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.
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.’
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.’
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.