken as they call themselves – is a student of the university or one of other academies.

The largest number of students are attending the Fontys Hogescholen, an academy for applied sciences just a level below Uni. The Fontys has a large campus in the southern part of town, near the Willem II soccer stadium, and has other schools across the country. Nationwide it attracts the second-largest segment of the nearly 75,000 internationals now studying in The Netherlands. With 4,779 students, Tilburg is only surpassed by the University of Maastricht, where there are more international students (7,770) than Dutch.

Record breaking


Renate Krabbendam, vice president and secretary of the International Student Association I*ESN, center, surrounded by her 2016-2017 student board. From left to right Nine Seelen, Kees van de Laar, Rens Lauwers, Zico Zangers and Maartje Bekhuis.

Emile Aarts

Emile Aarts

But back to Tilburg, where the Uni has welcomed 1,300 new international students … a record-breaking number which is due to the growing urge for internationalization. That’s what Renate Krabbendam, vice president and secretary of the International Student Association I*ESN, tells me:

That has been the effect the new Head of the University Emile Aarts has had. (Aarts) is focussing more and more on international students and their well-being. Professors nowadays have to pass English exams, for example, to be able to teach.

And the number of international bachelors is growing gradually as well.


I spoke with Krabbendam at the I*ESN HQ in the Esplanade Building on the Tilburg campus. It’s a lively place where all student associations are housed. All doors are open and the small corridor is filled with chatter.

During our conversation, Krabbendam has to stop a couple of times to attend to I*ESN members … mostly the ones who just arrived in the city. A few days before, during the introduction week, they got a goodie bag filled with such things as a SIM card, which some need help installing. Others want to join the association, or renew their application. (All I*ESN members have to renew their membership each year.)

One of them is Gulbike Mirzaolglu from Turkey:

I have already been here for a year for my bachelor … but want to still be attached to I*ESN. It is great for meeting new people. Last year I was in an association group with a lot of students from Latin-America. There are now my friends, but unfortunately they all left Tilburg and headed home. Renate, can you please put me in a group with people from that region again?” 

I*ESN has had around 450 members the last five years. It’s a steady base for a lot of activities, both study-related as well as social. “We want to make the stay of our internationals as good as can be,” Krabbendam says. The association organizes city trips and parties just as it provides study assistance. “But in the first weeks everybody needs to get to know Tilburg,” Krabbendam says. “We take our new arrivals on a tour of the city.” That must be a tough job, for Tilburg isn’t as pretty as the historic towns of Amsterdam and Utrecht. Don’t expect to see fancy canals in Tilburg. “We try to show them the nice sites. They can always discover the old industrial lay-out of the city on their own,” Krabbendam says, smiling.

Not Amsterdam, but ….


Carpe Noctem

Tilburg isn’t the best looking city in The Netherlands, I must admit. But after living here for four years myself, I can say you get to love its imperfect appearance. But that doesn’t matter so much if you are a student.

The bars are far more important. I*ESN has its own international student bar, Carpe Noctem, in the city itself. But if it isn’t lively over there, you can always enjoy bars as Studio Tilburg, Cafe Philip or Polly Maggoo on Tilburg’s famous bar street.

Unfortunately there are always downsides to a great story.

In the case of Tilburg the growing interest of international students – and the late registration of a lot of them – has caused housing problems for a small group of the internationals during the first weeks of this semester. Seventy-one students couldn’t be housed by the University in the normal locations.

Renate Krabbendam:

If you, as a university, want to welcome more international students you have to keep in mind that you (must) provide housing for them. In this case the university had to anticipate better the possible arrival of a growing number of international students. This problem will repeat itself in the second semester if we don’t do something.

It is something all parties have to work on.

But don’t let the above-mentioned paragraph put you off. This is the first time something like this has happened in Tilburg, and the community immediately stepped in with locals providing beds for the students involved. It proves the local spirit of the people of Tilburg. They are living in the sixth-largest city of this country but are always there to help. That’s what makes Tilburg special for international students.

imgresIt is a raw and old industrial town but you will fall in love with it once you get to the bottom of it.

Inspired? Click here if you want to know more about studying in Tilburg; here if you want to know more about the University and here if you want to know more about I*ESN.

About the author: Jessy de Cooker is a journalist based in Tilburg, Netherlands who covers music and politics.

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