Taking DUO to court

The DUO headquarters at the Kempkensberg in Groningen.

Internationals fight for supplementary grant

Taking DUO to court

Need a little extra money? EU students can qualify for a supplementary grant from the Dutch government. But as two of them found out, it may be more trouble than it’s worth.
By Matej Pop-Duchev
17 October om 12:00 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 17 October 2019
om 18:14 uur.
October 17 at 12:00 PM.
Last modified on October 17, 2019
at 18:14 PM.

Picture this: you are an international student trying to make ends meet with a part-time job. But even with the extra income, you’re still a couple hundred euros short at the end of every month. So you turn to DUO for help. 

You’re sure you qualify for the supplementary grant: you work 56 hours a month and you’re an EU student, which are the only requirements. Happily, your application is accepted and you start receiving the grant. Everything is going smoothly – until one day you receive a fine from DUO for more than 2500 euros. 

Now what? 

That sounds like something straight out of a student’s worst nightmare, but it actually happened to Alexandru Vasilachi, a Hanze Game Design and Development student from Romania. He worked for a restaurant between 30 and 100 hours a month. But when the restaurant stopped providing him with some of his payslips, official records showed that he was working fewer than 56 hours month. 

As a result, he was asked to pay back the entire sum he had received for the previous three months. On top of that, he was fined 500 euros for using the student travel product. 

Alexandru appealed the fine, but DUO rejected his appeal. Life seemed bleak for a while, he says. ‘I had to conjure up more than 2000 euros out of thin air.’ 

Nothing to lose

Then he saw an ad on Facebook about the possibility of suing DUO. VYAS Consulting, an agency from Amsterdam, was taking cases similar to his. Alexandru reached out and was put in touch with a legal team. With nothing to lose, he decided to take DUO to court. That meant he could at least put off paying the fine.

Now 6 months into the legal proceedings, he hasn’t heard anything further from DUO regarding the money he owes. ‘They don’t really give you a deadline for the payment; they just tell you that you need to pay’, he says. 

Precedent

There is some precedent for taking DUO to court and succeeding. The VYAS Consulting web page lists a case similar to Alexandru’s. In this instance, the court stressed that the state, through DUO, is required to investigate the specific circumstances of students who work but do not meet the 56 hour minimum. Students who do meet the minimum are automatically considered migrant workers and are eligible for the grant. But that does not mean that students who work fewer than 56 hours automatically default to non-migrant worker status.

‘I have a solid chance of winning – or at least, my lawyer says so’, says Alexandru. ‘But that’s exactly the sort of thing your lawyer would say’, he laughs. 

Almost 56

Spanish RUG student Mayte had a similar experience with the supplementary grant. The Arts, Media and Literary Studies student worked for an average of at least 56 hours per month. Her daily hours varied, but they added up to the required minimum each month. Except for one month, when her hours fell just short of 56. 

Economic activity

European law makes a distinction between economically active and inactive students. Member states are allowed to restrict access to government funds on the basis of economic (in)activity, which is why only economically active students can get the supplementary grant. The status of ‘migrant worker’ denotes economic activity. 

DUO requires a student to work the minimum 56 hours in order to qualify as ‘economically active’. But EU law defines ‘economic activity’ in terms of performing ‘real and actual work’ and does not require any hourly minimum to qualify as economically active.

She had to pay back the grant for that month by receiving less money for subsequent months. She tried to appeal the decision, but did not succeed. She then went on to sue DUO through the same legal team that represented Alexandru.

Financial security

For Mayte, the supplementary grant was indispensable. She couldn’t count on her parents to help her financially, because only one of them is employed. ‘My part-time job barely covered my rent and a maximum of two weeks of food. I even tried working two jobs at once, but ended up overwhelmed and burnt out. I couldn’t afford losing the grant, because it was what gave me financial independence and security.’

Mayte also wants to avoid ending up in debt, which is why she has decided not to take out the tuition fees loan. She thinks that, as an international student, her employment prospects here in the Netherlands are too uncertain to borrow that kind of money. ‘I don’t want to end up with a lot of debt and no way of repaying it. It’s too big a risk.’ 

Alexandru and Mayte both think that the student finance system is overcomplicated. ‘It’s hard to keep track of all the rules and small conditions, but the stakes are really high’, says Alexandru. ‘You don’t want to end up with 2500 euros in debt, because this can seriously impact your chances of becoming a Dutch citizen’, he adds.

Superhuman

For many students, hitting that 56 hours a month can take superhuman effort. RUG international student Stephanie Weninger is currently in her last year of the Clinical Forensic Psychology and Victimology master. She said at one point she was juggling a 27-hours-per-week internship, her studies, and a part-time job which amounted to 54 hours per month. At the same time, she was in and out of the hospital with debilitating pain from her carpal tunnel syndrome. 

She was just two hours short of being eligible for the supplementary grant, and her application was denied. ‘When I needed the support of DUO the most, I didn’t get it’, she says. 

40 students still in emergency housing

Metaallaan has closed

Metaallaan closed, 40 students still in emergency housing

On Tuesday morning, the emergency accommodations at the Metaallaan closed for good. Five students have been transferred to The Village at the Peizerweg, where they can stay until the end of October.
By Koen Marée / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen
15 October om 16:10 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 16 October 2019
om 12:08 uur.
October 15 at 16:10 PM.
Last modified on October 16, 2019
at 12:08 PM.

After the Esdoornflat, the Metaallaan is the second emergency accommodation for international students to close its doors. On Monday, twelve students were still staying there. Five of these have moved to The Village at the Peizerweg, where a total of forty students are currently sleeping.

Open for two more weeks

The school building at the Metaallaan was originally scheduled to close on October 1, but after some discussion it was decided to keep it open for two more weeks. At the time, a little over one hundred students didn’t yet have a room and were staying at emergency accommodation.

The forty students at The Village will have two weeks to find permanent housing. The dormitory will close on October 26, and the RUG will start using it as an extra exam hall.

Selection procedure for psychology master (UPDATE)

The Heymans building in the Grote Kruisstraat.

Admission no longer guaranteed

Selection procedure for psychology master (UPDATE)

Students with a psychology bachelor’s degree from a Dutch university will possibly no longer be guaranteed a spot in the master programme at the RUG. As of September 2021, there might be a selection procedure.
By Candela Martínez
15 October om 9:32 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 23 October 2019
om 11:45 uur.
October 15 at 9:32 AM.
Last modified on October 23, 2019
at 11:45 AM.

The access-for-all system currently in place is being terminated because the number of prospective master students has rapidly increased over the past few years. The psychology department wants to keep groups small for optimal teaching, so a limit to the number of students for each track might be an option.    

Some tracks are more in demand than others, which means that for some tracks, all students will be admitted, while for others only some will get a place in the programme. Each track will have its own selection procedure. Students starting the master next year or in February 2021 will still be guaranteed admission. 

Fairest option

Second-year psychology student Emily O’Shea is not worried. ‘The selection criteria for the psychology bachelor are low, which gives people the opportunity to prove themselves. But I do believe that a place in the master programme should not just be handed out.’

Fellow student Raili Engler, who’s in the same year, also considers a selection procedure to be the fairest option. ‘I think it will push students to work harder for a spot.’

It is not yet clear what the procedure will entail. Students can expect more information in the first half of 2020, so they can prepare accordingly if they plan to apply for the master programme.

This story has been changed after publication. No definitive decision has yet been made about whether or not to introduce a selection procedure. ‘In a careful process, we are currently investigating the way in which we can guarantee the quality of the masters on the one hand and on the other hand offer the space to as many students as possible’, says the faculty.

Flush at twenty years old

Student Kim won Miljoenenjacht

Flush at twenty years old

RUG student Kim Hartjes won 100,000 euros on game show Miljoenenjacht. Since then, she’s been having some trouble focusing on her pharmaceutical studies.
By Anne de Vries / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen / Photo by Reyer Boxem
14 October om 14:05 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 14 October 2019
om 16:32 uur.
October 14 at 14:05 PM.
Last modified on October 14, 2019
at 16:32 PM.

‘Drive safe in your new car’, her mother wrote on a piece of paper the morning that Kim Hartjes went to attend the shoot for game show Postcode Loterij Miljoenenjacht. Her mother had been making jokes like that for days, because there was no way Kim was going to win anyway. 

Except she did. The twenty-year-old pharmaceutical student became the youngest winner ever on the game show, taking home 100,000 euros. After a week, the money was deposited into her account. After gambling tax had been deducted, she’s left with a nice 69,000 thousand euros. ‘It feels a bit more real now’, says Kim. 

From Delfzijl to Terneuzen

Kim attended the Miljoenenjacht shoot with her boyfriend Arno and other Winschoten inhabitants with the same zip code. Of the five hundred competitors, she got the closest answer to the question of the shortest distance between the towns of Delfzijl and Terneuzen. ‘When Linda de Mol said it was 370 kilometres, I knew she would be coming to me, because I’d written down 372.’

Her prize was exactly that which her mother had been joking about: a brand new car. She decided to decline it, however, and move on to the next round on the show. She easily defeated her competitors, although it didn’t feel like that to her. ‘They were all grown-ups, I had no faith in myself at all.’ 

Once she’d made it to the final round and was standing next to presenter Linda de Mol, Kim selected suitcase 21. It was an easy choice: it’s her birthday as well as the anniversary of her father’s death, who died on October 21, ten years ago. Her mouth dry with nerves, Kim opened the remaining suitcases, which held sums ranging from one cent to five million euros. Finally, she received an offer of 100,000 euros on suitcase 21, and she took it. 

Savings account

In the car on the way back, Kim was constantly on the phone with her mother and two sisters. She and Arno made a pit stop in Joure to get some food, but Kim had trouble finishing her chicken nuggets. 

On top of that, she couldn’t tell her friends, who were extremely curious, what had happened for another three weeks. ‘I told them to just watch the show when it aired. But everyone knew something had happened, at least. When the show aired, I told my cousin to just watch, that everything would be fine.’ 

The first thing she did with her winnings was pay her mother back for the tuition fees. She also bought her mother a laptop. ‘She didn’t want me to, but what’s a thousand euros compared to the money I have?’ says Kim. 

She bought herself a brand new, dark blue Mazda 2. ‘Everyone’s going to think I’m driving my mum’s car, but it’s mine. Isn’t it brilliant?’ So where’s the rest of her money? ‘In my savings account, where it’s going to stay.’ 

No motivation

Winning all that money did throw Kim’s life into disarray. In the weeks after the shoot she had trouble focusing on her studies. ‘I just wasn’t motivated to go to class at all. It was so exciting to have won all that money when no one knew.’After the show aired, RTV Noord asked her for a live interview, and someone even recognised her when she took the bus. She’s still having trouble focusing on her pharmaceutical studies. ‘I promised myself I’d do well in school this year, but that Tuesday messed it all up.’

Don’t ‘lady’ my bin

Gender debate in the women’s toilets

Don’t ‘lady’ my bin

The gender debate at the RUG is currently playing out in a surprising location: the women’s toilets at the Harmonie building. Specifically, on the bins. Is the bathroom graffiti a protest against gendered language? Or is the graffitier just ‘taking the piss’?
By Matej Pop-Duchev
14 October om 12:28 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 14 October 2019
om 12:30 uur.
October 14 at 12:28 PM.
Last modified on October 14, 2019
at 12:30 PM.

If bathroom graffiti is a bellwether for the issues that matter most to RUG students, the writing on the wall is pretty clear: don’t ‘lady’ my bin.

A gendered bin might seem like a minuscule issue, but since many people are passionate about the topic of gender, we posted a picture of the ladybin graffiti to Instagram and asked you for your own hot takes, academic research abstracts, and politically incorrect opinions.

One follower captured the issue nicely: Why would anyone gender an inanimate object? Well, RUG scholars remain divided. Gendering is instructive, some feel. Calling it a ladybin makes it clear that it’s to be used for sanitary products only. Or as one commenter puts it: ‘It’s a ladybin because people with penises don’t use it.’

And it’s true, menstruation is exclusive to the female reproductive tract. But as another Insta-follower was quick to point out: women are not the only people who have periods or use sanitary products. The lady prefix gets in the way of acknowledging trans people.

Some think that, if not exclusionary, it’s at least unnecessary to gender a bin. ‘It’s just a bin for sanitary products’, as one follower puts it. Another suggests keeping things simple and just calling it a bin.

Readers also proposed an alternative name: hygiene bin. Yay? Finding the right name for a bin is hard, as it turns out. Get it wrong and you’ll only confuse people. For example, one follower associated the word ladybin with a special waste category.

And then there were those who are just fed up with all the drama. ‘I wonder which “real” problems the critic tackles while they’re peeing’, sneers one commenter, while another wants the ‘nagging’ to stop. It’s an academic city after all, and we should be doing something more important with our time when we are sitting on the toilet!

More internationals should be on boards, says RUG

Proposal Calimero adopted

More internationals should be on boards, says RUG

The RUG wants to use study advisers to stimulate international students to do board work for a year. Lijst Calimero originally came up with the idea, but the board of directors has adopted it.
By Anne de Vries / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen
1 October om 13:25 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 2 October 2019
om 10:57 uur.
October 1 at 13:25 PM.
Last modified on October 2, 2019
at 10:57 AM.

There are more than thirty thousand students at the RUG, and seven thousand of these are international students. But internationals aren’t represented on the student associations’ boards and councils, says Lijst Calimero’s faction chair Floor Buigel. More than eighty percent of students doing board work is Dutch.

This needs to change, Calimero says, because Dutch students don’t act in internationals’ interests as well as internationals do. ‘We can’t put ourselves in their shoes and understand what internationals go through in Groningen’, says Buigel.

Committee grant

Calimero says doing board work for a year should be made more appealing to international students. During the university council meeting last week, they proposed offering them the same arrangements that Dutch students get. Dutch students are given a committee grant for their board work, and they don’t have to go to classes or – in some cases – pay tuition fees for the year. In the meantime, internationals students have to earn at least thirty ECTS a year to keep their visa.

Alternatively, they propose that both Dutch and international students are awarded ECTS in exchange for doing board work. Students are currently given a certificate of participation for their work, ‘but international companies, for instance, have a hard time understanding what these mean, so we’d like to provide some context’, says Buigel.

Finally, Calimero wants to properly inform internationals about board work. They want to engage study advisers who can point out the extracurricular activities to the internationals. ‘They’ll be able to tell them where to find their community and how to join.’

No ECTS

The board of directors only adopted this last proposal and made a promise to inform the study advisers. Board president Jouke de Vries said during the council meeting that the other proposals need to worked out further.

The board also said they’d consider subsidies for international students. However, they felt that awarding ECTS in exchange for board work was too much.

Book Week: What is RUG poet Sofia Manouki reading?

It’s national Book Week in the Netherlands! Need a tip? Five prominent RUG employees tell us about their favourite book. Today: RUG poet Sofia Manouki.
By Mella Fuchs

Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five is an anti-war book about Billy Pilgrim, a prisoner of war who’s stuck in an underground slaughterhouse in Dresden performing forced labour. Because he’s down there, he survives the firebombing of Dresden that kills many its inhabitants and destroys most of the historical city.

‘Kurt Vonnegut went through the bombing of Dresden himself when he was a prisoner of war’, says RUG poet Sofia Manouki. ‘I think that this is why he understands human nature so well. It’s not the kind of war memoir that leaves you shell-shocked and dazed.

In a weird way, it’s kind of a comforting book. The protagonist goes through some horrible things, but the writer uses a lot of humour to describe it all. He doesn’t waste time endlessly describing the horrors of war; he doesn’t have to. The title alone tells you how insane war is. Surviving that war because you were locked up in an underground slaughterhouse as a prisoner of war is an immensely powerful metaphor.’

Aliens

The book also features aliens who look like upside down toilet plungers. They live in all four dimensions at once, experiencing the present, past, and future simultaneously. Cause and effect don’t exist because everything happens concurrently. They know how the world is going to end. They can’t influence it: it will happen, it is happening, and it’s already happened. ‘They just focus on the good things in life’, Sofia explains. ‘If I had to be any of the characters in the book, I’d be one of those aliens.’

Just survive

‘The lesson I took from the book is that it’s okay to be half-crazed, as long as you keep going. Just survive. There will always be traumatic events, things you don’t understand. You can’t help making mistakes, but you just have to keep going. You might be traumatised, you might be half crazy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write amazing books.’

Pour out your heart anonymously

 

Do you want to talk about what’s really going on with you, without having to identify yourself? Now there is a place where  students can pour their hearts out: All Ears.
By Eva van Renssen / translation sarah van steenderen

Students clearly need extra help, says Berend Roorda. ‘We could no longer ignore the news about stressed out, lonely students.’

Roorda is the vice chair of SKLO (Studentenkoepel voor Levensbeschouwelijke Organisaties). A few years ago, he was shocked to find out that a former roommate had killed himself. ‘I hadn’t realised that he was struggling, even though the things that led to his suicide had been bothering him as a student as well. But we all just tend to put up a front.’

‘Associations have people their students can talk to’, says Roorda. ‘All Ears wants to be there for all the other students, like internationals. We have study advisers and student psychologists for specific issues, of course, but the waiting lists for those are usually long.’ The ‘ears’ in All Ears aren’t psychologists or advisers. They are professional student workers who all belong to organisations that fall under SKLO’s umbrella.

It doesn’t matter what the students want to talk about; they can confess anything. ‘It’s completely anonymous and we don’t judge anyone for what they tell us. We’re not here to propagate our own ideas. We’re here to listen.’

Intense

One of the ears in the organisation is Hendrik Timmer (32), a student social worker with International Fellowship of Evangalical Students (IFES). He’s noticed how international students are overwhelmed by the stress of being in a new culture. ‘But they’ve got no one to talk to about that in their programme’, says Timmer. ‘Of course, it’s not necessarily directly related to studying. But if they can’t talk about small things like this, they can blow up and become big things.’

Timmer says listening to people’s secrets – and keeping them – can be ‘intense, but not that difficult’. ‘I’m just glad to help people unburden themselves.’

‘We always try to help people figure out their next step. If they’ve lost someone close to them, we might refer them to the grieving and loss classes at the GSp. If Muslim students come to us looking for like-minded people we tell them to check out ISV Deen. If they’re having trouble reconciling their religion and their sexuality, Jonge Vlinders might be a place of solace for them.’

Pilot

All Ears does not aim to replace psychologists and proper treatment plans, though. They refer the students struggling with bigger issues to the student psychologist’s office. At the same time, study advisers and the Student Service Centre might tell students about All Ears.

‘So far, the project is only a pilot, but we’ve been getting positive feedback from the study advisers and the SSC’, says Roorda. The pilot phase will last at least until after the summer holidays. ‘Especially first-year students tend to really struggle during the first few months of the academic year’, says Roorda, speaking from his own experience as a lecturer in law.

What would it take for Roorda to consider the pilot a success? ‘That’s difficult to say. If we can help even a handful of students, I’m happy. Or if we can prevent something like what happened to my former roommate even just once – I’d feel like we succeeded.’

You can visit All Ears every Wednesday between 2 and 4 pm Onder de Bogen at the Harmonie building. If you can’t make it then, you can schedule an appointment through their website.

Americans Talking About a ‘Superb Owl’; Dutch Baffled

Abandoned as an infant high in the mountains of Colorado, James was taken in and raised by a family of marmots. They trained him in the art of satire, but warned him: ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ He didn’t understand the truth of their words until his adopted rodent brother, Donald Trump’s hair, turned to the dark side.

James could only sit by and watch, helpless and appalled, as his evil brother meme’d his way to the White House. Forever changed by what he had seen, James fled to The Netherlands and vowed to always use his powers for good.

An epidemic of mild confusion has swept the Netherlands over the course of the past two weeks. Anyone who has an American friend has most likely heard them talk about ‘the superb owl’, and come away feeling a little perplexed.

‘As far as I understand it, the owl’s some sort of real estate mogul,’ said Jan Dutchman, a local. ‘It has all these yards? And Maroon 5 is performing for it? I think it’s something like that turkey thing they do in November.’

So, what’s so great about this owl? We at the UKrant polled our American staff to find

Q: So tell us about this ‘superb owl.’

A: Uh, well I don’t really watch it, but I hear the Rams are playing.

Q: There are Rams too? Rams are quite large, wouldn’t the superb owl get hurt?

A: Like, wouldn’t the people playing get hurt? Yeah, there’s kind of a controversy about concussions at the moment. The league was suppressing studies about it.

Q: I see. Will the owls be there with the Rams and the people?

A: Maybe? Like I said, I don’t really watch, so I don’t know all the teams. Are they like the Ravens? I’d imagine they’d be there, and if they’re not there they’ll definitely be watching.

Q: Ok, so the owls, which are superb, watch the people play with the rams-

A: You mean the Patriots and the Rams.

Q: The patriots? Well, I suppose they might be patriotic. Isn’t that kind of weird though?

A: The Patriots? Not really, the Rams getting there is the real wonder.

Hopefully this will straighten everything out.

In other owl related news, an owl was found in the cockpit of an Indian Boeing 777. Authorities removed it after it was discovered that it had failed its flight exams earlier that year.

UB reflection room now open

The reflection room at the UB has just opened. From now on, students have designated space to take a break from studying and catch a moment of peace.
By Remco van Veluwen / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

‘Reflection room?’ the person behind the service desk looks uncertain. That’s fair; the new space in UB 1.01 has only been open since last Friday.

Peering in, it looks dark and desolate. But when you switch on the lights there are comfortable pillows and several sofas to welcome you.

A sign on the table explains what the room is for. You can bring your own prayer rugs, sacred texts, whatever – but leave the room the way you found it when you’re done.

No prayer rugs

The room in the UB is meant to be as neutral and inclusive as possible; it is not specifically a ‘religious’ room, unlike the prayer room in the Linnaeusborg which is decorated with prayer rugs and Qurans.

Dutch law pre-master student Saloua is happy with the room. She uses it to pray. ‘I often spend entire days in the Harmonie building to study. I live in Emmen, so it’s impossible for me to go home in between classes to pray.’

She plans to keep using the room after the exam period. ‘By praying at the right time, I can focus on my studies for the rest of the day.’

She understands why the décor in the room is neutral. ‘It’s a room for everyone, not just one specific religious group, so that’s fine. It’s good for all students to have a space where they can withdraw and be silent when they’re feeling stressed. I do think it’s a shame you can’t leave anything in the room, like a prayer rug that other people can then use as well.’

Pilot

Henrieke Polinder, who represents Lijst Calimero in the university council, is happy the room has finally opened. She was involved in the initiative by various student parties for the room. ‘I’m certainly satisfied. It’s great that we got together to make this happen. Now we just have to wait and see what the people who use the room think, and then we can evaluate whether it serves its purpose in July.’

Because the RUG is interested in how the room is used, people can sign in on a sheet of paper attached to the door. They can also indicate how long they’re using the room, and what for.

The reflection room will be open for at least a year, after which the RUG will decide whether to keep it definitively. So if you’re completely stressed out during your next exam period, you now have a quiet space to escape to.

If you have any remarks or suggestions about the reflection room, you can tell the RUG by sending an e-mail to communicatie-bibliotheek@rug.nl

Police checks in the dark

It’s dark. You’re late; you jump on your bike and take off. As you hurry through the rain, you can see the light reflecting off police jackets just ahead of you. And suddenly, you’re stuck with a 55 euro fine. If only you’d bought those bike lights…
By Remco van Veluwen / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Every year, as the sun sets earlier and earlier, the police carry out bike light checks. But this year they are working extra hard, says Siemon Luimstra of the Northern Netherlands police force. He was behind the large-scale check on bike lights carried out on Wednesday 28 November.

‘There are too many people who bike without lights’, says Luimstra. ‘Because of that, there are many fatal accidents. Last year, for the first time ever, we had more cyclists die because of traffic accidents than drivers. Cyclists tend to think they’re safer than drivers because they can see 360 degrees around them.’

‘But in bad weather, cyclists wear hats or hoods, which limits their vision’, says Petra Koops van ‘t Jagt, police contact for the light checks.

Bring more batteries

Anouk, a twenty-year-old student of chemistry, is looking for batteries. ‘I usually have another light, but it’s in another bag.’ Just when she resigns herself to a fine, she realises her headlight is working. What has she learned? ‘Bring more batteries, and pay attention next time. I think it’s good that the police are doing this.’

Jonas is twenty-three and studies computer science. He’s just received a fine because his headlight wasn’t working properly. ‘The dynamo wasn’t working properly anymore.’ The fine was 55 euros. ‘It’s a shame, but that’s what DUO is for’, he jokes. He’s not bummed? ‘Of course I am. But I did it to myself. I should’ve bought lights.’

Contrary to what you might think, the police actually encourage people to warn their friends about the light checks. It’s not their goal to hand out as many fines as possible: they want people to be safe in traffic. ‘We could hide in the bushes, but we’d rather be visible’, Luimstra explains.

Too late

Josef (28), a graduate of small business and retail management, cycles with an extra bicycle he holds in his hand. Neither of the bikes have light. ‘I saw the police, but it was too late’, he says. ‘But I’m glad they’re doing it. When you’re in the car, you can barely see cyclists who don’t have lights.’ He’s lucky: he is only fined for one bike.

The question is whether the checks actually change behaviour. Luimstra thinks they do. Information and ad campaigns mean people are more aware of the need for proper bike lights. ‘A good set will cost you less than five bucks’, he says. Research published by Rijkswaterstaat has shown that the percentage of cyclists with both a head- and a tail light has increased to 70 percent in Groningen.

Aware of the rules

Bidong-Zhang is a thirty-year-old pharmaceutical student. It took some time for him to get used to biking, but he was aware of the rules. ‘I knew I needed lights. Unfortunately my built-in light broke. I’m buying new lights first thing tomorrow.’

Hanna (24), a student of film and contemporary audiovisual media, disagrees with her fine. ‘My tail light broke a few days ago because someone hit my bike. If that had happened five minutes ago I wouldn’t have been able to get a new light. My head light works just fine.’ She plans to complain to the police. Needing both a head- and a tail light is news to her. ‘I think they should change the rules.’

The rules are:

UB will make a room to catch your breath

Soon, students will be able to retreat to a special reflection room at the UB to take a break from studying. The RUG already has several of these rooms, ranging from ‘musty’ to outfitted with stars on the ceiling.
By Thereza Langeler / Translation Sarah van steenderen
Henrieke Polinder

‘Reflection room?’ The woman working at the reception desk at the Linnaeusborg seems unfamiliar with the term. ‘The quiet room’, Henrieke Polinder clarifies.

The receptionist brightens as she recognises the term and directs Polinder to the end of the hall, seventh floor. ‘But that’s for prayer and stuff’, the receptionist warns. ‘Not for studying.’

But Polinder isn‘t looking for a study room. She is on the university council as part of Lijst Calimero this year. Together with the student union GSb and the various faculties’ student assessors, she has been working on an idea for a new reflection room. ‘Somewhere people can take a break from studying.’

These kinds of rooms are already available at the UMCG, the Duisenberg building, and the Linnaeusborg, but not in the city centre, where the majority of students actually study for their exams. But soon – thanks to the proposal by Calimero, the GSb, and the assessors, the RUG board will make a quiet room available on the first floor of the University Library. After a year, the university will decide whether to make the pilot project a permanent fixture.

Moment of peace

Polinder is happy with the pilot. ‘There was so much support for this idea. No one’s pretending this is the ultimate solution to stress, but it might help.’ The reflection room is meant for people who need a moment’s reprieve from the pressure of deadlines and studying. ‘That moment of peace can help prevent normal, healthy stress from turning into chronic stress’, Polinder says.

The quiet room in the Linnaeusborg

And if students want to use that moment of peace to pray, that’s totally fine. But Polinder didn’t necessarily intend the reflection room as a prayer room. When she sees the room on the seventh floor at the Linnaeusborg, Polinder finally understands why the receptionist added the clarification to her directions: one corner of the floor is covered in prayer rugs. A low table holds scarves and Qurans in various languages. ‘Wow’, says Polinder, looking over the decorative covers, ‘they’re really beautiful.’

But this was not what she had in mind, at least not for ‘her’ future reflection room. ‘It should be neutral, accessible to everyone’, she explains. ‘We don’t want to decorate it according to any specific religion, and the users shouldn’t do that themselves either.’

Concern

She’s had to keep emphasising this point, as some people have responded to her proposal with concern. John Hoeks, part of the personnel faction of the university council, expressed his concerns during a council meeting: ‘I don’t think the university should encourage religious activities.’

‘It should be clear that the room is meant for silence and reflection’, says Lawrence Gormley with the science faction. ‘It shouldn’t be used to organise services of any faith. This is not a denominational university.’

‘It would be a shame if the discussion was only about this issue of secularism’, says Polinder. ‘The university has a diverse community and they deal with stress and pressure in different ways. For some people, religion is an important part of relaxation. Why wouldn’t that be allowed? And since when is offering people a quiet room the same as ‘encouraging’ religion?’

Polinder, who’s a Christian herself, doesn’t think she’ll be praying at the UB. ‘I do that somewhere else. My association, NSG, has its own prayer room.’

Musty and small

The quiet room in the Duisenberg building

‘Okay, I always get lost here’, Polinder admits when she enter the Duisenberg building. ‘Let’s see if we can find the quiet room around here.’

The quiet room is down in the basement, in a wing with the study associations. Here too, there are prayer rugs, and there’s a sink with a bottle of soap. Other than that, it’s not a very impressive room. ‘It’s pretty musty’, says Polinder. ‘And small.’

It certainly pales in comparison to the UMCG facilities: they have an entire quiet centre on the first floor. ‘This is more like it’, Polinder whispers as she enters. There are furnished space is freshened up with vases of flowers and the ceiling is dotted with tiny lights that glitter like stars. She peers in from outside the glass doors; inside is a woman in a head scarf. 

The quiet room in the UMCG

‘It’s no problem for more than one person at a time to use a quiet room’, she explains on the way to the last stop at the UB, ‘but we were there for something else, so I didn’t want to disturb her.’ There are no statistics on how much the existing quiet rooms are being used, although apparently approximately fifteen students go into the quiet room at the Linnaeusborg.

Comfy chairs

The room that the UB will make available as a quiet space is currently a study space. Student party SOG in particular worries that if the quiet room is underutilised, it will be a waste of space. ‘So we’ll have to monitor that during the pilot phase.’

The quiet room  UB

But that’s a problem for later. First, the first-floor studio has to be transformed from a study room into a quiet room. So what are the current ideas for the design? Polinder isn’t really sure. ‘It’s mainly up to the UB itself, but we love contributing ideas.’ But she thinks a bunch of comfy chairs, as suggested by RUG president Jouke de Vries, would certainly be a good start.

They live behind the stage

The Grand Theatre might not be the first place people think of when they are looking for a place to live. But international students Mollie Jagoe Brown and Leonardo Govoni have recently moved into the large building at the Grote Markt.
By Eva van Renssen / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

They say their temporarily living arrangement is ‘just perfect’. As part of the international project ‘Meet the Neighbours’ Leonardo, an Italian student of arts, culture, and media, and Mollie, a French math student, were lucky enough to be selected to live the Grand Theatre. They live in a guest room and one of the dressing rooms, respectively.

Before coming here, they had both experienced a handful of other temporary accomodations. They spent a few nights in a tent at the Zernike ACLO, a week on someone’s couch in Beijum, and a string of nights crashing with one classmate after another.

‘Couch surfing has saved my life. One classmate had to leave university because she didn’t have a place to live’, says Leonardo. Mollie: ‘I almost immediately joined DAG, because student housing is one of their main issues. I got involved in this project through them.’

Exchange

The ‘Meet the Neighbours’ project is being organised across five European and North-African cities. It aims to combine art and an ever-changing society. Last year, during the first part of the project, video artists from the Groningen artist collective WERC temporarily moved into the ‘Bed, Bath, and Bread’ boat.

The original plan involved an exchange; artists would move into the Student Hotel and students would move into the Grand Theatre and its artist hostel.

The internationals living in the hotel weren’t very interested in this exchange. But that all changed when the housing crises hit, says Milan van der Zwaan, Grand Theatre’s production leader: ‘We started the project before the advent of the crisis. But then we simply changed the plan. In consultation with the DAG students, who had organised the couch surfing, we deliberately decided to give the rooms to homeless internationals rather than students who have been in Groningen for a while.’

Guest rooms

Thanks to the project, Leonardo and Mollie will have a roof over their heads at the Grand Theatre for the next few weeks. Leonardo is living in one of the guest rooms, together with a group of Iranian artists. ‘It’s very cool’, Leonard says. ‘I’ve been very lucky.’ As a newcomer to Groningen he didn’t have much of a network, but the project has given him a real connection to the city. ‘I will definitely be coming back to the Grand Theatre in the future.’

Mollie is staying in one of the dressing rooms, which has everything she needs, including a shower and a toilet. She says that being part of the project is was a unique introduction to Groningen. ‘I’ve seen so many different sides of Groningen over the past six weeks.’ What she loves most is the contrast between the austere faculty at Zernike and the artsy, lively city centre.

Next week she and Leonard will swap rooms. She doesn’t care about packing up one more time. ‘It’s the umpteenth time I have to up sticks this fall. I’ve got no choice, so why get upset about it?’

Ghosts of the Grand

Daily life at the theatre is quite different from life in a ‘normal’ house. ‘I start my day with coffee at the café downstairs. Then I go to class and come back home in the afternoon. When I wake up in the morning the first thing I see is the large lighted mirror in the room. Life is far from routine around here’, says Mollie.

Mollie, one of the ‘Ghosts of the Grand’

The students call themselves ‘the Ghosts of the Grand’. Leonardo explains the name: ‘We’re both guest and host at the same time.’ Guest + Host = Ghost. Mollie: ‘It also refers to our role in the theatre: we’re invisible, but we see everything. Once the stage is empty and the last people have gone home, we remain. The other day I watched a concert from a dark corner in the back and I stayed until everyone had left. I felt like a ghost haunting the theatre.’

Leonardo and Mollie organised a lunch for everyone involved in the project, including the group of Iranian artists. ‘We could have just bought ourselves sandwiches at the supermarket, but we wanted the people here to feel like our guests’, says Leonardo.

‘We wanted to show them how important it is to feel like we have a home somewhere, to act as a host instead of a guest for once. Even if we’re only here for a few weeks. This project really taught me the meaning of the concept of “home”.’

On 4 November, the last day of the project, the Ghosts of the Grand will talk about their experiences at the Grand Theatre, moderated by theatre producer Sieger Baljon. The time of the presentation is to be announced.

Theatre performance

Artists Alice Pons and Olivia Reschofsky with theatre collective MOHA are also participating in the project. They are studying life at The Student Hotel for their project ‘Unfolding Routines’. They clean rooms, work the reception desk, and observe the goings-on in the hotel common rooms.

The women, who were once international students in Amsterdam, study the lives of international students. They will present their findings in a theatre performance on Thursday, 25 October. They will also host tours of The Student Hotel this Friday and Saturday, 26 and 27 October.

 

ACLO music keeps students up

A new sound system at the ACLO centre near the train station is supposed to resolve the noise pollution experienced by the students who live upstairs. ‘Other people only work out for an hour, but we live here 24/7.’
By Tamara Uildriks / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Student Taylor Barda, who lives at international student house Frascati, is often kept awake by loud music pumping into her room from below. She often gets up and makes her way downstairs to ask them to turn it down. ‘The instructors would turn the music down for maybe ten minutes, only to turn it back up so it would bother us again.’

She and her fellow students live right above the large gym at the ACLO Station location. The gym is open five days a week, and workout classes are taught from nine in the morning until ten at night.

Stichting Studenten Huisvesting (SSH) offers the residents of the building an ACLO subscription to compensate for the noise, but the students don’t think that’s enough. It’s not just the music that’s an issue; students have also have to listen to the instructors yelling instructions. Barda: ‘It’s impossible to study or sleep when you keep hearing “One! Two! Three!” all the time.’

Complaints

The complex has been housing students since September of 2015, but initial complaints about the noise mostly dropped off after the first six months. ‘So the new complaints came as a surprise to us’, says ACLO president Pieter van Koningsveld. He sympathises. ‘I’m a student too, and I prefer to study in silence as well.’

But he also thinks the people working out should be taken into account. ‘Group classes like bodyfit should have that joyous feeling. That means we play music that gets the athletes worked up. It’s important to find a middle ground, a solution that both the Frascati residents and the people coming to work out can agree to.’

A new sound system will distribute the sound around the space better. That means the music from the speakers in the front of the room won’t have to be turned up as loudly to reach the people in the back of the room. Koningsveld: ‘We also adjusted the maximum music volume to produce less sound.’

Stimulate

This means the music and the commands from the instructors are suddenly much softer. Instructor Viriginia Kui has a hard time getting used to it. ‘It can be a problem because in classes like bodyfit we try to stimulate people by giving the instructions loudly. I sometimes wonder if the people in the back can even hear me.’

Kui understands the noise can be a nuisance to the people living upstairs. ‘I try to keep them in mind sometimes and turn the music down. But then people start e-mailing me to say it’s too soft.’

Since the installation of the new sound system, the students have noticed a difference. Student Alicia Hughes-Evans: ‘We didn’t have to go downstairs at all last week, which was nice.’

But the problem still hasn’t been resolved entirely. Koningsveld: ‘We’re planning a sit-down with the sports centre and the Frascati residents to see what other solutions we can come up with.’

Let’s talk about sex

University-aged students are most vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases, but they hardly seem to care. PhD-student Lennie Donné wants to do something about that. ‘We need a new strategy.’
By Sara Penaguião

‘Young people just don’t perceive themselves as being vulnerable’, says Lennie Donné. Even if they contract something like chlamydia, ‘they don’t feel it’s a big problem. Just get a pill and be done with it.’

But of course that’s not the case, says the communication scientist. She will obtain her PhD next week for her research on the effectiveness of health campaigns. Every once in a while a new health campagin pops up: have safe sex; don’t smoke; exercise more; eat more vegetables. There are flyers in your doctor’s waiting room, ads on television, billboards on the side of the road. Do they work?

Not really, says Donné. ‘We see little to no change in behaviour’, says Donné. But when it comes to sexual health, and especially when it comes to students, the cost of ineffective campaigns can be high. ‘Students are more likely to get sexually transmitted diseases than anyone else.’

Infertile

Students don’t take much notice of STDs like chlamydia. Men will usually ignore the minor symptoms: a burning sensation during urination, a discharge from the urethra, aching balls. And women often have no indicators of the bacteria at all. Sometimes they won’t know they have it until they try to get pregnant and discover it has made them infertile.

But how do you put sexual health on the radar when the regular campaigns don’t work? Donné focuses on something called interpersonal health communication: ‘everyday, face-to-face communication about health with family, friends, and partners; the conversations you have at the dinner or while sitting on the bus with your friends; real life situations where no doctor is involved.’

Taboo

Sexual health is hard to talk about. ‘It’s a taboo topic that challenges social norms.’ But Donné says talking to your friends might be way more effective than any government campaign.

‘It’s interesting to look into the dynamics of how students talk about – or don’t talk about – sex. Donné created a video, where two male students drink beers on a couch. They discuss the chlamydia one of the guys contracted after a session of unsafe sex. Her hope was that  students would relate to the video and that it would provoke reflection and conversation.

Donné had students watch the video – in the comfort of their own homes – and record their resulting conversation with friends and roommates. ‘There were a lot of anecdotes, and you could see that they knew each other’s stories already.’

Unexpected twist

The result was positive, but also had an unexpected twist. Not all young people share the same experience or comfort levels when it comes to sex. For those who are not so comfortable talking about sex, the video was very successful as a way in to the topic. ‘They could use the video as a conversation handle. Instead of having to start with their own experience or opinion they leaned on the video.’

She was also happy to hear that most of the conversations between students were judgement free. After the fashion of the video, the students would share anecdotes with each  other without condemnation. ‘Just like the video we created, it was a story. Stories are a safe way to make you think about your own behavior – you don’t have to experience it yourself.’

The video worked; afterwards, Donné measured students’ intention to have safe sex going forward. Even though the test sample was small, she says, ‘we concluded that it did change.’

CCTV at Rikkers-Lubbers may not be legal

 Company StudentStay installed cameras monitoring common spaces after repeated noise complaints from neighbours. But this may not be legal, privacy experts say. ‘Tenants should have been consulted.’
By Edward Szekeres

Residents of the Rikkers-Lubbers building watched in disbelief when maintenance men tromped into their spacious common room to install a brand-new CCTV camera. Just outside, another new security camera was going in. It would have an unobstructed view of their private backyard.

‘We didn´t know what was going on. The workers just came in and put up the cameras without saying much to us’, says Oliver Horstmann, an economics and business student and one of the very first residents of the building.

On 14 September, the 56 international tenants of the former nursing home received a terse email from StudentStay, the housing company responsible for managing Rikkers-Lubbers house. The email stated that a camera system would be installed sometime in the coming weeks. No other information or explanations were provided.

‘Annoying’

Repeated complaints from neighbours about noise coming from the building prompted the company to issue a warning to the tenants in a separate email dated 11 September.

Students say the general lack of communication from the housing company is a headache. ‘We don’t really know what’s going on with the neighbour situation; nearly all news and updates we receive are from the media, and not from StudentStay’, says Oliver.

The new security cameras were installed on 20 September and students have felt unsettled ever since, Oliver says. Residents are mostly concerned about the CCTV device eyeing their cosy common room. Victoria Cassola, an international communications student, says the ever-watching, unblinking eye of the camera is ‘annoying’.

Personal data

The Rikkers-Lubbers house already had a couple of security cameras installed in the corridors and main entrances to the building. But because the new CCTV devices interfere with private life and collect personal data, StudentStay ‘should have informed students and discussed the matter with them’, says Jonida Milaj-Weishaar, an assistant professor at RUG’s Faculty of Law. Milaj-Weishaar has conducted research into surveillance tools and technologies.

She thinks students have a right to know why the cameras are being put up. ‘Just informing the students about the fact that cameras will be installed – without informing them about the reasons for this action, the use of the data collected, their processing and the period of retention – could not qualify as informed consent by the students on the instalment of the cameras.’

Legal adviser

Because the students did not consent, Milaj-Weishaar concludes that StudentStay ‘needs some permission from the municipality on the grounds of public security concerns’.

StudentStay could not confirm whether they had in fact obtained such permission, but an employee says the process of installing the cameras ‘was discussed with a legal adviser’.

UB gates closed for good

The access gates at the UB will close in December. From then on, only people with a RUG card can enter.

By Lyanne Levy / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

The gates, which were installed at the UB in 2016, were supposed to have closed in December of 2017. But technical problems kept them open. When they closed again last May, there was chaos.

UMCG and Hanze University cards couldn’t be scanned, students who didn’t yet have a RUG cards weren’t allowed in, and the cards only scanned when people were entering. ‘That was an unfortunate situation last time. Hopefully that won’t happen again’, says Frank den Hollander from the UB.

Extensive testing

To prevent these problems from reoccurring, the system underwent extensive testing. ‘If everything went according to plan, all the technical issues have been resolved’, says Den Hollander. In the first week, UB employees will be posted near the gates to help students and staff.

For a two week period starting on 20 October onwards, the UB will be only be available to RUG card-holders because of the extra traffic expected during exam weeks. ‘We will be checking cards manually during that time’, says Den Hollander. Students who want to study in the library will have to show their RUG card.