Report: internationals are stressed

According to a national survey, international students are happy with their education even though they are stressed, isolated, and often homeless. How does the experience of Groningen students compare?
By Matej Pop-Duchev

To see how closely Groningen international student experiences map onto the results of the Annual International Student Survey (AISS) that was released last week, we spoke to the president of the Groningen student union, Jolien Bruinewoud. The Gsb is part of the National Student Union, which conducts the survey annually together with ESN Nederland and ISO.

Not an outlier

First, she points out that the AISS data hasn’t been made public yet. ‘So we cannot know if student cities perform similarly in all categories,’ she says, ‘or if there are obvious outliers.’ But she doesn’t think that Groningen is an outlier, because the problems in the report are simply part of the experience of being an international student in the Netherlands.

Beyond the ‘obvious language barrier,’ she says, ‘there are also robust cultural barriers that take time to overcome. Many Dutch students exclude internationals without intending to do so.’ The result, she says, is that internationals are left feeling confused and isolated.

Housing

Jolien thinks that the experience of exclusion and discrimination is amplified by housing shortages, a is an acute problem in cities like Groningen where student accommodation is scant. ‘Landlords know that students are willing to walk the extra mile and pay the extra euro. They know that internationals cannot simply sleep over at their parents’ house and come for morning class by train. Students are at the mercy of the local market forces. We end up with a lot of overpriced housing specifically targeted at internationals.’

She thinks this is an area where the university could be doing more to help. ‘Easily accessible information about these things is the bare minimum that the University should offer. Not many international students know that there are legal checks in place to prevent landlords from stretching the prices of housing – or that they can reclaim what is rightfully theirs.’

International classrooms

According to the AISS, international students in the Netherlands are generally satisfied with their teacher’s command of English. Jolien thinks this is mostly true in Groningen as well.

Still, ‘one quarter of surveyed students are not satisfied with their teachers’ command of English, which is not a negligible number’, she says. At the same time, Groningen has led the way with international classrooms and English training for instructors. ‘Where we do see language become a problem in Groningen is when courses transition from being exclusively taught in Dutch to also being offered in English. Professors with long histories of teaching those courses in Dutch are expected to simply adjust, often rapidly and at a short notice.’

Stress

Jolien thinks international students are so stressed in part because homesickness amplifies the challenges they are already facing. The University cannot do much about that. ‘There is psychological help available for those who need it, but it’s mostly for actual or potential pathologies. Not much is being done for the common student who remains lucid but invariably stressed.’

There are some tools that students can use to make their stay in Groningen easier. Jolien personally recommends the ESN buddy program which pairs up each interested international student with a Dutch ‘buddy,’ who can offer help, guidance, and a familiar face during the first couple of months.

Living dangerously with deathtrap stairs

This is an ongoing series where UKrant unpacks weird and wonderful Dutch stuff for our international readers. This week’s episode: deathtrap stairs.
by Valeska Schietinger

They’re perilous, they’re plentiful, and they’re everywhere: impossibly steep Dutch staircases.

Whether you are a new international in town or have been here for a while, I’d like to begin by congratulating you for surviving the literal deathtraps waiting around every corner. I’m not exaggerating: in 2017 alone, 290 people in the Netherlands died from accidents involving stairs.

It’s hard to understand why the Dutch – the tallest people in the world – would build staircases so steep and with such tiny, tiny steps that they have to climb them stooped over sideways. Some people think it’s part of a national commitment to population control.

But is there another explanation?

Centuries ago, houses in the Netherlands were taxed based on their width. Expanding living space horizontally was expensive. Ever thrifty, the Dutch opted for building taller houses instead – with extremely steep and space-saving stairs.

So the next time you fall down a flight of Dutch stairs, remember you have Dutch frugality to thank for your throbbing head.

Colloquialism

The Dutch even have a quaint colloquialism for acknowledging you’ve got a new haircut. “Ben je van de trap gevallen en is jouw haar gebroken?” literally translates to: “Did you fall down the stairs and break your hair?”

So next time you decide a chic pixie cut would be a great way to celebrate spring but you end up looking like Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber instead, don’t be confused if people ask you whether an unfortunate staircase situation was involved.

Until then, here are some tips for navigating those dangerous Dutch stairs:

  • Walk sideways. Don’t even think a whole foot will fit on a single stair. Better start embracing your inner Mr. Crabs.
  • Use the handles. Might lower you level of swag but saves you the trouble of avalanching down the stairs.
  • No smartphones. Besides raising the odds for serious injuries, paying for a new phone each week is probably not the way to go.
  • Mind your step. Yes, you’ve been a pro at walking for the last couple of decades, but that won’t save you this time, especially if the stairs are covered with carpet.
  • Crawling is always an option (especially on the weekends).

Students find unlikely hero for 'Open Jewish Houses' event

We like to remember WWII in black and white: there were heroes, villains, victims. But at a commemoration event, students will also remember figures who fall into the grey area – like Jan Derk Domela Nieuwenhuis Nyegaard.
by Şilan Çelebi

On the 4th of May, the day of remembrance, the city of Groningen will come alive with stories of bravery, resilience, and compassion from World War II. RUG students have been preparing the annual ‘Open Jewish Houses’ event for months and are expecting hundreds of participants.

The event will feature 20 different stories at varying locations in the city, commemorating victims, resistance fighters, their families, and those who were lost in the war.

But the students behind the event are also interested in figures who fall into the ‘grey areas’ of history.

In-between

Second-year history student Theunis Holthuis is one of the researchers who combed through archives looking for inspirational figures. He has always been intrigued by how difficult it must have been to make all the ‘right’ choices during the war.

Theunis: ‘We talk about Nazis and resistance fighters as though it’s all very black and white. We wanted to create a narrative that showed that people weren’t always right or wrong in the war, it’s more nuanced.’

So they decided to highlight the story of a guy who some people have even considered a traitor – a guy who started out on the wrong side, but still managed to do some good things.

It’s the first time the event will include the story of somebody who is neither a resistance fighter nor a victim. ‘Jan Derk Domela Nieuwenhuis Nyegaard is somewhere in-between’, says Ruben Zeeman, another second-year history student and one of the organisers of the event.

Jan Derk was not an anti-Semite. But he did support the German occupation and the Greater Netherlands movement, even writing articles arguing that the Netherlands should come under a German protectorate.

People weren’t always right or wrong in the war; it’s more nuanced

It wasn’t until Jan Derk’s youngest son – a resistance fighter – was murdered in his Groningen home by a German police officer that Jan Derk’s changed his allegiances for good. Upon discovering his son’s body, Derk opened the window and screamed curses at Hitler and the whole German project. Local Germans responded by taking him prisoner. They held him at the Scholtenhuis in the Grote Markt.

The good prisoner

Imprisonment turned a mild German sympathiser into an unconventional resistance fighter, says Theunis. ‘When you think of a resistance fighter, you don’t picture someone sitting in prison giving emotional support to the other prisoners, but that’s what Jan Derk did’.

The protestant pastor became the unofficial minister of the Scholtenhuis prisoners, who mostly other Christians. ‘It was a religious community under a lot of stress and torture’, says Theunis. ‘Jan Derk helped people get through terrible things by providing mental and spiritual support – which I think of as a kind of resistance.’

Seventeen of the ‘Blood Brothers’ – as the prisoners dubbed themselves – were executed, but their comradery under Jan Derk’s ministering remained steadfast.

That really annoyed the Germans, who sent him into exile on Schiermonnikoog. Even then, says Theunis, ‘he continuously rattled the cage, provoking his interrogators with angry speeches about the evils of the Nazi regime.’ Theunis admires Jan Derk – not because he picked up a sword, but because ‘ideas are stronger than the sword.’

‘That’s such a cliché’, Ruben laughs. ‘But I agree.’

Controversy

Even so, the decision to focus on Jan Derk was not an easy one. There were a lot of arguments during the planning phase for the event, which centred on the claim that real victims and real resistance fighters should take centre stage. Jan Derk, who supported the German cause until it affected him personally, seems like a bad candidate for commemoration. Theunis and Ruben are expecting to field similar criticism from participants.

Theunis thinks remembering these characters is useful. The demarcation between right and wrong can be a ‘grey area’, he says. Someone like Jan Derk can teach us a lot about our own frailty, cruelty, compassion, and bravery – and hopefully inspire us to make moral choices that will land on the right side of history in the end.

For his part, Ruben worries about the rise of anti-Semitism is on the rise throughout Europe. ‘Especially now, it’s very important to share these stories.’

We are telling stories, but people also talk, think, and share their own

Ruben warns that the stories of the Holocaust are going to fade over time. ‘We have to actively try to remember, and this project will help revive these stories.’

The most beautiful thing about this event isn’t the program, Ruben says. It’s the audience: ‘people who have memories of the war or who have heard stories about the war from their parents always speak up. We are telling stories, but the fact that people can talk, think and share with each other – that is beautiful.’

 

'They hit us, tried to take our signs'

On Saturday, RUG and Hanze students headed to the Emmaplein to peacefully protest the presence of blackface Zwarte Piets who arrived alongside Sinterklaas. Things got heated. Three students tell us what it was like.
by Megan Embry and Thereza Langeler / Photo by Keval Bharadia

Veerle Ros

For Veerle Ros, who was a PhD-student at the Faculty of Arts until a few months ago, Zwarte Piet is a source of ongoing irritation. ‘The fact that it’s so clearly a racist caricature, hurting so many people, just bothers me so much.’

And the go-to defense of the Zwarte Piet proponents only makes it worse. ‘They implicate that tradition is more important than how members of our society feel.’

Veerle was pleased with the way the municipality treated the protesters. ‘They gave us a site in the city centre, with good visibility. I love that protests like this one took place all over the country at the same time, and I’m very glad we were able to say our piece without disturbing the festivities.’

But just outside the designated space for the protest, Veerle and her friends found themselves faced with a large group of ‘intimidating-looking white men’, many of them hard core fans of the local football club. Most of all, they simply seemed to want trouble.

At one point some guy started doing Nazi salutes

‘Just minutes before I arrived, the other group got physical with some of the protesters’, Veerle says. ‘They just came charging, trying to attack them. Luckily, the police intervened.’

It was frightening, Veerle admits. ‘They kept shouting at us, saying we were ruining a children’s celebration, and yelling racist stuff that I tried my best to forget immediately. They threw eggs, too – one of my friends got hit.’ At one point, Veerle recalls, some guy lifted up his shirt to show his Groningen tattoo, doing Nazi salutes with his other hand.

‘I think all the footage from last Saturday really paints a picture of the kind of people who’re trying to shut us down’, she remarks dryly. But she is hopeful that change is possible. ‘I’ve seen so many people change their opinions over the past few years, and the parades themselves are increasingly incorporating colourful or smudged Piets.’

Charly Jaź

For German fine arts student Charly Jaź – who prefers the pronoun ‘they’ – Piet isn’t a problem; blackface is. Charly wanted to bring the visibility to the issue that it isn’t okay to use blackface as part of the celebration. ‘I think we were successful, in that respect, because there has been a good amount of media coverage. I don’t think there is much you can do to change some people’s minds. But I just felt it would be wrong not to do it.’

Charly doesn’t think there is anything to lose by ditching blackface during the holiday. ‘Look, there’s plenty of evidence that Zwarte Piet negatively effects children of colour in the Netherlands. And it’s harmful for white children too – because it reinforces an impression that subtle racism is okay; it gives them permission to make that practice their own.’

But when Charly rode up to the Emmaplein on Saturday, they saw police trying to chase away ‘a bunch of nationalists dressed like hooligans. They were aggressive.’ Charly joined their friends protesting peacefully behind the barricade, but ‘it was quite stressful; it felt like it could escalate very quickly. It felt sort of dangerous to be there.’

In the end, they stuck it out. ‘We decided to cheer whenever we saw a Piet with soot instead of blackface’, Charly chuckles. It was a funny way to protest – by positive affirmation. ‘There’s nothing wrong with celebrating Sinterklaas, and family, and candy. But it’s important to consider that just because you don’t personally have bad intentions, that doesn’t mean your choices don’t negatively affect other people. It’s very simple, really.’

Sorsha Passmore

For Sorsha Passmore, a second year master’s student in marine biology, Zwarte Piet was a central figure in her childhood. She was born in the Netherlands but moved to England when she was twelve.

‘Zwarte Piet was normal for me; I never thought anything of it until a couple years ago. An English person I knew posted something about this weird practice Dutch people have. At first I was kind of offended’, she admits. ‘But that’s the thing about privilege: it’s easy to think something is not a problem when it’s not a problem for you personally.’

She had a bad feeling the day before the protest. ‘I know how much this means to Dutch people. I had nightmares.’ But she was still shocked by what came next. ‘Before we even started, all these men attacked us: they hit us, tried to take our signs. One pushed my friend to the ground before the police arrived. Another tried to shoot fireworks at us’, she says. ‘I’m still really shaken up.’

She can’t understand why people would go out of their way to be terrifying at a children’s celebration. ‘If the objection is that the holiday isn’t about race, but about children – then why are grown adults screaming at people? Children don’t care what colour Piet is. They just want their sweets. Just because something is a tradition doesn’t make it morally defensible. We aren’t trying to eradicate Piet; just make him more inclusive. We are more convinced than ever to keep showing up.’

Mayor Peter den Oudsten was aware of both the anti Piet and pro Piet demonstrations he announced before the weekend. ‘We agreed to alot the anti Zwarte Piet group a space at the Emmaplein. But the contact with the other person who’s announced a demonstration has not been going well.’

Den Oudsten urged everyone to let the protest against Zwarte Piet take its course. ‘We have reason to believe that some football supporters are planning to prevent the protests from happening. Tot hem I want to say: don’t! Groningen is a tolerant city, where citizens can voice their opinions and be met with respect. Everyone has a right to protest, and we value that right very much.’

According to the municipality, there were about forty Kick Out Zwarte Piet protesters present at the Emmaplein on Saturday, ‘and about eighty individuals looking to put a stop to the protest.’ Police were largely succesfull in keeping things from escalating between the two parties, the mayor’s office announced. One man ended up being arrested for hurling a piece of firework at the protesters.

Shaken up at the Suikerlaan

This week, Groningen developer Van Wijnen is breaking ground on a futuristic housing project next to the Suikerlaan. Thanks to the noise, beleaguered Suikerlaan tenants are breaking down.
by Megan Embry

‘The noise starts at seven in the morning, and it’s so violent it shakes the units. I woke up this morning, heart pounding, in a shaking bed. I thought it was an earthquake’, says Iranian post-doc Maryam Bozorg.

Suikerlaan developer Rizoem notified students that a new construction project was starting in an email newsletter on Friday. Bozorg initially dismissed the news, because ‘we are living in a construction site already: can it really get worse?’

But when the workers began installing giant poles with pile drivers into the ground before anyone was awake, it got worse.

Just horrible

‘People are not exaggerating about the noise’, says Spanish student David Cendoya. ‘It’s way too much. It’s already the fourth day; the shaking and noise are just horrible.’

Van Wijnen project developer Noor Wit assures students that this stage of construction will be over by Thursday, 15 November. ‘I was there earlier this week – and it was really, really loud.’

But she says once they move on to the foundation stage, there shouldn’t be so much noise. They will begin mounting the pre-fabricated homes in January, and the entire construction project should be completed by May or June.  ‘But it is a brand new project, and those often take longer than we expect.’

Informed

Wit says she notifies Rizoem as each stage of construction begins, and Rizoem in turn informs the Suikerlaan tenants. But there is a difference between being informed that your life will be disrupted for several weeks and being able to do something about it. She agrees there should be some way for tenants to complain or ask questions, but currently there is no avenue to do so.

As for the noise this week, Wit says it isn’t possible for construction to start even an hour later in the mornings. ‘The company doing the construction has to finish by Thursday. They won’t like having to work later into the evening. And I’m not in a position to require that’, she says. ‘It’s only two more days. I hope students can understand.’

Fed up

But students are fed up with being understanding. ‘Our living condition is unbearable!’ says Bozorg. ‘Do they even consider that we are living here? The units were delivered late, damaged, and with so many problems: water, electricity, heating. Mud is everywhere; we have construction going on in our living areas – and now this?’

Bozorg feels like the university promotes the Suikerlaan units while ignoring the ongoing quality of life issues that international students have to put up with. ‘No one actually cares.’

Cendoya calls the whole situation ‘depressing’. Students live in a ‘construction site full of dirt, puddles, machines, and noise. This isn’t going to stop. They are going to build in the parcel next to us now and I just don’t want to live like this.’

Expensive

According to Wit, the Van Wijnen housing development will be an ‘experimental neighborhood of the future’ with all manner of fancy sustainable features, including heating installations and a smart grid to reduce energy use. Groningen certainly needs more housing: so who will live in these? ‘Maybe students’, says Wit. ‘Maybe university employees. It will be more expensive than student houses.’

Philosophy scholarship PhD’s get more time

The faculty of philosophy is taking practical steps to reduce inequalities between employed and scholarship PhD students by extending scholarship contracts. ‘We try to be as fair as possible’
By Megan Embry

In an email to philosophy staff this week, director of graduate studies Bart Streumer said the faculty board for philosophy had found a way to address one source of inequality for scholarship students.

Employed PhD candidates are able to change from a 1.0 fte contract to a 0.8 fte contract for any reason, but scholarship PhD candidates are not. By switching to a 0.8 fte contract, employed PhD candidates can extend their contracts from three to four academic years. But scholarship students are stuck with a three-year contract unless they get sick or have a similarly worthy reason to require an extension.

Justified

But after feedback from students, ‘we wanted to change that’, says dean Lodi Nauta. ‘For most students, it wasn’t so much about money but about having more time to finish the PhD. We thought that was a justified complaint.’

Philosophy scholarship PhD contracts are typically 36 months long. But now, all scholarship contracts will be extended to a total of 45 months and will be paid at 1.0 fte. Scholarship students working 1.0 fte on a 36 month contract will get more time, and those already working 0.8 fte (because of illness) will get a raise.

According to Streumer’s email, that means ‘PhD candidates with a scholarship can now (in effect) extend the length of their contract by nine months for any reason whatsoever. It also means that we are (in effect) slightly raising the scholarship of PhD candidates who want to extend their contract, thereby lessening the financial difference between the two categories of PhD candidates.’

Very happy

He thinks this proposal, while still ‘not ideal’, is the best way to lessen inequality within the constraints of university policies and the Dutch tax code.

Nauta says that students are for the most part very happy with the adjustment, though those who started their contracts later may benefit slightly more than others. ‘We try to be as fair as possible, and I think it’s a good temporary measure to support the students. Of course it costs the faculty money, but we had the money to use.’

When the scholarship experiment ends, the faculty will have to decide the appropriate length for a PhD contract moving forward.

Towards a more equitable PhD system

It’s understandable that PhD scholarship students oppose unequal pay. But they aren’t second-rate PhD’s because they still get many special opportunities, says former bursary student Martijn Wieling. Still, some things could be improved.
By Martijn Wieling / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

On 24 October, the UKrant published the article: ‘Second-rate PhD’s’. According to the PhD students interviewed, the PhD system’s benefits as enumerated by the RUG (no contractual obligation to teach, the ability to direct their own research) are bogus, erasing the supposedly clear distinction between working PhD’s and scholarship PhD’s.

So when you ask scholarship students how they feel about the difference between themselves and employed PhD’s, it’s no surprise they feel second-rate. But is that really the question we should be asking?

Neighbouring countries

Let’s first consider at the PhD systems of our neighbouring countries. In Germany, half of a PhD’s job is as educational assistant, which means they have to perform educational duties. They get paid for this part. The other half of the week, they have work on their thesis. They don’t get paid for this part.

In England, PhD’s often receive a scholarship comparable the PhD scholarships in Groningen. In Flanders, PhD’s get a four-year scholarship that pays a little more: 2,000 euros a month, after taxes.

Justified

What this comparison shows is that PhD’s are in many places seen as students rather than employees. I personally think that’s justified. After all, a PhD track is an education programme that teaches necessary academic skills and knowledge.

Just because PhD’s are employees according to the collective agreement doesn’t mean it’s always appropriate to treat them as such. Just like a master student needs supervision when writing a thesis, PhD’s need also need supervision. Poor support for PhD candidates has many negative effects, including increasing the time it takes for the candidate to finish.

I fully understand the scholarship students’ opposition to incongruous remuneration, and two such similar positions shouldn’t be rewarded unequally.

But international PhD’s who come to the Netherlands with only their own (lower) scholarship to live on have been subject to this inequality for much longer. The RUG’s system actually corrects this by supplementing these foreign PhD scholarships.

Work

It’s therefore my opinion that we should work towards a system that rewards PhD’s in accordance with the work they do. We should pay them a research scholarship that they can actually live on (like the RUG scholarship, except adjusted for inflation), and then in addition, pay for any and all educational tasks they perform. This remuneration should apply to each and every PhD – so scholarships for international students should be raised as well.

This would put an end to the incongruence in remuneration. This way, we recognise a PhD track for what it is – an educational programme (that requires proper supervision!) – while rewarding educational work with an employment contract.

This system is certainly tenable – since the costs of a PhD spot would match the government’s compensation – and it would ultimately prevent unwanted ‘creative’ solutions such as the ones that are being applied in Germany.

Right question

Finally, what is the actual question we should be asking PhD’s? I would have asked them the following: ‘If you had a 50 percent chance of a spot as an employed PhD, or a 100 percent chance of a position as a scholarship student, which one would you choose?’

Within our research institute, the current scholarship system means we have four PhD’s every year. At least twenty suitable, highly motivated candidates apply for this position every year. At the same time, we have only two positions for employed PhD’s available. If I wanted to do a PhD, I know which position I’d apply for.

Martijn Wieling was a bursary student at the RUG from 2008 to 2012; he currently works as a professor by special appointment of Low Saxon/Groningen Language and Culture and as associate professor of information science.

Broerstraat bursting with bikes

Students struggle to find a study spot in the University Library even when exams aren’t on. But there’s an even bigger problem: outside the UB, overflowing bike racks means bikes end up parked on the streets.
By Joas de Jong / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

It’s Wednesday, just around dinnertime. Patrick Beijk, owner of the Mr. Mofongo café on the corner of the Broerstraat and the Oude Boteringestraat, is removing bikes from the café patio. ‘It’s just awful. As soon as I’ve removed one bike, someone else parks theirs in the empty spot’, says Beijk.

The sign that forbids bike parking on his patio is completely ignored, according to Beijk. He estimates that he and his staff remove a few hundred bicycles a day. ‘It’s like we’ve got a second business in bike removal’, he says.

One look at the Broerplein makes it clear that it’s extremely busy. Overflowing bicycle racks mean students resort to parking their bikes wherever they please. Beijk is annoyed: they bikes don’t just blocking his garbage containers and the back entrance for suppliers, but also the staff entrance and the door to his wine bar. Even his patio is turning into a bicycle parking facility. ‘As soon as one bicycle has been parked there it’s like a signal to everyone else.’

Behavioural change

Student party Lijst Calimero asked the RUG board whether they are working on a solution. ‘De Broerstraat is a throughway for motorised traffic’, says faction member Reinier Alberts. ‘Bicycles parked on the street can be dangerous.’

Jouke de Vries, president of the university board, is aware of the issue. He blames the cyclists. ‘People barely make use of the bicycle parking facility underneath the Harmony complex. People just want to quickly park their bike and be on their way. We need a behavioural change, and that’s hard to enforce.’

Extra parking facilities

The RUG will be talking to the city about enforcing parking policies, says Jan de Jeu, RUG board vice president. There are also plans to create a bicycle parking facility underneath the UB. The basement is currently used for book storage, but that needs to change as quickly as possible. ‘As soon as we’ve emptied out the basement, it can be used as parking space’, says De Jeu.

There is also a bicycle parking facility underneath the Public Library at the Oude Boteringestraat. Once that library moves to the Groninger Forum at the Grote Markt, the law faculty will move into the building. De Jeu: ‘Then that bicycle facility will be available for students as well.’

Whether the RUG will have exclusive access to the new parking facility isn’t yet clear. ‘The bicycles aren’t just a university issue, but a city-wide issue’, says De Jeu. ‘So we can’t just decide that the facility is only available to our students and staff without discussing it with the city first.’

A rhetoric minor imagined by students

How would you like to give speeches like Obama? Starting next academic year, you can take the RUG-wide minor in rhetoric. Students came up with the idea and helped shape the programme.
By Thereza Langeler / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Next academic year the RUG will offer several new minor programmes aided by funds that became available when the study financing system became a loan system in 2015. The government has given the money to educational institutes to spend on academic improvement.

The university council would decide what some of the money would be used for. Student party Lijst Calimero proposed a minor in rhetoric. Rhetoric literally means ‘eloquence’ and concerns itself with the art of persuasion.

‘It’s something everyone should learn, no matter their major’, says Calimero faction chair Younes Moustaghfir. ‘You need to know how to have a debate in politics, of course, but knowing how be persuasive in a meeting is just as important. Being able to convince people is an important skill.’

Message

‘How you get your message across can be just as important as the content of your message. Not all students get that’, says associate professor of history and philosophy Rik Peters. Peters will coordinate the rhetoric minor and liaise between lecturers, employees of the Educational Support and Innovation department (ESI), and students as they design the program. The fact that students are involved is fairly spectacular, Peters says.

‘It was one hundred percent the students’ idea: it was Calimero who came up with it. Because I also teach a course in rhetoric at the Honours College, they came to me.’ Peters talked to colleagues from various faculties who wanted to help shape the programme. Together with three students and the ESI employees, they designed a 30 ECTS minor package.

Practical

No more than a third of this will be theory, says Peters. ‘It’s going to be a very practical minor. The great thing about rhetoric is that once you’ve learned the concepts, you can immediately apply them.’ Whatever students learn in a lecture, such as how to influence your audience’s emotions, they can immediately practice this in their next seminar. In the advanced classes, students can select and invite a guest speaker themselves. ‘They could ask an actor, a politician, or a CEO. Whoever they want.’

The rhetoric minor will be available starting September 2019 in both Dutch and English. It doesn’t matter what your major is: the minor is available for all bachelor students. Younes Moustaghfir thinks people will be really interested. ‘Our contacts at study organisations were very enthusiastic.’

‘We’re expecting a fairly large influx’, says Rik Peters. ‘Many programmes require students to do presentations but don’t teach them how. But being able to do that well is really enriching.’

Free hot water at the UB

The University Library is offering free hot water again. I set out on Monday to enjoy a free cup, but was unprepared for the nail-biting detective investigation that ensued.
By Edward Szekeres

International and European Law student Ruben Tan stares blankly at the 0.40 euro tag flickering on the screen of a faded red coffee machine. ‘Hot water was supposed to be free starting today, but clearly it’s not’, he groans.

Tan returns, sans-beverage, to his seat in the first-floor coffee corner at the University Library on Broerstraat.

Historically, hot water was free in the library. But in early 2018, the library started charging 50 cents per cup. Tan, who founded the OneManGang student party and holds a seat in the University Council, was outraged. He ran his campaign largely on the promise to bring free hot water back to the library.

One single red machine

‘Jouke de Vries, the new President of the University Board, was very responsive to my demands’, says Tan. ‘I thought the struggle for free hot water would take longer, but now it is just a matter of logistics.’ Those logistics would prove to be tricky.

The library announced last Thursday that free hot water would be available again starting this Monday: ‘It appears there is a great need for hot water among students’, the newsletter read.

But on Monday afternoon, as I moved with mounting confusion from coffee machine to coffee machine, each one charged me 0.40 euro for a cup of warm water. Eventually library reception clued me in to what felt like a carefully guarded secret: only a single red machine on the first floor would give me free hot water.

I eventually located this mystery machine. But the enigmatic appliance taunted me: 0.40 euro! It blinked. 0.40 euro! I started to doubt my ability to press the right button. I still had no hot water.

‘Sorry for the inconvenience’

I steadied myself for round two of verbal boxing with the impatient receptionists. But finally, a call to the Facility Department shed some light on the situation. ‘The system has not been put in place yet. The Facility Department says it will be fixed by this evening’, the receptionist tells me with a shrug. ‘Sorry for the inconvenience.’

And so, I stepped out onto the sunlit Broerstraat feeling victorious – even without hot water in my lonesome plastic cup.

The Facility Department was as good as its word: as of Tuesday, all red coffee machines in the University Library provide free hot water.

The more expensive silver apparatuses, also known as ‘kitchenettes’, still charge 0.60 euro for the same commodity, albeit in a larger quantity.

Should I stay or should I go?

The housing crisis is quieting down, as the RUG predicted it would. Some students have simply decided to unenroll. Student party DAG wants to know why, but the university says it doesn’t know.
By Rafel Fernandez / photo by felipe silva

Denise Chin from Malaysia sits in the simple living rooms of the Simplon hostel at the Boterdiep. She is a pre-master student in psychology and really wants to stick around Groningen for her master’s degree, but her living situation is becoming increasingly disheartening: ‘I’ve thought many times of giving up and going back to my country. It feels as if I’m being pushed out – as if the city doesn’t want me.’

The hostel doubles as a restaurant in the evenings. As the staff bustles around setting up for dinner, Denise shuffles out of the way to sit in a chair by the window.

Customers trickle in, shaking off the rain and greeting each other merrily. She watches them. They are here to have a good time, but she is here because she has nowhere to else to go. ‘It’s been a month already and I’m still looking for a room.’

Denise had to make a decision this week. Would she stay, or would she give up and go home to Malaysia? University spokesperson Jorien Bakker says that housing problems are usually resolved by October, but Denise hasn’t been so lucky. Neither have many of the other students living alongside her at the hostel.

We don’t know

Are things quieter now because everyone has found a place to live, or because people are simply giving up?

According to Bakker, there are currently 115 students living at the emergency housing in the Metaallaan and the Eemskanaal Noordzijde. But those are not the only places where homeless students are staying. They’re also sleeping in hostels or on the couches of other students.

Koen Marée from student party DAG estimates that there are dozens of homeless students in town who don’t show up in the university’s statistics. ‘We estimate that at least 200 students total are still looking for a place, maybe as many as 300. I heard a lot of stories of students who went home after three weeks in a hostel. So we don’t know how big the problem really was.’

Commuting every day

Jennifer is one of those students. She arrived in the Netherlands a year ago for an internship in Den Haag. After that, she decided to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in international relations. ‘This year I enrolled at the RUG hoping to find a place in Groningen and move there before courses started. But I couldn’t find anything, so I had to commute to Groningen every day.’

Jennifer would wake before 5 a.m. every morning, after only four hours of sleep, to catch the first train that would put her in town in time for class. On the side, she also kept room hunting. ‘I did everything I could’, she says, ‘but in the end I had to give up.’

Exhausted, she decided to drop out last week. She considered returning home to the UK, where she says most of her friends are already ‘debt slaves to students loans’. ‘But I rethought it’, she says. Instead, Jennifer decided to stay in Den Haag. Now, she says, she is stuck in a kind of limbo; she doesn’t know what to do next, or where to do it. But one thing is very clear: ‘Groningen is not an option’.

Not possible

The university should be aware of students like Jennifer, says Marée. He asked the university board to ask students who drop out or never paid their tuition what factors motivate their decisions. That way, the university could get a clearer picture of how many homeless students just gave up.

But University Board member Jan De Jeu said that isn’t possible. ‘That would be far too complicated. We keep track of how many people unenroll, but we don’t know why.’

Forced

In the meantime, Denise is hanging on at the Simplon hostel. She gets that uncertainty is a normal part of student life –‘there is never a satisfying balance, you accept that’ – but she thinks insecurity should not be. ‘Not having the basics covered… I would have never expected that.’

Nonetheless, she’s decided to keep trying her luck in Groningen: ‘I’ll leave this city only if I’m forced to. I want to feel at ease here, make it my new home, to one day come back to this hostel and enjoy a nice dinner with friends.’

No second round of scholarship students

Education Minister Ingrid Van Engelshoven says universities will not be permitted to apply for any more PhD scholarship students. ‘This is not a surprise, but it’s a pity.’
By Megan Embry

We’re only starting the third year of a nationwide ‘experiment’ allowing universities to attract PhD scholarship students. But in her reaction to a list of written concerns raised by political party Groenlinks, the Education Minister has said there will be no further expansion.

Financially convenient

One concern is that PhD scholarship students do the same work as employees, but with fewer benefits and lower pay. People at the RUG have expressed similar worries.

‘They classify you as a student when it’s financially convenient’, says one PhD candidate from the Faculty of Spatial Sciences who wishes to remain anonymous. ‘Otherwise, they expect you to behave like a professional researcher. Because even without the title, what you’re doing is the same.’

But defenders of the scholarship program have pointed out that the expectations and conditions for students and employees are not the same. Employees are expected to teach, for example.

‘A lot of it is politics’

The experiment was meant to attract more PhD candidates to the Netherlands and pump more highly educated people into the Dutch economy – all at a considerably lower cost to universities. The universities of Rotterdam and Groningen were approved for 15 and 850 scholarship students, respectively.

Lou de Leij says that so far, the experiment has been a success. But the minister’s decision ‘to block it does not come as a surprise. To be honest with you, a lot of it is politics. That’s a pity. I think it’s too bad that other universities won’t get a chance to try this. If the outcomes of the final analysis are positive, the experiment should continue. But that’s just my opinion as a scientist.’

De Leij doesn’t think this decision will have any negative impact on current PhD students at the RUG. He says they will be uniquely qualified on the job market, whatever happens. ‘They are all trained to become scientists like any other PhD. But on top of that, the program offers them so much that is a big plus in addition to their curriculum.’

More confidence

But Reinder Broekstra, UMCG PhD candidate and PNN board member, is pleased with the Minister’s response. PNN has always been critical of the experiment and especially of allowing further rounds of expansion.

‘Officially and as a researcher, I’m happy the quality of the experiment will not be decreased by adding more students. Expansion would make it much more difficult to analyse, because they will all have different conditions.’

There has been growing concern about how the experiment would progress and be subjected to accurate evaluation, he says. ‘But now we can have more confidence about the status of PhD students and can better judge the results.’

Broekstra and the PNN believe all PhD students should be employees. But until that happens, the board will focus on ‘improving conditions as much as possible and making sure no inequalities exist.’

Are you currently a PhD scholarship student? What is your experience? The UKrant would like to hear from you; contact us at redactie@ukrant.nl.

Locals want student neighbours gone

International students living in the Rikkers-Lubbershuis are afraid they may be evicted. Their neighbours filed an official noise complaint with the municipality.
By Rafel Fernandez

Steve and Jessica moved into the Rikkers-Lubbershuis, a student house at the corner of de Heresingel and de Rademarkt, only two days ago. But the American students are already worrying about being evicted. ‘We’ve received a letter from Studentstay – the rental housing agency – warning us that if we disturb the neighbours with excessive noise once more, we’ll have to leave’, Jessica says.

Steve nods and adds: ‘We realize that we’ve caused nuisances with our parties, but sometimes the complaints from neighbours are overstated. We can’t even make a phone call in the courtyard because they say we speak too loudly.’

Unfair

Neighbours filed a formal complaint with the municipality last week. The complaint mentioned excessive partying, smoking, and door-slamming. The neighbours hoped the temporary license for the student house would be revoked. It wasn’t.

Vera, a German girl in her first year at university, says it’s unfair to blame the students: ‘We’re about fifty students living here and we all spend most of our time in the lounge and the courtyard, which are attached to the neighbouring buildings, because they are the only areas with Wi-Fi. If Studentstay or the landlord set up a Wi-Fi network for the whole building, we would stay in our rooms more.’

Communication

Ed van den Brink is one of the unhappy neighbours. He acknowledges that the problem is not simply a group of students having a party until late at night. He too blames Studentstay and the building’s owner, the Schove Group: ‘They seem not to care much about the tenants and the municipality’s rules; they are just interested in getting the rent at the end of the month.’

Van den Brink says better communication between landlord and tenants – especially involving house rules aimed at improving the relationship with the neighbourhood – could have solved the situation a long time ago: ‘If companies such as Studentstay want to help host the wave of newly arrived international students, they should do it properly’, Van den Brink says.

Schove Group says it can’t do much about the issue. ‘We’re not the landlord, just the owner, so we cannot do anything to solve this problem.’

No legal ground

However, students don’t have to be afraid they will be evicted for making too much noise. Denise Zonnebeld, a rental law consultant for Frently, says the eviction process isn’t that easy. ‘Evicting someone because of neighbour’s disturbances is difficult’, she says. ‘The person who has the legal ground to evict a tenant from a building is not the landlord or the municipality, but a judge.’

Students overcharged 80 euros on rent

Landlords charge a much higher rent than they are legally allowed, according to a study by the Dutch student union. Groningen students are overcharged more than eighty euros per month.
By Thereza Langeler

The union, called Landelijke Studentenvakbond (LSVb), publishes an inventory of the price of student accommodation every year. The LSVb asks students all over the country how much they pay in rent and what their housing situation is like. The Dutch law poses limits on rent prices for student housing. Each apartment is awarded a number of points based on factors such as living space and the state of the facilities. The higher a place scores, the more a landlord can charge in rent.

But the LSVb research shows many landlords don’t adhere to these regulations. Nearly 12.000 students filled out an online survey at the web site Check Je Kamer, stating where they live, what kind of room they rent and how much they pay for it monthly.

Private landlords

In over 70 percent of the cases, monthly rent was much more than the legal maximum price – by and average of 105 euros. Private landlords are more likely to exceed the allowed rent than housing corporations, the research also found.

A remarkable 71,5 percent of the survey’s respondents rent from these private parties – even though previous research has shown that in fact, only 44 percent of all students in the Netherlands rent privately. This may distort the outcome of the survey, LSVb admits.

Breaking the law

Still, the results of the study are largely consistent with student experience, according to Sjoerd Kalisvaart, the chairman of local student union Groninger Studentenbond (GSb). Especially the in the case of Groningen, since a large majority of the survey respondents hail from here. ‘If there’s any accuracy to this study, it’s most accurate for Groningen’, says Kalisvaart.

Although Groningen prices lie a little lower than those in cities like Utrecht, Amsterdam and The Hague, there is a striking amount of students who overpay: 74 percent of all Groningen respondents.

‘This is due to the enormous private market we deal with here’, Kalisvaart believes. ‘Groningen has about five sizable rent agencies who structurally break the law. Many students rent with one of those agencies, which is why many are overcharged.’ On average, a duped student in Groningen spends 82,23 euros too much on their rent monthly.

‘Ask for a decrease’

These outcomes do not surprise GSb, Kalisvaart states. ‘We were expecting something along these lines, and we’re happy to see the numbers support our observations. Still, this is more alarming than we thought. 82 euros per month is a lot of money.’

The municipality is currently working on a new system of licenses for landlords. These should put an end to the exploitative housing costs. It is as of yet unknown when the new licenses will be instated; the municipal council is supposed to discuss the matter in its September meeting.

Until then, it is vital students protest if they feel they’re overcharged, Kalisvaart emphasizes. ‘Go to the renting committee, don’t be afraid to ask for a rent decrease.’ And what if your landlord resorts to intimidation in an attempt to change your mind? ‘Then you should absolutely report them to the police.’

DAG houses homeless students

Over 50 students have signed up to offer their couches to new international students as part of an initiative by student movement DAG.
By Emily Howard

Despite the university and municipality’s efforts, it is uncertain whether all the new international students moving to Groningen this year will have a roof over their heads. DAG, one of the student parties on the university council, has encouraged over 50 current students to offer their spare couches, mattresses, and floors as temporary accommodation.

‘We were worried’

The student couchsurfing initiative is co-run by DAG member Minja Sillanpää, who is also an international.

‘We started the initiative because we were worried things were about to escalate the way they did a year ago, when there was also lack of housing in the city for arriving students’, she says. DAG was inspired by stories of past students who shared their couches with homeless students. ‘What we want to do is to ensure that nobody ends up sleeping in tents like last year, or in excessively expensive hotels and hostels while they look for a more permanent place.’

Solidarity

Many of the students who have registered to host the new internationals are internationals themselves. Charly Jameson, a student from Germany, knows how hard it is to find a room. ‘I remember very much how I relied on others to find a place in Groningen. I just want to help them out’, Jameson says.

Belgian student George Pypstra agrees. ‘The decision to sign up was easy for me. Starting your experience in a new city when you don’t have a roof over your head is something that no-one should have to go through’, he says. ‘The DAG initiative is great for providing relief to people, and it’s great to see that there is so much solidarity among students.’

Not good enough

But future RUG student Andy Kang, from South Korea, doesn’t think that the DAG initiative is a good solution.

‘The couchsurfing initiative is not launched by the management that should be solving these issues. It is definitely a temporary solution, but still not a good one, as it is unstable and inconvenient’, he says.

Pypstra agrees that couchsurfing ‘doesn’t solve the real problem.’ The municipality and the universities must ‘provide adequate support to make sure that appropriate housing is available to all students that they invite to their city.’

This is something that DAG will also address. ‘Part of our agenda is also to raise some questions out in the open: how is it possible that so many students fear that they will end up homeless?’ asks Sillanpää. The university says it isn’t responsible for providing housing. But, she wonders, ‘how can it then be allowed to have such a great impact on the increasing international student population of Groningen?’

The couch surfing initiative launched on 20 August. New international students can sign up by emailing houses4students.dag@gmail.com.

Attempted mugging in the Korrewegwijk

There have now been at least two incidents involving a group of pre-teens terrorizing RUG students in Groningen parks. ‘One of them tried to grab my bike.’
by Megan Embry

On Saturday at approximately 21:40, Italian PhD student Laura* was sitting on a bench near the Korrewegwijk. She noticed a group of ‘four or five’ boys, aged maybe eight to thirteen, standing at a distance. She didn’t think anything of it. ‘They had been in the park for as long as I had; I saw them from far away but they seemed harmless.’

But then the two youngest boys approached her. ‘They took advantage of a moment when there was no one else around in the park’, she says. ‘One of them tried to grab my bike, while the other tried to grab my purse. They tried multiple times.’ She repeatedly told them to leave her alone. The older boys hung back, apparently filming the confrontation on a cell phone.

Laura resisted. When she stood up from the bench, ‘they just ran away – they escaped in the Paramaribostraat. In the end, they did not actually steal anything because I was able to stop them, but still, it was awful.’

‘Just kids’

Laura has since filed a police report and posted a warning on the Facebook group, ‘Expats in Groningen.’ In the comment section, another RUG student reported a similar experience on Saturday, near the Noorderplantsoen.

‘A group of kids or teenagers surrounded me and violently pulled my bike away while I was walking beside it, then threw it on the floor, laughed, and went off. I know they are ‘just kids’ but I felt kind of scared also because no one else was around. I wrote a report to the police giving their description’, says Anna Algermissen.

Between 11 and 17

She can’t recall what they looked like. ‘I believe they were between 11 and 17 years old – maybe – and there were around six of them.’

Police spokesperson Anthony Hogeveen says: if this happens to you, file a police report. ‘If there are several reports, that tells us there might be a trend in a certain area that we need to investigate.’

But Hoogeveen says the police aren’t currently aware of a growing trend of child muggers in Groningen. ‘That doesn’t really ring a bell.’

*The original name has been withheld for privacy.

Internationals protest 30% ruling change

Internationals affected by the 30% ruling change are circulating a petition asking the Dutch government to amend the recent modification in the taxation system. Over 13,300 people have signed so far.
By Tatiana Coba

The 30% facility is a tax advantage meant to attract highly-skilled migrants to the Netherlands. Under the ruling, employers can grant a tax free allowance equivalent to 30% of gross income for 8 years. But as of January 1, 2019, the policy will be reduced to 5 years, according to the Ministry of Finance. The government has reduced the policy allowance before, from 10 years to 8 – but expats already in the Netherlands were grandfathered in the original allowance. Not this time.

Retroactive

‘Instead of doing the rational thing and changing the policy for future expats, the change will be RETROACTIVE, negatively impacting thousands of expats”, explains the petition published in Change.org. The petition urges Dutch lawmakers to only apply the changes to expats who come to country after the law is in effect.

The University of Groningen currently employs more than 1,200 internationals, many of whom will be affected by the measure. Ryan Mitchell Wittingslow, an Australian Assistant Professor in Humanities at the University of Groningen, considers the measure ‘deeply unfair’. It will force him to change his financial planning, he says.

Three years ago he came to the RUG with assurances that he would be under an advantageous tax regime for 8 years – an advantage that entered significantly into his decision to come to the Netherlands. which obviously made it very appealing for him, But now he must reconsider his plans to stay.

‘Outlandish’

‘I have a mortgage, and the structure of my mortgage is premised upon having the 30% tax facility for 8 years. If they change it to 5, that jeopardizes my ability to finance my mortgage, which is pretty outlandish’, says Wittingslow.

The University is aware of the situation but can’t do much to reassure international staff. ‘For now all we can do is wait for the government’s decision – the employees will be informed’, says Miranda Tel-Postma from the Human Resources Department.

Internationals are not the only ones expressing discontent with the changes. The Dutch employers’ federation (VNO-NCW) says on their website that the ruling change negatively affects businesses as well.

‘A reliable government is essential for the business climate. The shortage makes the Netherlands less attractive to other countries’, says the VNO-NCW. ‘Attracting foreign talent is not getting any easier – while that talent is needed in a tightening labor market.’

Handshake deals and broken promises

Commenters on the petition feel they have been deceived by the Dutch government. ‘What a terrible message for future skilled workers: come and work in the Netherlands, but don’t rely on any tax benefit the Dutch government uses to lure you in – they can take them away as they please. Now you have them, now you don’t!’, comments Natalia Lowe, from Amsterdam.

Sonia Mangwana, from India, agrees. ‘In a country where handshake deals are considered binding, it’s frustrating to see the government going back on its promise of the 30% ruling to existing expats here. Seems almost illegal doesn’t it?’