A new online platform is making it easier for Groningen’s students and those who would like to enter higher education in the city to navigate through the maze of potential pitfalls and network their way to a fulfilling student life in the Netherlands. Dutch Student City is a virtual community where more experienced students can offer advice and help newcomers transition as seamlessly as possible into their new role, environment and lifestyle.
The Netherlands is a welcoming and diverse society with Dutch universities being an attractive destination for many foreign students. However, the country also had a shortage of 26,800 student residences last year, according to the National Student Housing Monitor. And that number is expected increase to 44,800 in the coming years.
Getting a good room often takes a helping hand from someone on the inside. The new online community will make that process less daunting. Unlike Facebook, LinkedIn and other networking platforms, Dutch Student City only lists students interested in assisting others.
“The idea to start a project to help international students came to me during the pandemic,” says Paul Van Put, the director of Dutch Student City. “Every now and then, you read in the newspapers about housing issues, difficulty getting a good job, and loneliness, which many international students experience. Being a Groningen entrepreneur with an extensive network, I know how things work here. So I decided to create an online community where newcomers and first year students can get information, find friends and so on. Second, third and fourth-year students, who are already living here, can benefit from it, too. They may have figured out a lot of things on their own, but they may still have issues they’d like to share. When these young people arrive in the Netherlands, a lot of them contact the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) for advice. We aim to complement the ESN and enable our community members to make the most of their student time without any problems and stress.”
Student housing woes
Before these international students start making new friends and deal with their problems, they need to have a roof over their heads and a place they can call their (second) home. That’s where the biggest challenges are right now, Van Put says. It is precisely for these newcomers that the room search is particularly difficult. Partly because Dutch landlords reject them preemptively in their advertisements (‘No Internationals!’), partly because they can’t plan visits to view the residence because they live in a different country, but mostly because there is simply not enough student flats on offer. Scammers and unscrupulous landlords take advantage of the situation.
“We would advise these students to start looking for accommodation as early as possible, rather than in August or September,” Paul Van Put continues. “That would considerably boost their chances. Unfortunately, there’s a great deal of bias, discrimination and irregularities in the student rental market that needs to be addressed, which is one of the reasons why we started our online project. We aim to provide all the information they need about housing scams on Facebook or Marktplaats, give them guidance about the reputable websites and companies which offer student flats. While we may not be able to eliminate the problem of scammers, we can certainly give tips and advice on how to identify them and how to protect yourself.”
Informing students in English
One of the reason why newcomers are frequently unaware of the dark side of the student accommodation market in the Netherlands is that there is very little information about the issue in the English language, Van Put told the Northern Times.
“That’s why we want to provide news in English. In addition, we have created e-learning models about finance, housing, and job search. It’s also possible to learn Dutch, find information about our national holidays, such as Sinterklaas and Koningsdag. We also give practical tips about opening a bank account and getting access to healthcare, which is a little difficult in Netherlands and differs from other European countries. In short, we provide news and content, on the one hand, and a platform where people can share thoughts, ideas and information with the community, on the other.”
Making responsible decisions
Some students will have to learn new behaviors in the Netherlands, where the liberal and easygoing lifestyle of its worldly residents is the norm, Van Put says.
“We plan to organize events, mostly online, and ask people to take part in webinars or online sessions on such issues as housing contracts or scams. Students will be asked to talk about their experiences in blog posts or during the actual live sessions. Newcomers also need to know about alcohol and drug use. This may be something new to a lot of students. It’s easier to get drugs here than in many other countries, foreign students tell me. So we plan to devise an e-learning model on protecting yourself and staying safe in this environment.”
Dutch Student City director says that in order to better serve the community and secure the continued development and sustainability of the new platform, they charge modest subscription fees from their users.
“We’ve created several subscription packages that cost just a few euros a month, Van Put says. “That will help us cover the costs of hosting, organizing events and creating new content. We are considering working with a non-profit foundation as well.”
“At the moment, we are looking for partners to reach out to as many international students as possible, both those who are already studying here and those who plan to come in September,” Van Put adds. Both the desktop and mobile sites are ready. We’ve tested them, and they’re fully functional. People can already subscribe. Basically, we’re ready to launch our new platform for all international students in the Netherlands,” he says.