Opinion: Xenophobia at the academy

One of Leiden University’s unwanted international students speaks out

Stephanie van Beukering

Hundreds of homeless inter­national students are slipping under the university’s radar, Maira Manzali writes. ‘Universities desire these students without taking responsibility for their stay.’

Welkom! This word was repeated throughout the University Orientation week; it was the first word on its booklet. Welcome to Leiden University. The mayor of Leiden gave a speech to tell us how pleased he was to have international students. Welkom. The first word taught at the one hour-long Dutch course the university provided. Welkom.

After this week was over, I no longer heard the word. Instead, after I related the fact that I had no housing, what I most heard were sighs of exasperation. “You are part of the problem”, one Dutch woman told me bluntly.

My story of going from a “dorm” in a sports hall, to camping, to couchsurfing, to temporary sublet, to uncertain futures is not exceptional for international students at Dutch universities. It is normalised as a rite of passage; “everybody has a hard time finding housing”, “that’s normal”; “this happens every September, every September there are at least one-hundred students who have to move from couch to couch, hostel to hostel, pay exorbitant prices, have back-pains, spend hours sending requests for housing, with this process taking from one to three months; some students can’t take it and just go back home.”

No, that should not be normal. It should not be a “normal part of moving to the Netherlands”, a fact of life decided by the fates from here on to eternity. No. There are reasons why things are so, and there are means to change them.

The reasons? There is not enough student housing because Dutch universities are not legally required to provide it for their students; barring the legal requirement (and the funding), they mostly don’t.

The means? Universities must fight to not have their budgets cut, and place the interests of their students, nationals and internationals, in first place.

I did not feel welcome to the University of Leiden when I discovered that most of the ads on Kamernet were posted by Dutch students, for other Dutch students. “We are a group of fun students happy to share dinner, drinks, watch films together. Love, PS NO INTERNATIONALS”. The ubiquity of the all-caps reinforced the unwelcomeness. After being turned down by posting after posting after posting, it almost began to feel natural that a Dutch girl in my class asked me if I spoke Dutch, and when I answered no, looked puzzled and asked: “Then why did you come study in the Netherlands?”

Like other international graduate students, I came to study here because the University of Leiden has a world-class reputation in Linguistics, Middle Eastern Studies, Asian Studies, Psychology, and Neuroscience, among other fields. I knew its name long before I even fathomed my graduate degree; scholars from Leiden appeared in peer-reviewed articles, their research featured in the news throughout my studies.

Hence, internationals are attracted to Leiden, and Leiden is also attracted to internationals. By publishing in English, Dutch academia has a worldwide projection. International students foster connections, and Dutch universities desire them; they desire these students, however, without taking responsibility for their stay in the Netherlands.

“There are only three students who still need housing in Leiden” stated team leader of the Housing office to a dumb-struck audience of twelve students seeking housing, all of whom knew at least three others in the same situation. Last month a group of international students joined by the youth group of the Socialistische Partij (“ROOD”) convened with some members of the university’s executive board. Many students spoke out. A student from Cyprus has to commute from Amsterdam, spending €20 on transportation every day; she could not get a student discount card due to lack of BSN, which can only be obtained when one has a permanent address.

A student from India was at the “solution” provided by university for the three students it was aware of that still needed housing: he is paying €200 a week for a shared room in Noordwijk, an hour’s bike-ride away from the university, and has to leave by October 24th (the university has not extended its rental of the holiday house beyond that date). Since he does not hold EU citizenship, if he does not find housing that allows him to register for a BSN, he will be forced to discontinue his studies.

After hearing these stories, the board did not respond with a word of empathy. Instead, shrugs, eye rolling, coldness. They were convinced that since two-thirds of Leiden’s students do not even sign up for the Housing Office, “most students find housing”, so “this isn’t really an issue”. “But this is because the deadline for applying to housing is BEFORE most of our admissions’ decisions,” someone pointed out.

This answer showed that they thought that internationals were the problem, rather than the Housing Office’s early deadline: “Many internationals shop around for universities in the Netherlands, then they apply for housing then they cancel, and this creates lots of trouble for us, so we need to set this fee and we need to set this early.” We brought up the problem of students needing to return to their home country. The comment “well, then there will be more spots left over” elicited a few smiles and giggles from the other board members. Another member condensed the university’s attitude towards internationals: “Frankly, it is your fault if you came to live in a foreign country here without already having secured accommodation.”

Another flawed argument. When people do try renting before they arrive in Leiden – before they actually get to see the house for which they must pay a deposit – many of them are scammed, as was the case with a French student who was scammed out of €1100. She searched for housing before arriving in Leiden, as the university suggested; is the fact she was scammed and, four months later, still has no housing, her fault?

This brings us to a comment which opened my summary of this event. “There are only three students who still need housing in Leiden.” How did they arrive at such a number? During Orientation week, some students had left their emails at the Housing Office; others had gone to their heads of department, who forwarded their emails. From this list of thirty-six students, only six accepted the offer of a shared room in Noordwijk for €200 a week. Of these six, only three still needed housing!

An undergraduate could point out the error of this sophistic logic. The Housing Office has a communication problem; hundreds of homeless international students go unnoticed on its radar.

They do not fathom this possibility, for, the board made clear, they homogenize all their foreign students as elite children who come to the Netherlands for a privileged experience. Rather, some are here to pursue a course which does not exist in our home countries, or not with the correct resources. Some are spending their life savings to be here, some are taking out loans.

When they tell us that the system is as it is, and we must adapt, they are basically saying: do not criticise the system, you have no right, you are not Dutch, if you do not have the money for our basic services, do not come. The fees we have paid, the time we have invested, the emotional overhaul of moving to a new country only to be forced to move back: these are irrelevant to the university administration. Its xenophobia is institutionalized.

Maira Manzali is an international student in Leiden.

After the deadline, Maira Manzali gave us an update. "Two weeks after this meeting (and after publishing this article), the university announced that it has committed itself to helping its foreign students with their registration difficulty. This is a great step forward. I hope Leiden continues in this so next year's international students do not have to go through what we have gone." For a survey about the housing crisis, follw this link: https://s.surveyplanet.com/axwdOYvzq

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