Foreign students: they have always been here

Blog: Dorsman dives into university history

Prof.dr. C. Winkler, hoogleraar in de geneeskunde aan de Universiteit Utrecht, tijdens een college in 1925. Bron: Het Utrechts Archief
Prof Dr C. Winkler, professor of medicine at Utrecht University, during a lecture in 1925. Source: The Utrecht Archives

“If all those foreign students would just stay away, all problems in our country would soon be solved.” These kinds of simplistic reasonings ignore the fact that the university is an international institution par excellence and always has been. And that foreign students have also always been around here in Utrecht. 

Since the founding of the university, there have been foreign students

These foreign students were already there from the day the university opened its doors on 26 March 1636. The exact numbers cannot be assessed, because students quickly stopped registering. There was no advantage to registering anymore: proof of registration got students a discount on the alcohol tax, but city governance ended that in 1657. We do know from other sources that in 1693, there must have been 70 to 80 English and Scottish students out of approximately three-hundred students. In the seventeenth century, there were many German students besides that because of wars and the uncertain situation there.

Image of plaque in Acemdie building Utrecht depicting Protestant student.
Plaque in Academy building commemorates Hungarian and German scholarship students

Hungarian theology students

There is a special group of more than a thousand Protestant students from Hungary and Germany, who studied theology in Utrecht. They were here with a special scholarship for theology students which was established in 1761 from the estate of Daniël Bernard Guiljamsz, a former governor of the coast of Coromandel for the V.O.C. The ‘Stipendium Bernardinum’ still exists: a scholarship fund for theology students. In the corridor of Utrecht University Hall (Dutch name: Academiegebouw), there is a plaque of such a scholarship student walking from the church in Debrecen in East Hungary to the Dom Church in Utrecht with a firm stride.

The number of foreign students did decrease along the way, but they were always there, often also from the colonies and former colonies. In the academic year 1954-1955, for instance, 4.5 % of all students at Dutch universities were registered as “foreign”. Of the 1287 foreign students in the Netherlands at that time, over half of them came from Indonesia.

Utrecht students enrolled in classes in Paris

But Utrecht students went exploring on their own as well. They sometimes reported on it extensively. In 1818, the medicine students Christiaan Bernard Tilanus, Jacobus Cornelis Broers and Petrus de Fremery travelled to France and Germany to see how medicine was practised there. It was said to be at higher levels there than in the Netherlands and they wanted to experience that themselves.

In Paris, they enrolled in classes by Franz Joseph Gall. He was the founder of phrenology, in which the idea was that a person's aptitudes and character could supposedly be read from the shape of the skull. Full of inspiration, the Utrechters then went to a Parisian prison to test what they learned in the classes experimentally. What exactly they discovered there is not very clear, but it is a fact that all three of these enterprising students became professors in Amsterdam, Leiden and Utrecht, respectively.

These foreign students were already there from the day the university opened its doors on 26 March 1636.

Love in the air at the university

But still, it is not only the educational aspect that matters to students abroad. There is also something like life experience and... love. This happened to the Scottish student James Boswell, who later became famous as a biographer. During his stay in Utrecht in 1763 and 1764, he kept diaries. Much of his correspondence was preserved too. Boswell was madly, but also hopelessly in love with women, among them were Belle van Zuylen and the attractive young widow Catharina Geelvinck-Hasselaer.

Portret van James Boswell door George Willison in 1765. Bron: Wikimedia
Portrait of James Boswell by George Willison in 1765. Source: Wikimedia

On 1 February 1764, Boswell wrote about Catharina in his diary, in which he wrote about himself in the you form: “You played whist well. After it, you felt, for the first time in Holland delicious love. O la belle Veuve! She talked low to you and close, perhaps to feel breath. All the Heeren looked blue. You took her hand to the coach, and your frame thrilled…’