He wasn’t allowed to travel during code orange
Tomas lost his scholarship but fought back
Last Friday, Law student Tomas Baçe was finally able to post his appeal, officially objecting to his Erasmus scholarship being taken away from him in September 2020. He says he met all the EU requirements for the scholarship. And yet, the UG decided not to grant it to him.
Perhaps even worse, when he tried to appeal the decision, the university fought him on it.
What’s the story?
Just like dozens of other UG students, Tomas was scheduled to go on exchange to a university abroad in September. He was going to Trinity College in Dublin. ‘I’d planned to go to Dublin anyway, to see my girlfriend’, he says. ‘I went in August anyway. But they cancelled by Erasmus+ scholarship.’
Everything had been taken care. Infection rates in Ireland were lower than in the Netherlands. Travelling posed no risk to his health, says Tomas. Nevertheless, most UG faculties decided to cancel their exchange programmes. The law faculty decided to continue them, but any students who travelled during a code orange would have their scholarship taken away. ‘I’m trying to figure out why they made that choice’, he says.
After all, the money for the Erasmus scholarships doesn’t come from the UG. The EU pays for them. ‘And the EU says I meet all the requirements for the money.’
The UG shouldn’t just blindly trust colour codes
Yet the UG refused to give him the money. ‘Ireland was a code orange per the ministry of Foreign Affair, because they had compulsory quarantines’, says Tomas. This wasn’t an issue for Tomas however, since Trinity College had specific quarantine accommodations for exchange students.
While the ministry advised people to only travel when ‘necessary’, there were no binding rules that explained what this meant. ‘The UG’s interpretation was very strict; apparently they don’t think studying is necessary’, says Tomas.
On top of that, the colour codes don’t just say whether a country is safe to travel to or not. They’ve devolved into a way of stopping tourists from visiting countries where it’s mandatory to quarantine upon arrival. ‘The UG shouldn’t just blindly trust the colour codes; they should look at individual cases’, says Tomas.
Then there’s the fact that the various organisations within the UG don’t have a singular policy. The exam committee approved the courses that Tomas took in Ireland back in October. They’re allowed to do this since they aren’t beholden to the decisions the board of directors makes. ‘I’m really wondering why the board is being so difficult when the money isn’t even theirs.’
Tomas has been trying appeal the decision since his scholarship was cancelled. It hasn’t been easy. First of all, the decision was never official. A record of the policy the university based that decision on wasn’t available to the public. Without an official decision or policy, Tomas could not officially appeal, either.
The UG made sure that I couldn’t appeal
‘I started emailing people. I first wrote the faculty coordinator, who referred me to the university’s coordinator. They answered very quickly, but when I started asking follow-up questions, I suddenly received a short email from the university’s legal department.’
After that, there was radio silence. No one responded to his emails anymore. The way the university communicated with him drove him crazy, he says. ‘The UG made sure that there was no way for me to appeal. They just kept fobbing me off, but I told them I wouldn’t give up. I’ll take it all the way to court if I have to.’
In February, Tomas decided he’d been waiting long enough. He contacted the National Ombudsman. That’s when things started moving. ‘The National Ombudsman posed my question to the UG, and in late April, I got the official decision I needed.’
Now, he was finally able to officially appeal the decision, something he’d wanted to do since a complaint he submitted in December didn’t go anywhere. ‘I worked on it for two weeks. I almost feel sorry for the person who’ll have to go over all thirty-five pages of it.’
In his appeal, Tomas argues not only that he should be given the scholarship, but that the policy should be more transparent, and that the university should do better in its communication towards students. He also wants the UG to look at individual cases. He knows at least thirteen other students at the law faculty who are in a similar situation. They all lost their scholarships, but their situations varied slightly. That means his appeal doesn’t necessarily apply to other cases.
He doesn’t have a lot of faith in the whole procedure, though. After the National Ombudsman intervened, he and the other students had another meeting with the UG. They were asked to once again write down their individual situations. ‘The others were happy’, he says. ‘They thought it meant the uni was finally taking them seriously.’
It’s become a matter of principle
A month went by before they got a response: a two-line, uniform message informing the students their scholarships had been cancelled because of code orange. ‘I’ll probably end up going to court’, says Tomas. ‘I don’t trust the UG to be critical of its own actions when reading my appeal.’
Tomas doesn’t even care about the two thousand euros he’s missing out on anymore. ‘It’s become a matter of principle’, he says. ‘I really don’t like the way the UG is treating its students.’ The UG should support its students, but he feels the poor communication and secret policies stand in the way of this.
Tomas is determined to win this. ‘It would also prove that the UG does a good job of teaching law to its students, so that’s a win-win’, says Tomas, laughing. ‘This process has taught me a lot, but it has soured my relationship with the UG. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do my master in Groningen, but now I know that I definitely won’t.’
The UG says it responded to Tomas Baçe’s questions. ‘We also had two meetings with him, and the UG is aware of his appeal.’ The university does admit it took a while to respond, but ‘this didn’t affect the answers to Tomas’ questions.’ Travelling to ‘orange’ countries wasn’t allowed, the UG emphasises, and students were told about this beforehand. An independent committee will process Tomas’ appeal.