Exchange students hit hard by travel advice
Suddenly, my scholarship was gone
Everything seemed fine when Cristina López Caballer moved to Paris on August 13. The UG student of arts, culture and media was going on an Erasmus exchange to the Sorbonne. The coronavirus seemed to be under control, the travel advice was yellow. She had found a lovely room and she was eager for her exchange semester to begin.
She had seen the news of the coronavirus flaring up in some places in France, and it had worried her a little. However, staying in Groningen wasn’t an option; she had already sublet her room. ‘But on August 28, I received an email from the university stating that I would not receive any funding throughout the exchange period,’ she says. ‘I really relied on that money. Courses were about to start. I needed to find a way to cope with the costs of living in an expensive city like Paris.’
She thought about going home, to Spain. However, that would have felt like defeat. ‘I was confused and lost. I needed to find a job, but first I had to ask my parents for help,’ she says.
Cristina’s French wasn’t good enough to get her a job, and taking French lessons was too time-consuming. ‘I had to choose between working and studying,’ explains Cristina.
I needed to find a way to cope with the costs
In the end she decided to settle for 15 credits. She can get her remaining credits with courses she has already done in Groningen. ‘But this is not how I imagined my exchange. I would have liked to do more here’, she explains.
Cristina is one of the sixty-two UG students that are registered as abroad as part of an Erasmus+ or Marco Polo programme. However, many students ran into problems when yellow countries turned orange and scholarships were revoked.
‘In June, the board of the university – following the VSNU guidelines – decided that in the first semester of 2020/21, mobility would be implemented if and where this could be done in a safe and secure way’, explains spokesperson Jorien Bakker. ‘Following input from our UG faculties, the final decision was left up to the faculty boards.’
Some faculties cancelled all academic mobility, but others decided to go ahead. Bakker assumes that when colour codes started to change this summer, students preparing for an exchange were in touch with their international offices and were well-informed about the situation. ‘There may have been abrupt changes, but in no cases can these have come as a huge surprise’, she says. ‘For sudden cancellations and costs already incurred by students, provisions have been made.’
The university is not aware of cancellation of a grant after the start of a mobility period. ‘Students may have travelled to an orange region on their own risk, but in that case, they knew from their international office that a grant would not be received.’
I didn’t think the university would cancel the grant at the beginning of the semester
Indeed, Cristina’s official exchange had not started yet when she received the email. However, Cristina had expected some more leniency from the university. Especially because the changes happened so close to the beginning of the academic year, and her decision to rent out her room, among other things, couldn’t be undone anymore. ‘I was aware of the orange-red policy, but I didn’t think the university would cancel the grant at the beginning of the semester.’
The university has not reached out to help her. All she got was an email that urged her to sign a statement saying she realises that the University of Groningen does not accept any liability for her stay and that she accepts that this residence may have consequences for the cover that the UG has taken out for students with insurance company AIG.
Jelle van der Schaaf, student in liberal arts and sciences at the University College Groningen, had a similar experience. Yes, he says, he was warned about the possibility of not receiving support. But he hadn’t foreseen the abrupt changes right before he left for Spain on September 5. ‘In my eyes, considering that everything was already signed and arranged for my exchange, it wasn’t clear at all. I was informed about the cancellation of my grant four days before leaving,’ he says.
The university told him that the measures were applied to de-incentivise students to leave, he says. But why not de-incentivise students in June instead of September?
The only help he received was an email, much like the one Cristina got. He was presented with two scenarios. In the first one, he could stay in Spain and not receive the grant. ‘Because the university strongly advises against the exchange.’ The second scenario had him doing an online exchange, with the possibility of getting a new grant when the travel advice turned back to yellow. ‘I assume you will go for scenario 1, right?’ his exchange officer asked.
The students are still baffled by the decisions. ‘Moving to a different country or city can take months’, Cristina says. ‘You can’t just cancel any form of support five or ten days before courses begin. They should have been less rigid.’
You can’t just cancel any form of support five or ten days before courses begin
Miriam Weigand, a student of European languages and cultures, had already sublet her room when she received her email about the cancellation of her exchange to Estonia on August 11. She was scheduled to fly on the 24th and had a place waiting for her in Tartu. The exchange office told her that not only was her grant was gone, but her credits might not be recognised if she went anyway. ‘They suggested that I contact my study advisor as soon as possible.’
But her study advisor was on holiday. Once back, she proved unreachable. Although she tried contacting her repeatedly by email or phone, for multiple days, Miriam got no answer. Time was running out and she was still not enrolled in any course, with a pending flight to Estonia. ‘I was running out of time for both studying here or in Estonia, and the risk of losing an entire semester was increasing’, she says.
As a last resource, she emailed her hosting university in Estonia, which confirmed that she was registered for her studies in Tartu. When a friend told her she had seen the study advisor physically in her office, Miriam decided to go there without a scheduled appointment. ‘The meeting was not fruitful at all, I was told to try late enrolment and to eventually contact another study advisor’, she explains.
In the end, she decided to go anyway. ‘It took eight days before I reached even one advisor. I was out of time, considering that there was no guarantee I would get into a course at UG’, she says. At this point, she decided to trust the hosting university and travel without full support from UG.
We had to follow the policy as set by the central office
Ironically, on the day she arrived in Tartu, Miriam received another email stating that her late application to the minor course at UG was rejected; ‘I would have eventually wasted the entire semester if I’d stayed,’ she concludes.
Exchange coordinator Jolanda Dijkstra from the Faculty of Arts says there was no much she could do about the situation. ‘Im sorry to hear that you have spoken to students who feel like they have not been supported by the UG. The faculty of arts has followed the policy as decided by the central office of the UG’, she says.
UCG answered saying that they followed the procedure established by the central office.
Miriam, Jelle and Cristina all feel that the university should have made a clear choice regarding the exchange. They should have either cancelled everything in time for students to adjust, or they should have been less rigid.