Internationals fight for supplementary grant
Taking DUO to court
Picture this: you are an international student trying to make ends meet with a part-time job. But even with the extra income, you’re still a couple hundred euros short at the end of every month. So you turn to DUO for help.
You’re sure you qualify for the supplementary grant: you work 56 hours a month and you’re an EU student, which are the only requirements. Happily, your application is accepted and you start receiving the grant. Everything is going smoothly – until one day you receive a fine from DUO for more than 2500 euros.
That sounds like something straight out of a student’s worst nightmare, but it actually happened to Alexandru Vasilachi, a Hanze Game Design and Development student from Romania. He worked for a restaurant between 30 and 100 hours a month. But when the restaurant stopped providing him with some of his payslips, official records showed that he was working fewer than 56 hours month.
As a result, he was asked to pay back the entire sum he had received for the previous three months. On top of that, he was fined 500 euros for using the student travel product.
Alexandru appealed the fine, but DUO rejected his appeal. Life seemed bleak for a while, he says. ‘I had to conjure up more than 2000 euros out of thin air.’
Nothing to lose
Then he saw an ad on Facebook about the possibility of suing DUO. VYAS Consulting, an agency from Amsterdam, was taking cases similar to his. Alexandru reached out and was put in touch with a legal team. With nothing to lose, he decided to take DUO to court. That meant he could at least put off paying the fine.
Now 6 months into the legal proceedings, he hasn’t heard anything further from DUO regarding the money he owes. ‘They don’t really give you a deadline for the payment; they just tell you that you need to pay’, he says.
There is some precedent for taking DUO to court and succeeding. The VYAS Consulting web page lists a case similar to Alexandru’s. In this instance, the court stressed that the state, through DUO, is required to investigate the specific circumstances of students who work but do not meet the 56 hour minimum. Students who do meet the minimum are automatically considered migrant workers and are eligible for the grant. But that does not mean that students who work fewer than 56 hours automatically default to non-migrant worker status.
‘I have a solid chance of winning – or at least, my lawyer says so’, says Alexandru. ‘But that’s exactly the sort of thing your lawyer would say’, he laughs.
Spanish RUG student Mayte had a similar experience with the supplementary grant. The Arts, Media and Literary Studies student worked for an average of at least 56 hours per month. Her daily hours varied, but they added up to the required minimum each month. Except for one month, when her hours fell just short of 56.
European law makes a distinction between economically active and inactive students. Member states are allowed to restrict access to government funds on the basis of economic (in)activity, which is why only economically active students can get the supplementary grant. The status of ‘migrant worker’ denotes economic activity.
DUO requires a student to work the minimum 56 hours in order to qualify as ‘economically active’. But EU law defines ‘economic activity’ in terms of performing ‘real and actual work’ and does not require any hourly minimum to qualify as economically active.
She had to pay back the grant for that month by receiving less money for subsequent months. She tried to appeal the decision, but did not succeed. She then went on to sue DUO through the same legal team that represented Alexandru.
For Mayte, the supplementary grant was indispensable. She couldn’t count on her parents to help her financially, because only one of them is employed. ‘My part-time job barely covered my rent and a maximum of two weeks of food. I even tried working two jobs at once, but ended up overwhelmed and burnt out. I couldn’t afford losing the grant, because it was what gave me financial independence and security.’
Mayte also wants to avoid ending up in debt, which is why she has decided not to take out the tuition fees loan. She thinks that, as an international student, her employment prospects here in the Netherlands are too uncertain to borrow that kind of money. ‘I don’t want to end up with a lot of debt and no way of repaying it. It’s too big a risk.’
Alexandru and Mayte both think that the student finance system is overcomplicated. ‘It’s hard to keep track of all the rules and small conditions, but the stakes are really high’, says Alexandru. ‘You don’t want to end up with 2500 euros in debt, because this can seriously impact your chances of becoming a Dutch citizen’, he adds.
For many students, hitting that 56 hours a month can take superhuman effort. RUG international student Stephanie Weninger is currently in her last year of the Clinical Forensic Psychology and Victimology master. She said at one point she was juggling a 27-hours-per-week internship, her studies, and a part-time job which amounted to 54 hours per month. At the same time, she was in and out of the hospital with debilitating pain from her carpal tunnel syndrome.
She was just two hours short of being eligible for the supplementary grant, and her application was denied. ‘When I needed the support of DUO the most, I didn’t get it’, she says.