Netherlands’ student growth puts pressure on housing

Universities’ difficulties in addressing their share of a national crisis may ease demand, but turning away ambitious foreigners is still a ‘missed opportunity’ for the country

六月 30, 2022
Drawbridge on a canal in Rotterdam to illustrate Netherlands’ student growth puts pressure on housing
Source: Alamy

As midsummer arrives, Dutch universities must return to an unusual communications push: telling international students without a place to stay not to enrol.

Universities have been pulled into the centre of the Netherlands’ mounting housing crisis in recent years, as demand from an ever-growing influx of international students outstrips scarce domestic supply.

Previous years have seen newcomers relegated to campsites, and most universities now have standard warnings to applicants not to continue their enrolment until they secure accommodation. The issue is particularly acute in cities hosting multiple universities, such as Amsterdam and Groningen.

The housing problem “gets worse every day”, said Barend van der Meulen, head of the Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Twente, adding that shortages could accidentally “solve” the wider issue of booming international student numbers, which also puts a strain on teaching.

He said general housing shortages meant that graduates who stay near their alma mater often struggle to find space out of university accommodation, blocking access to subsequent intakes. “In that sense, it’s a problem universities really cannot solve on their own,” he said.

Many cities have drawn up voluntary covenants between universities, municipalities and housing companies. Groningen’s commits to adding 100 housing units for young people a year, while Amsterdam’s aims for 1,000 units between 2019 and 2022.

Neither the University of Amsterdam nor the University of Groningen was able to say how many units had been delivered so far, because the responsibility was shared among parties and the universities’ role focused on communicating the issue to prospective students.

“Some municipalities were really looking at it in the way, ‘well, it’s your students, it’s your problem’, and we said, ‘well they’re also inhabitants of the city and they bring a lot’,” said Paulina Snijders, vice-president of Tilburg University, which is in a covenant to build 1,900 student rooms between 2020 and 2024.

A spokeswoman for Tilburg said that 300 rooms had been delivered so far, but that it had registered 3,709 and 4,231 international students for the academic years starting in 2020 and 2021, respectively. “It’s slowly shifting, but too slow,” said Ms Snijders.

She said she “really thought it was a missed opportunity” telling international students not to enrol, referring to national labour shortages. “The companies here in Brabant, which is going economically very well, are really screaming for students,” she said.

In a 17 June letter to parliament setting out his plans for universities in the coming years, science and education minister Robbert Dijkgraaf acknowledged that the international influx was “leading to bottlenecks” and required a “fundamental rethinking of our system”.

He said he was talking to universities about the possibility of “new instruments” to manage international student numbers, something long requested by Universities of the Netherlands, the national rectors’ conference.

Politically it would be very difficult for traditionally open Dutch universities to introduce selective admissions, and European Union law bars institutions from discriminating between Dutch students and those from elsewhere in the bloc.

“What the universities indeed want is to have more control and make selections,” said Professor van der Meulen. “I’m not sure they realise how much effort that is,” he said, adding that non-EU students would be the small minority that could be easily excluded.

He said universities were trying to “misuse” the problem of international student numbers to create a more selective system that they believed would propel more Dutch institutions into the international elite.



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