‘It’s like I made a deal with the devil’
Half a million in debt with the government
First-year UG student Stefan (20) wanted nothing more than to leave his home country of North Macedonia, where he says government corruption is rampant. He planned to go to university abroad, but when his father was seriously injured in an accident, his family was no longer eligible for a loan. Suddenly, he needed that corrupt government to pay for his ticket out.
‘It feels like I made a deal with the devil’, says Stefan. The North Macedonian government grants full-ride scholarships to excellent students that are accepted to a top university, like the UG. They get money for tuition, yearly return plane tickets and a monthly stipend for September through May.
Ten times the money
The catch: when you’ve completed the programme you have to return to work for the government for double the time you spent on your studies. And if you decide not to return, or you’re unable to finish the programme in the time the university sets for it, you have to pay back ten times the amount of the scholarship within one year.
I had to pass six exams in my first period in a new country
For Stefan, tuition is around nine thousand euros a year and he gets 750 euros a month for nine months each year of his bachelor, which is three years in total. That amounts to nearly fifty thousand euros, which means he would owe his government nearly half a million euros.
To make things worse, he couldn’t start his classes at the UG until the second block. The first scholarship payment, which was supposed to cover the tuition costs and prove he had enough money to live on for his visa application, didn’t arrive until halfway through September. ‘I had to pass six exams in my first exam period in a new country. It was impossible.’
Since he was also dealing with the stress of having to find a roof over his head and adjusting to a new country and study environment, he shut down. ‘It sucked all the ambition out of me.’
Stefan had missed the first weeks when everyone found their friend group, so he had no network to fall back on. The university shutdown has actually been a welcome breather to focus on his studies.
But now that summer vacation is nearing, he has to reapply for the same scholarship for next academic year and wait for the payment in late August or September. ‘It’s the same stress all over again’, he says. His experiences have only strengthened his belief that he is better off abroad. ‘I’ve lost faith in the country that’s supposedly helping me.’
At the same time, he can’t afford to lose the scholarship, so he’s talking to UKrant under a pseudonym, as is his fellow countryman Alen (20), a second-year student who’s in Groningen on the same scholarship. ‘I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me, but the government is just highly ineffective’, says Alen.
I want to go back and make a positive change to the system
For instance, he explains, every individual payment has to be signed off, in person, by the Minister of Education. If he is on vacation, or not in the office because of the coronavirus, the payment may come in late, or not at all.
Alen has also had his ‘moments of absolute panic’, he says. ‘Each exam I think, this will determine whether I make it or not.’ Not only will he have to graduate in three years, he also needs to get a minimum number of ECTS to keep his visa. ‘I felt really isolated and had to deal with feelings of depression and anxiety.’
Making a change
Still, his experiences also motivate him. ‘I have found my purpose in life. I want to go back home and make a positive change to the system. Only now that I’ve had a taste of an actual functioning society, can I help change things.’
Fortunately, his payout last year came in right on time for the tuition deadline in August. That did take some work: he and his mom alternately went to the Ministry of Education and Science in the capital and nagged the same two people in charge of the scholarships every day. This summer, they’ll execute the same plan. ‘You just have to hope they remember your name and put your file on the top of the pile.’