By Annette Birschel
Paul is sitting huddled in his jacket on a bench outside a hostel in the Dutch city of Groningen. “This is really messed up,” the 23-year-old student says. “There just aren’t any rooms.”
Paul began his studies around four weeks ago and has been living in the north-eastern city’s Rebel Rebel hostel ever since. He has no choice.
He sleeps in a room in the converted factory containing five bunk beds – along with nine other people. He is storing his clothes in a small locker. He has no desk. It’s costing him 100 euros (115 dollars) a week, including breakfast.
With its converted storage rooms, plenty of greenery and small cafe on the ground of the old sugar factory, the Rebel Rebel hostel in Groningen is not short on charm.
Plenty of hip young businesses and cultural initiatives have sprung up around this relic of the city’s industrial past. At the weekend, there are festivals and concerts.
“This is a great place,” says Camillo. “If you’re on holiday.”
The 24-year-old, who is studying for a master’s in economics, is living in the hostel until his accommodation is ready. “Over there,” he says, pointing to a building site.
Because of the plight facing many students here, there are currently 250 building projects under way in Groningen. But at the start of the academic year in September 2018, they were far from being finished. Camillo’s future home was still a bunch of blocks, surrounded by muddy wasteland.
A motorway runs right past it. “That will cost you 500 euros a month,” he says. “And 10 euros extra for internet.”
The student accommodation situation in the Netherlands is critical. “It’s especially bad in Groningen, and particularly for international students,” says Jolien Bruinewoud, head of the national students’ union. “The city is completely overloaded.”
There are around 55,000 students in Groningen, with around half living in the city. About 9,000 are foreign students. According to the university, there are several hundred without anywhere to live.
Groningen has become a victim of its own success, Bruinewoud says. “The university prides itself on being international and has been trying to attract foreign students.”
There are also financial reasons for the recruitment drive – in the Netherlands, the more students a university has, the more funding it receives. That means almost all the country’s universities are keen to welcome international students.
This year, around 2,000 more students than expected registered at the University of Groningen.
The students’ union says the university is putting quantity over quality and neglecting the needs of students. “The universities have been completely unprepared for this onslaught,” Bruinewoud says.
Groningen relaxed its rules for the study of psychology this year, leading to yet more applications from foreign students. Unlike their Dutch counterparts, they don’t have the option of living with their parents.
“More housing will just have to be built,” Bruinewoud says.
In the Netherlands’ already very stretched housing market, student rents have skyrocketed in the past year. According to a study by the students’ union, students are paying an average of 100 euros too much every month in rent.
In Amsterdam, the average student room costs 462 euros a month; in Groningen, the average cost is 336 euros. No wonder more and more Dutch students are choosing to stay at home with their parents – only 25 per cent move out at the beginning of their studies.
On top of rent, they must pay tuition fees of 200 euros a month, plus extra for internet, books, insurance and groceries. Many finish their studies thousands of euros in debt.
Groningen has even gone so far as to begin offering emergency accommodation – tents containing camp beds. Another option is a floating boat hotel – hardly a bargain at 1,300 euros a month. The old sugar factory helps to alleviate some of the problem.
Hendrik Meyer, 21, from Germany, got lucky. He found a room for 350 euros. “You have to start looking really early,” he says – in his case, March. He found a room in June and started paying rent straight away, even though his studies in psychology would not begin for another three months.
Many others have not been so lucky. Some are still sleeping on campsites; others on friends’ sofas; others in the hostel.
“It’s unsustainable,” says Bruinewoud. “Some foreign students give up and go home.” — DPA
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