Groningen prides itself on being a student city, open to international students and scholars, but for the Royal University of Groningen to keep itself on the top 100 university leaderboard, it now seeks to expand its membership rooster. But Groningen’s infrastructure, in line with the general housing crisis of the Netherlands, has been lacking behind the growing student accomodation demand for years, international students especially feeling the pressure.
Recent articles and interviews from the local media can help us understand the student’s situation in Groningen. Then, a few student housing schemes and state of affairs from different countries will be presented to get a fresh view into unfamiliar solutions that might prove viable for this country’s
The First Year Student’s Options
From reading the UG guidelines, you do understand that the Netherlands inherited quite a different housing policy than its neighboring countries. Some points are clear-cut, like the fact that the University of Groningen is not a campus university and does not offer campus accommodation, or that finding a place to stay is the student’s responsibility. But what is the motto #TheCityIsOurCampus supposed to mean for prospective students who have yet to set foot in Groningen?
The basic advice you are given when applying to a UG programme and trying to book a room are common-sense: start looking as soon as possible, broaden your horizon of options beyond the municipality’s border, in towns easily accessible by train (like Assen and Leeuwarden), make extensive use of online platforms and social media (but beware of scams) and, crucially, be persistent when spamming your template response to online advertisements. However, the vague legal warning that the University is not liable for students’ lack of housing becomes an ominous self-fulfilling prophecy for the vulnerable, who are flabbergasted when they fly in town only to settle for uncomfortable, temporary emergency accommodation (facilities like the ones set up as part of a natural disaster relief).
This raises the question of sustainability regarding the Netherland’s explicit policy for growth in numbers of international students. The student housing corporations, prominent in the Netherlands and tasked with operating and creating affordable student housing, are not sufficient for the international and first year students, the categories eligible for such accommodation. Private student housing developments, though more expensive, are a sought after option because of the straightforward contracts and extra comfort. But even these accommodations prove scarce and are booked online minutes after becoming available! In turn, the market’s best offer of affordable housing consists of metal containers stacked up on each other. Located on the outskirts of Groningen, such residences look like the port of Rotterdam’s cargo terminal, but the students living in this housing surrogate are more fortunate than the homeless students who must resort to emergency accommodation – this year several hundred!
Improvisation, Protest and Scapegoating
In response to this dismal reality facing Groningen, the initiative Shelter Our Students (S.O.S.) launched a couchsurfing campaign as part of a broader action and information effort. Their plea with the local and national government aims at stemming the phenomenon of student homelessness. They handed out flyers in the city center to locals who may share their home. Some people tried to help the cause by sticking flyers on their house’s windows. Hundreds of students turned for help to S.O.S. and a part of these were successfully matched to a couch in someone’s home. To avoid “tent city” debacles like in 2018, the S.O.S. with several other student organizations declared force majeure and rallied students to protest against homelessness in the first week of the academic year, Thursday September 9th, by occupying the Academy Building from morning to dusk. A city task force negotiated with the student’s representatives and ended up agreeing on extending the duration of the emergency housing, lowering the stay from € 9 to € 6 per night, and promising better communication to international students about the risk of not finding adequate housing.
Interestingly, according to an UKrant piece, the city representatives, together with S.O.S. put out a joint statement towards the Dutch government asking for “tools to match student numbers to the city’s housing capacity”. This would mean refining the Netherland’s policy of attracting international students to Dutch universities, maybe by making more programmes fixed- quota and ensuring binding selection procedures. This conviction is shared by adjunct professor of Computer Science at UG’s Bernoulli Institute, Alexandru Telea. In the UKrant interview entitled “Internationalisation: the good, the bad and the ugly”, the Romanian professor declared his take: “the University of Groningen (and other universities with it) plays a wholly hypocritical role. They want the internationals, but when they have to take responsibilities in moving these individuals to a new homeland and workplace, they look the other way. (…) Are there solutions to these problems? Of course there are. ’Why not anticipate? If you want them (international students), buy houses, strike deals with realtors, you have the cash’. (…) The same blindness pattern occurs to equally serious situations like the quality of the students (international or not) we admit and graduate. But the university keeps saying that they couldn’t have known. (…) The evident solution, used worldwide – admissions exams – is politically not in any portfolio and therefore not discussed.”
The problem of political will, or political incapability in providing more affordable student housing was briefly explored in our faculty’s first year bachelor course ‘Urbanism & Planning’, wherein we learned about Manuel Castells’ concept of spaces of flows and spaces of places. In Castells’ conceptualisation, students from around Groningen, from the country, from the EU and from outside the EU are some of the flows that pass through both RUG and Hanze Universities in Groningen. Students are an important cog in the wheel of the local economy, and while the survival of Groningen may not cling on ever growing numbers of students, the vitality of the two is reciprocal. To quote Martin Boisen, coordinator of and lecturer in the aforementioned course: “It is of the utmost strategic importance for Groningen to fix the social housing issue – especially the student housing issue. The local and regional politicians know this, but they can’t. For that they’d have to intervene drastically in the market, and only the national government can do so, and they will only do so if there’s a really big crisis. And you guys, do not appear to constitute a really big crisis.” He went on to reflect that if students took to the streets like our parent’s and granparent’s generations did – recall the widespread student protest from the United States, West Germany, Paris and Amsterdam of the 60’s and since – perhaps a more coherent movement could coalesce to achive true socio-economic change.
With this background in mind, how can this housing conflict be reconciled in
a smart, sustainable and inclusive way? Where can we look for similar
challenges and for viable solutions?
Ireland – “Cost of college” protest
Higher education in Ireland suffers from unaffordability, both regarding tuition and housing costs. the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) made an online survey asking students about the costs, character and satisfaction of their current accomodation. The findings, published in their National Student Housing Report 2017, reveals that only 33% of students live in purpose-built accommodation, 31% choosing private rent, 24% living with family and 7% being forced into improper student digs. Moreover, Ireland faces the highest college fees in the EU, with the cost of living rising day by day! The USI writes on their website: “We were frustrated before. We’re angry now.”
Thus, the voice of many was heard loud and clear in November of 2021 when, in the same spirit of recent protests in Groningen, the USI rallied organisations and students across Ireland in a three day protest against the “Cost of College”. Using the slogan “No Keys, No Education” and “No new course places without living places” to express the inseparability of the first from the latter, the protests held in Cork, Dublin and Galway gained the attention of public opinion and government. The president of USI declared that “Students are really struggling with the cost of college. It’s not just the €3,000 student contribution charge, it’s also rent, it’s finding accommodation. The main thing we want is for education to be viewed as a right, and investment into the third level education sector, because it’s significantly underfunded”.
What Groningen can learn from Ireland’s struggle for decent education conditions is the realisation that high costs of living and housing shortages not only harm international students, but the issue of housing permeates across all groups of our society. Next, Groningen needs to team up with other university cities in the Netherlands, because only a coordinated national movement has the highest chance of changing anything.
U.K. – University of York Campus East
In the United Kingdom, universities operate generous on-campus housing, called purpose built student accommodation (PBSA), and new construction by private developers sells like hot bread. Still, in the UK there are now 1. students for every purpose-built student bed available and, despite Brexit, many foreign students are still choosing Britain for their education. Thus, driven by property shortages and increasing numbers of students, plans and construction for new PBSA are carried out across the country, especially in hot markets like London and Northern England.
A casebook example illustrating UK’s contemporary improvement of its universites’ campus infrastructure is featured in the book “Urbanism and Planning: an Introduction” by Chris Couch, which was on the reading list for the omonim course written about earlier. Since the 1990s, the University of York was looking to expand its working and living environment outside its old campus, because the university predicted, anticipated and, most importantly, planned its future growth. A greenfield site of 65 ha located less than 1 km east from the university’s old campus was the chosen candidate. A planning application was submitted to the York City Council in 2004, permission was granted in 2007 by the national government and the master plan was produced one year later. Effectively invading York’s surrounding green belt, the new campus attempted to harmonise the students’ learning and living environment with nature. The emphasis was put on creating sufficient purpose-built student housing, adjacent to new department buildings and landscaped meadows and ponds. York’s University Campus East still evolves today to make room for growth!
It is probable that both York’s and Groningen’s universities simultaneously planned big expansions in the 1990s, albeit with different goals. The growth of York University’s. enrollment size was sustained not only by new academic buildings, but through a multi-layered approach involving purpose-built student accommodation. We can see how the process of spatial planning spanned a large period of time, so it is imperative for Groningen to prepare long-term supplies of student housing. Not unlike the old nucleus of York University, the UG’s Zernike Campus space is saturated with non-residential, academic buildings, so Groningen’s best bet is to zone out a free parcel and develop it as its next student quarter.
Romania – University of Oradea new master plan
Romania’s bulk of student housing, just like all the former eastern bloc and soviet countries, dates from the socialist era of mass production and rapid urbanisation. The rest of the student population continue to live in their home or find their new place in a shared rented apartment, with a small percentage opting for private student housing complexes. For the state-owned student housing, a tier of priorities exists in order to help the vulnerable: orphan, ethnic minority and low-income family students, but also to reward students with good academic performance, thereby spurring competition. All universities have scarce amounts of student dormitories, the buildings being either clustered around an informal campus – like in Timișoara -, or scattered all over the city, depending on the parent university – like in Bucharest or Cluj-Napoca. To make the most out of these state- run student complexes, virtually all units are shared by at least two persons: most rooms have three beds, but some have four bunk beds, with an equal number of desks and wardrobes for four persons. In spite of the crowded conditions, one strength of Romania’s public student housing is its affordability: for any unit you are charged only a couple dozen symbolic euros per month.
One Romanian city who is trying to become more competitive and retain talent through investing in education is my home town of Oradea. Through sponsored programmes like “Make IT in Oradea” and a grand master plan of extending the campus, the University of Oradea wants to catch up with its neighbors. Sitting near Romania’s western border, metropolitan Oradea has the same population as the municipality of Groningen, but the student population is only one third of its Dutch counterpart. Currently, Oradea, too, does not have enough available affordable dormitory rooms for even a fraction of all who want such an accommodation. Therefore, the new masterplan includes many clusters of medium-height student housing called ‘habitats’. Besides modern glass- facade buildings, landscaped lawns and new sport fields, ingenuity and heritage conservation were also used in the extension project, when rehabilitating three decrepit army horse stables into spacious lecture halls. There is no shying away from mixing the learning, living and playing environment in the University of Oradea’s future campus.
What Groningen can consider for the future when building new student housing is density. It is a guarantee that students would accept a shared room with one or two mates, faster than signing up for coach-surfing in a student dig. As for the developers, building rooms with more beds while keeping the kitchen and bathroom common can prove more space efficient than makeshift container homes. Direct investment, innovation and breaking away from an arbitrary standard of comfort may be the only principles that will save Groningen’s students from future homelessness. To conclude, if the University of Groningen is to be smart, sustainable and inclusive it must not leave the crucial issue of human housing at the mercy of a first-come-first-served system. It is clearly a step in the right direction that the city agreed to facilitate emergency accommodation for the homeless students in Groningen, but more commitment is needed. Change the rules of the game and start building! The stakes are high.