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Dilemmas of Non-EU Graduates/ Highly-Skilled Migrants in the Dutch Labor Market



Dutch laws largely recognize internationalization. The idea of moving to the Netherlands to study would cloud the thoughts of many with great excitement of getting a world-class education, accompanied by the hope of settling in the country afterward. The Netherlands offers an attractive combination of education and quality of life for international students. However, graduates face a number of challenges when attempting to remain in the country after their graduation. There is a long-existing uncertainty for non-EU graduates in the Dutch Labor Market. 

As international students who have attended universities in the Netherlands, we are aware of the many challenges faced by graduates when attempting to remain in the country upon completion of their studies. Based on the experiences of the majority of non-EU graduates, the policies in place are Euro-centered and not conducive enough to allow non-EU graduates to transition to Highly-Skilled Migrant status after graduation. There are notable traits of inequalities and discrimination regarding the treatment of non-EU graduates as compared to EU graduates, likely framed under the idea of saving jobs for the locals, undermining the diversity and internationalization that defines the Netherlands.  

It is evident that the policies in place are not working except for a privileged few. This brings us to this concern: is highly-skilled migration a privilege or a human right? To us, migration, no matter the form, is a human right; therefore, we must look at it differently, and the narrative must change. We believe that the government of the Netherlands should take meaningful steps to address the issue and facilitate smoother integration into Dutch society for recent graduates who wish to stay in the country. 

History is silently repeating itself, and one would believe that these inequalities would be inherent in the Nazi era and the colonial past. The Nazi past has left silent, not so obvious but yet serious traits of inequalities and discrimination in present-day life of international graduates in the Netherlands. During the Nazi era, “Jewish employees and students were suspended and discharged from Netherlands Universities by the Nazis and were not allowed as members of noneconomic organizations”, (Bob Kernkamp, 2015). In his book, Kernkamp discusses the impact of World War II on universities in the Netherlands, including the persecution of Jewish employees and students by the Nazis. This highlights one of the ways in which Jews were systematically excluded from various aspects of society during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Today, we see silent inequalities of a different nature and most people don’t realize that the status quo is not efficient; for the few who realize this, it is important that we start the trend.

According to statistics from Nuffic, “almost 25 percent of international students who studied in the Netherlands still live here 5 years after graduating”. The numbers become worrisome when we wonder whether the remaining 75 percent leave the country primarily because they want to or because the system shuts them out by default. The magnitude of the problem before us is large. 


The Search /Orientation year visa

Higher education in the Netherlands comes with a great cost for non-EU students, hence a great sacrifice for most, having spent a lot of money on tuition fees and time on their studies. The Netherlands has a  specific policy to address the needs of international graduates, which includes the ZoekJaar Visum, also known as the Orientation/Search Year Visa, to allow non-EU graduates to freely look for a job in the Netherlands after graduation for one year. Graduates are eligible within 3 years after graduation, which is a huge development to look up to as a student. While this visa can lead to great opportunities, there are strict rules and regulations that should be followed in order to ensure a successful transition to a Highly-Skilled Migrant visa, after which it can be especially difficult. To obtain a Highly-Skilled Migrant visa, one needs to have a job offer from a recognized sponsor in the Netherlands and meet certain criteria, such as earning a minimum salary that is higher than most recent graduates normally receive. Navigating the application process for a Highly-Skilled Migrant visa can be complex, and many graduates struggle to meet the requirements.

In case one fails to find a job during the orientation year, they have to go back to their respective home countries. Looking for a job outside the Netherlands can be an even greater challenge. It’s fairly easy to land a job with the Zoekjaar visa because of the reduced salary criterion, however, the transition from a Search Year Visa to a Highly-Skilled Migrant Visa is a big challenge, as companies are not willing to go with the hurdles of sponsoring visa and instead opt for a candidate within the EU. Entry-level positions with sponsorship are seemingly impossible. The reality faced by Search Year Visa holders and non-EU graduates is a time-consuming search for many to get jobs, and most end up having the year lapse without companies being willing to sponsor the Highly-Skilled Migrant visa. 

There is some kind of bias on the side of employers toward job applicants if they are from outside of the Netherlands and the European Union. Most graduates have shared their experiences with the hiring managers. The challenge begins when one has to tick boxes where it says “Do you have the right to work in the Netherlands?” in the application form. It’s always companies that apply for Highly-Skilled Migrant (HSM) visas and the rule in place is stricter on non-EU citizens. 

The problem at hand goes beyond companies and hiring managers. This is not a critique directed at employers but at institutions governing migration and immigration processes, policymakers, and relevant ministries. The orientation/search year is not working for the majority of non-EU graduates. The presence of an actual inclusive solution from the government/policymakers, and the adjustment of the current law procedural approach can be a “somewhat” solution for future graduates, who do not see promising employment prospects in the Dutch market, not talking of those who lost the opportunity already and not qualifying for the Search Year Visa anymore. Extending the Search Year Visa does not present an advantage for visa holders, but amending the rules that govern the hiring of non-EU graduates and making it easy to get the normal working visa and the normal salary requirement to motivate employers to hire internationals. With the right support, it is possible to build a successful career and life in this beautiful country.


Petition to extend the Search Year Visa in 2020

The signing of the petition by thousands of people for the extension of the Search Year Visa is evident enough to show that the status quo is not as right as it looks. In 2020, when Covid-19 posed serious challenges in the labor market, thousands of recent graduates, students, expats, and Highly-Skilled Migrants, came together and signed a petition requesting for the extension of the Search Year Visa to compensate for the lost time in a series of lockdowns. After writing a petition to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a string of emails to various individuals, back-and-forth communication, and waiting long enough for an answer, we finally received a decision from the Ministry of Justice and Security regarding our Zoekjaar visa extension request. It is fairly understood that lawmaking can take time everywhere, hence the lukewarm response from the relevant ministries. They have stated that it is not possible to grant an extension as it is beyond the boundaries of the law. They have made a few suggestions in view to help the situation:

  1. They have lowered salary criteria to find a job as a highly skilled migrant for all recent graduates and academic researchers up until 3 years after graduation in the Netherlands, also after a job searching visa has expired. This means we can keep trying to look for a lower-salary job from abroad.
  2. They have highlighted the possibility of looking into other visas, like starting a new company as a self-employed person.
  3. They have asked all of us to register with the UWV (Employee Insurance Agency) as a job seeker. They say this means that you have the same possibilities as Dutch nationals and EU citizens to receive

Most graduates were disappointed as they lost months due to COVID-19 and deserved an extension. The response from the Ministry was not satisfying enough. The response simply further explained the already existing law which is already stricter to begin with. Having set a time limit of one year to the validity of this visa, this is in general not enough time, with or without the pandemic to find a job as a highly skilled person considering the rules that apply. 

1. The Reduced Salary Criterion

The reduced salary criterion sounds like a great idea to attract employers to hire non-EU graduates, however, it is valid as long as the Zoekjaar visa is valid three years after graduation, also after a residence permit for the orientation year for highly educated persons has expired and when the Search Year Visa lapses, most employers are not willing to transition into HSM Visa.  The reduced income requirement(s) does not compensate for the employers to assent to sponsoring a highly skilled migrant, but only to hire only for the period when the Search Year Visa is valid. Once we get a job from the Zoekjaar period, it’s up to the employer to offer us a contract and sponsor our work visa or not. So, in practice, extending the reduced salary criterion duration doesn’t really add to anything. Calling a Reduced Salary Criterion a “big improvement” is an overstatement. It’s a “development” at best. Then, focusing on the only technicality of the reduced salary criterion and overlooking the other practical matters of staying in the NL is a simplistic approach to the situation.

2. Applying for other visas

Also, applying for other visas like startup visas is equally challenging provided the requirements.

3. Registering with the UWV (Employee Insurance Agency)

Not having a normal work permit is a big hurdle in the job market. It is already hard finding recruitment agencies whose clients are IND sponsors or willing to become sponsors for people with a valid work permit that can be converted to HSM, imagine explaining to them the exceptional situation of not having a valid work or residence permit, but being still eligible for the reduced salary criterion.


Appeal (call to action) To the Dutch government,

We, the highly skilled migrants, are concerned about the current policies that allow international graduates to stay in the Netherlands after graduation. We believe that these policies do not fully consider the needs and contributions of this group of highly skilled and motivated individuals.

While we acknowledge the importance of controlling immigration and protecting jobs for Dutch citizens, we also recognize the benefits that international students bring to the country. They enrich universities, contribute to research and innovation, and create cultural and economic ties with their home countries.

However, many international graduates face significant challenges when it comes to staying in the Netherlands after their studies. The current policies require them to find a job within a limited timeframe. Moreover, the procedures for obtaining work permits and residency permits are complex which discourages many talented graduates from pursuing their careers here.

We believe that it is in the best interest of the Netherlands to review and revise these policies to better accommodate international graduates’ aspirations and potentials. We urge the government to consider the following measures:

  1. Extend the timeframe for finding a job from the current one-year period to at least two/three years, giving graduates more opportunities to explore different options and network with potential employers.
  2. Remove the obstacles that prevent international graduates from working in sectors that align with their skills and interests, as long as they meet the necessary qualifications and standards.
  3. Simplify and streamline the procedures for obtaining work permits and residency permits, reducing the bureaucratic burden and costs for both graduates and employers.
  4. Provide more support and guidance to international graduates in navigating the job market, connecting with Dutch companies, and integrating into the local society.

We believe that these measures would not only benefit international graduates but also enhance the Dutch economy, science, and culture. We hope that the government will take our concerns seriously and take actions that reflect the openness, innovation, and diversity that define the Netherlands.