A never-ending story
Alexander Bakos, from Romania, was enrolled to study law at the RUG. But he never actually started. ‘I went back home because of the room shortage’, he wrote the UK.
Finnish-Vietnamese Nora Gurung recently started her pre-master clinical psychology. She had to stay at the Simplon Jongerenhotel because she was unable to find a room. ‘I’m sort of stuck in survival mode’, she told the UK earlier. ‘I’ve seen so many students cry because they don’t know what to do. I’m beginning to lose hope.’
‘Comfortable guest houses’
Even before the university was founded in 1614, students from all over Europe came to Groningen to attend the Latin School.
Back then, there was no shortage of rooms, as it was probably Ubbo Emmius, the first rector magnificus, who described Groningen in the first ‘Everlasting decree’ as a place ‘we consider a natural home to the Muses. Because […] there is a wealth of comfortable guest houses and other such places.’
Over the past few weeks, the media exploded with distressing stories of hostels that were filled to the brim and foreign students forced to live at camp sites or, if they were lucky, in their friends’ kitchens or couches. Sometimes, they were forced to leave Groningen while others never even arrived: homeless internationals. On 8 September, there was a protest on the steps of the Academy building, where students and residents both fought for better housing in Groningen.
So what’s going on? The university is becoming increasingly international at a fast rate. Groningen currently has five thousand foreign students from 120 different countries studying here. Each year, five hundred new internationals arrive. And let us not forget the foreign staff. 60 per cent of PhD candidates and 20 per cent of regular researchers are from abroad. All those people need a place to live. And this is a problem.
Each year, various students are unable to find a room, concludes Marthe Grotenhuis, secretary for the Erasmus Student Network (ESN). Whether the situation is worse this year is hard to judge. ‘I think there might be more publicity this year’, she says. ‘It’s possible more students are in trouble, but not a huge amount.’
Communications adviser for Stichting Studenten Huisvesting (SSH) Rianne Elderson agrees with Grotenhuis. ‘We have had more applications, but we also have more rooms than we did last year.’ This summer, for example, marked the opening of the Upsilon building at the Zonnelaan. There is room for almost five hundred students.
Exact numbers aren’t yet known, because it will only be announced in October how many students actually showed up at the RUG.
Nevertheless, the problem feels more urgent this time. ‘Internationals are important’, says Herman Ubbens, CDA space and living council committee member. ‘The room shortage crisis is bad for our city’s image. The university and the municipality should come together to solve this problem.’ The only question is: how?
Ubbens wants to emphasise that students are responsible for themselves. ‘But the university has to make sure that there is sufficient housing, as well as information.’
According to RUG spokesperson Jorien Bakker, the RUG is doing this. ‘We are acknowledging the problem, and we realise our responsibilities.’
She emphasises that students are told that they themselves are responsible for finding a place to live in a timely manner, during recruitment and enrolment. ‘But now that approximately two hundred students are shown not to have a place to live, we have taken joint action with the Hanze University and municipality.’
By this ‘action’, she means Suite23. This is a temporary shelter for one hundred homeless foreign students in a former refugee centre located at Van Swietenlaan 23.
A Spanish student renting a room here, however, is not impressed. ‘The university did say it might be difficult to find a room’, he says. ‘But there’s a big difference between “difficult” and “nigh impossible”.’
Elzo Smid, organiser of the protest for better housing in Groningen, confirms this. ‘Some students have been looking for a room for weeks. With that in mind, Suite23 is too late a solution offered by the university’, he says.
The 54-year-old graphic designer found out about the problems when he became moderator for a Facebook group for student rooms in Groningen. ‘I could see from the messages on the group that more and more international students were beginning to panic. Some were unable to find a room for weeks, and they’d been scammed on top of it.’
Smid also saw pictures of rooms that couldn’t possible be located in the Netherlands. Many students had paid several brokerage firms their mediation fees of thirty euros without finding anything. ‘Everyone kept saying we should do something, but nothing happened. So I decided to organise a protest’, he says.
It’s not like the university has never tried to fix the problem before. Approximately seven years ago, they built container rooms at Zernike. A former hospital was transformed into international student house Frascati. There was a hotel boat in Groningen where students could live in a nice room for the first few months of the academic year, for an all-inclusive price. But the problem returns each year, and the various parties are all pointing the finger at each other.
‘The university keeps saying they don’t have the authority to build anything’, says Smid. ‘That’s technically true, of course. Technically, the university isn’t responsible. They’re not allowed to rent out rooms, that’s true. But if they truly wanted to do something, they’d find a way.’ Alderman Roeland van der Schaaf, for example, said that ‘the municipality could build more, if the RUG gave them a rent guarantee.’
Bakker emphasises that the municipality and the university are definitely working on finding a permanent solution. The Trefkoel – a former business centre at the Zonnelaan – is being renovated. The project was delayed, however, because it had to be made earthquake proof. ‘And we’ve added approximately four thousand new units over the past few years’, says Bakker. ‘Some of them are exclusively for foreign students. A few thousand units more are on the agenda for the next few years. The educational institutes and the municipality hope to permanently fix the housing shortage for internationals.’ But Bakker can’t tell us anything concrete about the building plans.
Over the next few weeks, the homeless students will all slowly but surely find a place to live, the people involved think. It’s happened in all previous years. But even if everyone has found a place by the end of October, that doesn’t mean the problem is solved, says Smid. ‘If these students end up living in small, dark, over-priced rooms, you still could not be satisfied.