Proudly displayed on Leiden University’s website is the following phrase: “Leiden is a lively university city that’s brimming with history and boasts a student culture that’s tangible just about everywhere” (emphasis added by author).
A city that has deeply ingrained a student culture into its daily fabric sounds like a dream location to study. Instantly, romantic notions of a city catering primarily to the student culture begin to formulate: student art and expression proudly displayed on the streets and in local galleries, student discounts at local pubs and eateries, a cohesive student body of the cultural, intellectual and emotional diversity that can be uniquely offered by an international university. Unfortunately, most of these dream conditions of studenthood will remain just those upon matriculation to Leiden University: romantic notions.
This is not to say that the city of Leiden, or the many privately owned entities owe the students much, if anything at all. This is to say however, that if Leiden University is not willing to utilise its strategic position within the city to favour its prospective students, then it feels almost hypocritical to claim to be a “student city” as opposed to a “university city”.
Certainly it seems to be something Leiden University wants to provide. In fact it seems to be something the City of Leiden itself would like to provide. You would be hard pressed to find much tourist or city information regarding Leiden that does not include the university and its diverse student body as a major selling point. After studying here for a year or two, that seems to confusing, given the current level of respect for current students - especially international students - as opposed to prospective students or even bored dagjesmensen enjoying a tour of the Academy Building on a Tuesday afternoon.
It could very well just be the case that I am looking at the wrong factors to make up a “Student City”, or am simply whining for more things to cater to me personally. But why would Leiden University not be able to at least campaign for some more social benefits of studenthood here? Few museums offer student discounts (in the case of the newly reopened Lakenhal there appears to be none at all) and though I do not wish to diminish the work done by the Leids Universiteits Fonds, but if my tuition is unable to go towards my inclusion as a student within the surrounding areas, as well as provide some money for charity, why the constant increase of fees annually?
By every measure, Leiden University’s rankings have plateaued, at best, and are already strongly on a trend of decreasing since its peak in 2013. In my faculty in particular, it certainly isn’t going towards Quality of Life student services: our coffee prices have increased, our cafeteria has shortened its hours, and more printers are set up behind a paywall throughout the building.
And considering that the university struggles, and in some cases flat-out refuses, to utilise English for non-Dutch speakers, perhaps us international students should be referred to more as how it feels: walking Euro-signs with funny-sounding accents.
This is not to say that Leiden University should stop recruiting international students. The university can recruit international students as much or as little as they please. But it is surprising that at the same time as collecting a pay raise and increase in annual budgets from these international students, members of the administration will openly lament the inability of said international students to speak fluent Dutch, a textbook example of cognitive dissonance if one has ever been seen.
This is not only evidenced within the higher-ups in the administration, either. The very notion of student life seems to be happily left in the hands of the student associations and while the small associations do what they can to give students an excuse to drink a lot of beer, the major associations seem to blatantly only allow Dutch speakers to participate in their events. The self-proclaimed “Student Club of Leiden” HiFi also solely communicates in Dutch. The annual Nacht van Ontdekkingen (Night of Discoveries) has the vast majority of its events in Dutch, yet happily advertises the same price to non-Dutch speakers without making this abundantly clear beforehand (they do, however, provide a 5 Euro discount to all students, which is very much appreciated).
Even this very publication of Mare itself struggles to provide English copy with each issue, and in my personal experience, struggles to find copy for international students outside of the housing crisis or some musings on Brexit.
Simply put, the question remains of what can Leiden University do more to allow a cohesive, multi-national, and exciting student culture to foster and grow? A fully English branch of Mare? A student-run radio station?
We belong to, what we are told to be, one of the world’s leading universities, certainly the tools needed to foster the vision of Leiden as a thriving student city. Unfortunately, without these efforts made, Leiden will feel as little more than a simple “city with a university” to me.
Jeevan S. Panesar is doing the research master in archeology at Leiden University