During a hearing on the state of international student housing in Groningen on Wednesday, students, university leaders and local politicians put their heads together to address the persistent housing shortage. But the ultimate root of the problem is very different depending on who you ask.
Translation by Traci White
A live blog of the hearing provided by Dagblad van het Noorden gave a minute by minute breakdown of the highlights. Jan de Jeu, the vice president of the University of Groningen, opened the hearing on Wednesday and described the lack of international housing as “a recurring annual problem”, and called on the municipality to take the lead.
“During the recession, there were not enough new construction projects in the city, so we would like to invite the municipality to invest more energy in ensuring sufficient housing in the coming years”, De Jeu said. Bernd Abeling, a member of the Lijst Sterk faction at the Hanze, lamented the presence of the tents at ACLO and said that it was not exactly good publicilty for the city. De Jeu also admitted that in hindsight, setting up tents at Zernike was unnecessary and was not a qualitatively good option for students.
In 2017, a building in the south of the city which has served as an asylum seekers centre was opened to house international students. The building had space for 100 students and has now become an official part of SSH’s housing offerings and houses 90 students.This year’s temporary housing options were the infamous tents at the ACLO grounds at Zernike, which had space for 90 students, and a hotel boat in the Eemskanaal, which has space for 98 students. There are still 74 students living in temporary housing, including 28 students who moved out of the tents and into a former school at the Metaallaan. The universities intended to provide between 500 and 1,000 short term beds for incoming international students.
Henk Pijlman, the president of the Hanze University of Applied Sciences, told the hearing that he is eager to see the Zernike campus to truly earn the name “campus”, complete with housing and more dining options. In response to the statements from the university leadership, Socialist Party faction member Jimmy Dijk pointed out that the academic institutions talk about the need to make good arrangements for housing every year, but questioned how enforceable those arrangements ultimately are.
Groninger Student Union chairperson Jolien Bruinewold went so far as to say that international students are being discriminated against on the private housing market and chastised the Groningen universities for failing to take responsibility for putting students in that position.
When asked if applying a numerus fixus cap to more academic programmes, which also have earlier application deadlines, would help to solve the problem, Pijlman said that it is not so simple. “You can only apply a numerus fixus cap if there is an imbalance in the job market between the number of programme graduates and available jobs. We don’t want to start applying too many of these caps because they could make higher education less accessible.”
Student faction DAG called for an end to the use of short stay contracts for international student housing. Short stay means that housing has rules more in keeping with hotel rooms than longterm residential rooms and that students cannot live in the room for longer than one year. They also have fewer tenant protections. SSH, the company that provides thousands of rooms for internationals, relies on short stay contracts.
Another fundamental issue pointed out by DAG was the fact that the vast majority of international students in Groningen at this point are degree students rather than exchange, which is what short-stay housing is predicated upon.
A factsheet about student numbers at the University of Groningen said that out of roughly 11,000 first year students, there were around 3,000 international students at the bachelor and master level combined in 2018. Around 1,000 of those students came from Germany, roughly 1,100 came from other EU countries (the European Economic Area), and approximately 800 from non-EU countries. In total, around 25 percent of all students enrolled at the RUG are non-Dutch. At the Hanze University of Applied Sciences, there were 1,454 new international students in the 2017/2018 academic year, which represents around 19 percent of the total student body there.
Alderperson Roeland van der Schaaf seconded the calls for more construction projects to be completed for foreign students in particular, but pointed out that the academic institutions only have official student numbers late in the year. Although students can register in the spring, Dutch and EU students have until a couple of weeks before classes start to officially enrol at Dutch universities. Van der Schaaf also reiterated his proposal to automatically assign housing for international students at the moment they enrol.
Van Der Schaaf points out that if the student populations continue to grow as they have in recent years, “simply building more housing will not be enough.” And despite his interest in seeing more housing at Zernike, Hanze president Pijlman stressed that universities are not housing corporations, nor should they strive to be.
|Long term housing
As for longer term housing becoming available on the horizon, a document outlining housing locations in the city suggested that 320 more rooms could be realised through containers (permit pending) on the Peizerweg, converting the current Metaallaan units into 60 rooms and the University Guesthouse. Other options being considered include adding more containers at the Antillenstraat and the Zernike Campus
After a short break, RUG vice president De Jeu stated that around 80 percent of student housing in the city is provided through the private market, making it difficult to regulate. One plan which was already in the works was a new covenant among the housing providers, local government and academic institutions to work together on housing rather than passing the buck to each other. Van Der Schaff praised the initiative and said that he hopes that it will provide more security for students and investors alike in the coming years.
However, the parties present at the hearing emphasised that having accurate and timely student number predictions were vital to being able to make any guarantees. The alderperson said that he hopes that the first agreements to that end will be put down on paper by November.
In closing remarks, Koen Marée of DAG pointed out that if more international students begin looking for housing outside of the city and commuting in, they are also entitled to public transport deals that Dutch student enjoy. Van Der Schaaf conceded that living outside the city is a possibility, “but everyone who wants to live in the city should be able to do that.”