When asked how graduating after a year and a half abroad impacted his affiliation with the University, Arthur Combal (21, Security Studies) replied: “The pandemic didn’t change my sense of belonging with the university because there wasn’t really one anyway.”
For international students, the pandemic has not only led to increased isolation, it also reinforced disconnection with Leiden University and weakened senses of belonging. For those that study on Campus The Hague, this is an everyday reality. And one that is sustained by the university.
Out of the 30,800 Leiden University students, 6300 are currently studying in The Hague, a majority of which are internationals. Since its establishment, The Hague Campus has seen its number of students increase every year. A little under 10,000 students are expected to attend in 2030. Expansion plans for the campus itself exist as well, from a “campus boulevard” to new bachelor and master programs in the city.
sense of disconnect
While this growth shows that building a new campus outside Leiden was a smart bet, some issues have repeatedly been highlighted. Lack of study places, busy buildings and accommodation struggles are common complaints among students. Moreover, there is a sense of disconnect with Leiden, and with the wider tradition of the university.
For Tobias Jellema (20, International Studies), who studies in The Hague, there is no true affiliation with Leiden University, “besides the name”. The “one university, two cities” strategy has not led to two interconnected campuses, but rather a divided university into two communities.
Expensive and pointless
The reason is that Leiden University wants The Hague campus to exist on its own, with all the facilities needed on-site, from gyms to administrative matters. This is also why students do not go to Leiden often: there is no point, especially when all their classes are in The Hague. The largest bachelor programmes on the campus, International Studies and International Relations and Organisations, are both entirely based in The Hague. It means that going to Leiden is rarely “academic” for them, and more like visiting the city as an outsider. But as Efe Afonoghara (23, International Relations and Organisations) states “going to Leiden is not realistic when you need to be back in The Hague in an hour for another class”.
For international students who cannot benefit from free travel as Dutch students do the journey is also very expensive. €7.60 for twenty minutes travel time, return included, is a big expense for students. The university knows that the cost is a major obstacle, but this has not led to any concrete change. In 2014, there were discussions on how to connect the cities better, with a shuttle bus network being proposed. But in 2019, Mare reported that improving the integration of The Hague within the Leiden community was clearly not on the agenda. The result is that students from The Hague, and internationals especially, not only have to make considerable efforts to feel linked to Leiden, they have to pay for it themselves too.
The most disheartening aspect of this divide, beyond the lack of consideration in terms of financial accessibility, is that it has an impact on students’ sense of solidarity, belonging and affiliation with Leiden University. Of course, the campus in The Hague is Leiden University too, its logos can be seen everywhere and no one is stopping you from buying its merchandise if you want to.
Lack of tradition
But, as Ariane Boucher (19, International Studies) said, in The Hague “you can’t feel the weight of history” of the university. Its traditions and its folklore are pretty absent from The Hague students’ experience and unless you travel to Leiden, you won’t encounter its more traditional and ceremonial side, one that includes togas, old paintings and the rooms where Einstein used to teach. Yet, Leiden University's tradition and history play an important role in creating its image, the one students see when they are considering to study here. “I wish we would at least sit exams in a building from the university, and not in a random rented place", said Elliot Underhill (20, International Relations and Organisations).
This weak sense of belonging only got worse with the pandemic, with several international students returning to their home countries and losing most contact with the wider university community. For Efe Afonoghara, who has been back in Germany since April 2020, belonging was difficult. “When you close your laptop, the connection with the university isn’t there anymore”, he says. The pandemic also weakened Underhill’s sense of solidarity with other students: with online education, “you’re not in it together”.
The original issue of the Leiden/The Hague divide also took a comedic turn for Arthur Combal, who left The Netherlands for France in March 2020 and graduated this year from France as well. With his student job cancelled and more time on his hands, Combal decided to follow extra classes, some of which usually taught in Leiden. “Ironically”, he told me, “I wouldn’t have taken these electives if it wasn’t for online because they would have required me to go to Leiden”.
Stuck in a bubble
Still, most students wouldn’t say that they are abandoned by the university either. Many regret the divide but enjoy living in The Hague, especially given that integration in Leiden would be difficult. Dutch is the main language in Leiden and the city has a different student culture with influential student associations that are relatively absent from the student community of The Hague.
Dutch student Tobias Jellema always preferred the community in The Hague and didn’t want to be “stuck in a Dutch bubble”. For Underhill too: “I definitely prefer living in The Hague” he said. But that does not mean that there is nothing to improve.
For Arthur Combal, The Hague students should have more contact with Leiden, either through classes there, mandatory events or introductory days. For Underhill, Dutch language classes should be made more accessible to improve a sense of cross-campus community between Dutch and International students. “I used to learn Dutch in High School but there’s such a divide and disconnect between Dutch and English-speaking students that my Dutch has gotten worse since moving in The Netherlands”, he explained.
Waste of potential
Events with Leiden-based programmes and Dutch students, as suggested by Tobias Jellema, could be a way to fix that. The idea of a shuttle bus network, or even “a special fare system for Leiden University students exclusively”, would incentivise students to go to Leiden, said Afonoghara.
The linguistic and cultural disconnect is maybe an unavoidable one when there’s a desire to internationalise and attract students from outside The Netherlands. But the “community” disconnect does not have to persist, even though the pandemic prevents us from overcoming it for the moment. Among international students, there is a will to discover Leiden and know the Dutch and traditional side of the university. Afonoghara is planning to live in Leiden during his third year and Boucher strongly regrets not having experienced Dutch student culture more than she currently has.
The question now is whether the university wants to continue its “two cities” strategy, which also implies restricting The Hague students’ opportunities. If Leiden-based libraries and classes are out of the picture for most international students due to financial, time and language constraints, then their access to Leiden University’s academic quality as a whole is limited. It is not only saddening, it is a waste of potential. And potential is is why Internationals were wanted in the first place.