Beyond the ring road on the outskirts of town, the used containers plagued with spotty internet, unreliable water pressure and heating are piled on top of each other. The furnished units may seem a bit overpriced given their utilitarian condition, but for international students, they are better than having no place to live at all.
Sound familiar? I’m not talking about 249 shipping boxes that opened their doors to foreign students at the Suikerterrein in recent weeks: I’m describing the student housing at Zernike that greeted me when I arrived in Groningen as an exchange student in 2005.
That was 13 years ago, and despite applying ahead of the deadlines, the five container buildings (see above, middle of frame) were the only option left by the time I found out I had been accepted for a semester abroad.
Back then, the number of foreign students was far lower. In 2004, there were barely more than 500 internationals, mainly exchange students, altogether at the University of Groningen – there are ten times more than that now, most of whom are here for the entirety of their degree programme. The Hanze University of Applied Sciences and NHL Stenden have also seen a boom in their foreign student numbers over the past decade.
But in the city of Groningen in particular, the amount of available housing has not substantially increased: even my former home at Zernike is no longer an option. My containers, nestled between the crematorium and the Zernikelaan, were torn down a few years after I moved out. The ground where they once stood is now a car park.
The newly opened emergency student housing at the Suikerterrein and ambitious plans to build new units at Zernike are short and long term attempts to fix the housing crisis in the city. Speaking from personal experience as a former exchange student who lived at Zernike, it feels more than a little bit like history repeating itself. Seeing how international student housing seems to have been treated as an afterthought year after year for more than a decade led me to wonder: what steps can be taken to actually fix this issue once and for all?
The housing situation in Groningen is a perfect storm created in large part by Dutch law. There are three laws that Dutch universities have to observe that seem fundamentally opposed to their efforts to recruit foreign students.
The most impactful law has to do with housing: in the 1980s, Dutch higher education law explicitly stated that providing lodging for students was not the responsibility of the universities. Their sole tasks are to provide students with an education and to conduct research.
Another law mandates a national university application deadline date: 1 May. The only exceptions are for academic programmes with numerus fixus caps – the deadline for these competitive programmes is the 15th of January. May might seem far ahead of courses starting in September, but EU students do not have to finalise their enrolment until either 31 August or 1 September, which means that the universities do not actually know exactly how many students will ultimately be showing up in their classrooms until courses start. Universities typically only provide their definitive enrolment numbers in October, which makes allocating student housing and assigning staff something akin to gazing into a crystal ball.
The law that has gotten the most attention during recent housing protests in Groningen is the university financing model. Dutch universities receive government funding on the basis of the number of students enrolled in their bachelor and master programmes (who are on track to graduate on time), and the number of diplomas they award. The current model means that universities have to make sure that their student numbers do not shrink, lest a portion of their government financing disappear.
That particular issue is part of the reason why foreign students are being recruited so deliberately. The Dutch birth rate started plateauing and then declining around 2002, which means that in 2020, there will be fewer 18-year-old Dutch people to enrol at the universities. That inexorable decline has been kicked down the road a bit and is now predicted to begin in 2022, thanks in part to the Dutch government giving first year students in the 2018/2019 academic year a 50 percent discount on their tuition fees.
Could revisiting any – or all – of these laws potentially help fix the housing problems for foreign students? Since the laws that make the housing situation so tricky in Groningen are developed on the national level, over the past month, the Northern Times reached out to the ministry of education and members of the Dutch parliament responsible for higher education policy to hear about what they think could finally break through the gridlock. Harry van der Molen (CDA) and Frank Futselaar from the Socialist Party, both of whom are originally from the north, responded to our inquiries about the role of admissions dates in student housing.
“You cannot discriminate against someone when it comes to providing housing”
Problems in the housing market are compounded by a whole other set of laws and an apparent willingness to accept discriminatory acts of preventing internationals applying for certain rooms. Van Der Molen says that the Dutch parliament plans to address the practice of declaring rooms off limits to internationals in the coming months. “The mere fact that someone is an international student cannot be the only reason not to have them”, he says. “You cannot discriminate against someone when it comes to providing housing.”
Frank Futselaar, an MP for the Socialist Party from Groningen, says that the difficult position that international students are in is due to aggressive recruitment efforts “without sufficient regard for the negative consequences of that policy.”
“The housing problems in a number of cities are primarily due to a lack of rooms,” he says. “This issue is even worse for international students because they don’t have a network, often know very little about the housing laws in the Netherlands and don’t have the option to continue living at home like many Dutch students do.” Futselaar says that changing the deadlines would be unlikely to solve the issues and says that the problem lies in the way that the current financial model incentivises universities to actively draw in more students.
“This issue is even worse for international students because they don’t have a network”
Van Der Molen (CDA), who is from Friesland, says that he sees some potential in changing the application date. “If the period between applying and classes starting is longer, then in theory, foreign students would have more time to search for a place to stay and cities could respond to that. But a possible issue is that students sign up for multiple universities”, which could mean that multiple cities are accounting for the same student to show up.
That is one of the main drawbacks that RUG spokesperson Jorien Bakker points out about potential systematic changes: “These things can only be changed on the national level. No matter how early you make the deadlines, international students in particular apply to a lot of different universities and often only decide much later which one they want to attend.” Bakker also points out that having separate deadline for EU and non-EU students could amount to an unfair advantage for foreign applicants.
If changing the application deadlines may not fundamentally change the system, Van Der Molen still agrees that the current financing allocation model needs to be revisited. “I think in the long run that the system of focusing on the number of students and diplomas will have to come to an end, it’s not a good thing that universities are incentivised to recruit as many students as possible.”
Since arriving in September, Burak Başaran, an exchange student from Turkey at the Faculty of Economics and Business, has lived in the tents at the Zernike campus, couch surfed through the DAG database for two weeks and lived at the former school at the Metaallaan. By the 17th of October, he had finally found a place to stay and will be moving in later this month. He says that having more time to look thanks to an earlier deadline would be good, but it would not fix the underlying issues, namely the university financing model.
While housing corporations rent out rooms to foreign and Dutch tenants alike, they are not dedicated to providing international student housing in particular, nor are they especially well-suited to the needs of foreign students. Another non-EU student – Elena Ljusheva from Macedonia, also enrolled at FEB – says that she found a room through international housing provider SSH in July, but the timing was still stressful: her visa came through the day before her flight to the Netherlands.
The turnaround time between applying for admission, being accepted, filing the paperwork to get a visa and finding housing is pretty unforgiving for students and university support staff alike. The Immigration Service Desk at the University of Groningen is so busy from June through September that emails have an automated response, informing students that they are completely unavailable by phone and that it can take up to ten days to respond to emails.
“If the deadline was a little bit earlier, it would help a little bit”
At NHL Stenden, director of marketing and communication Rob Koning acknowledges that staff are faced with a heavy load during the summer months. “It’s undeniably higher just before the summer vacation at our Central Student Administration office, and that usually lasts a couple of weeks. It’s still plenty of time. If the deadline was a little bit earlier, it would help a little bit, but on the other hand, you have to balance it out with not making the deadline too early so that you have enough time to recruit students”, Koning says.
The deadline timing does not present as much of a challenge for housing for NHL Stenden students, either. The university of applied sciences has branches in Leeuwarden, Emmen and Meppel, but the housing markets in the Frisian and Drenthe cities are far less overheated than in Groningen. While Jolien Stokroos, SSH’s Groningen branch manager, says that earlier admissions deadlines would make their job at least a little easier in Groningen, NHL Stenden works with short stay housing provider StudentStay and guarantees non-EU first year students a room. “It’s easiest to sort out housing in Leeuwarden, and it’s a bit harder in Meppel and Emmen, but we always manage to work something out,” Koning says.
Many international students hear from reproachful university staff that they would not be in this mess if they had just started looking for housing sooner, but the current window between the application deadline and classes starting makes it quite challenging for non-EU students to complete all the steps on time.
At Home In Groningen encourages people seeking housing to start looking three months before arriving. The International Service Desk at the University of Groningen recommends starting the visa process 90 days before arriving, too.
Non-EU students and staff would need to already know they have been accepted or hired by 1 June to abide by those instructions. Since it can take six weeks for an application to be processed, students would realistically have to apply by mid-April in order to still have enough time to hear back from the university, submit their paperwork for their visa and have a fighting chance at finding housing.
If they are looking for dedicated housing for international students and staff, then they would need to know even sooner that they have been accepted: Hanze students can apply for housing through SSH starting on 7 May, and RUG students can start on 15 May. On the other hand, actually making the deadline later could make life a little easier for certain students, especially those who are still taking resits or waiting for scholarships to be rewarded before deciding where to study.
At the Hanze University of Applied Sciences, student affairs manager Nynke Beintema says that the school has at least a rough indication by early July of how many non-EU students are coming. That is the deadline for submitting a student visa request. Another possibility in the future could be to incentivise students to pay their tuition fees sooner – Harry van der Molen says that is a distinct possibility under the new minister of education – or by letting them have earlier or preferential access to a study suitability check or a campus tour.
There are still some ways to work within the limitations of the current laws, though. At the Hanze, non-EU students are given priority when it comes to searching for housing, and registration for SSH rooms starts one week earlier for Hanze students than RUG students. Stokroos says that it is up to each academic institution if they want to make extra concessions for non-EU students.
Beintema says that in the future, it might be worth considering reserving SSH housing exclusively for exchange students given the shorter nature of their stay. While the Hanze students likely appreciate the effort, Turkish exchange student Basaran says that he thinks that approach could engender resentment. “The housing crisis is not only affecting the non-EU and exchange students, it affects Dutch people and EU students as well. It might actually annoy the Dutch and EU students.”
No matter what laws they say should or should not change, or if they will make a difference at all, university students and staff and housing providers agree on one thing: Groningen simply has to have more available housing. “The bottom line is that there’s just not enough rooms in the city”, Beintema says.
Even though students get the lion’s share of the attention in the housing debate, foreign professionals – many of whom are in the region either working for the university or moved here with a partner employed by an academic institution – describe finding housing in Groningen like winning a game show. Although many expats in the Netherlands are paid attractive salaries, academic employees are not quite so flush with cash, and several PhD candidates and dual career partners told the Northern Times that securing housing remains a challenge.
Sinem Sin recently moved to Groningen from Turkey for a year with her husband, who is a researcher at the University of Groningen. They sent tons of messages before arriving, to no avail. They stayed in AirBnB and hotels for three weeks – “it cost a lot” – and were very nearly scammed, but got suspicious and did not transfer any money. Going to rental agencies in town also proved fruitless: “We asked about the ads on their windows and they always said, ‘Oh, that one is already rented, but you can check our website to see other listings.’ When we checked, there was nothing.” They raised their monthly rental budget by 400 euros, but were still turned down by a number of landlords. It ultimately took them two months to find something.
One person who is still searching is Thanasis Ziogas, a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences. He says his colleagues have been supportive and he is expecting to sign a contract for a room soon, but he has been sleeping on a mattress in the living room of a friend from secondary school since arriving in mid-September. He found out that he got the job on the 23rdof July and immediately started searching online before arriving in town. “Knowing that the house hunt here is difficult, I tried to rent an apartment without a viewing through a real estate agent, but they did not allow me to do that”, Ziogas says. “I liked almost every house that I viewed, but then the agent asked for a motivation letter. In the end, they used to inform me that the landlord selected another candidate.”
Before arriving in Groningen, Tamara Richards was told that finding housing in the city “was like a television contest: you need to answer the questions the right way and be friendly because the landlord or whoever is renting the house is judging you.” She and her boyfriend managed to find a studio in town after moving here from Chile for his master’s degree at the University of Groningen. “It’s not so big, but we were worried and overwhelmed about the situation, so we just took it. The situation is, you don’t have enough time to think if that’s the house you want to live for a year or longer, because there are thousands of other people who want it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to the ISD at the University of Groningen as the International Service Desk. Its name is now the Immigration Service Desk.