Hard stretched to make ends meet

March 22, 1996

Christine Aziz meets two Dutch students who face a stark choice between loans or low-paid work

By the time he has finished his five-year nursing course, Marco Van Thiel, 23, will have borrowed Dfl 30,000 (Pounds 12,000)as a student loan. "I borrow Dfl 6,000 a year which gives me an extra Dfl 500 a month. I couldn't survive otherwise and I don't want my studies affected by having to work at the same time," he said.

He will have to pay back the loan plus 9.7 per cent interest over 15 years or less, when he leaves college and starts work. The loan tops up the Dfl 425 he receives a month from the government and his college fees which this year came to Dfl 2,250. He receives Dfl135 each month from his father, an electrician.

Marco's rent is Dfl 400 a month and he spends Dfl 1,200 a year on books. He is in his third year of a nursing course at Nijmegen College.

"I manage to eat okay, but at the end of every other month I run out of food and money and have to go to my dad's for bread and things, which I don't like doing. He has to struggle as it is," Marco said. His greatest regret is that he is no longer able to afford to continue his favourite hobby - photography.

Like most other students who need to travel by public transport to and from their university or college, Marco receives a monthly travel card which gives "free" travel. The cost, Dfl 92 a month, is taken directly from Marco's grant.

"A student has a choice to either use the card during the week, or for the weekends only. People who go home on the weekends and live far away tend to choose the latter option," he explained.

Last year was tough for Natalie Desiree, 22, a book science student at the University of Amsterdam. Her father's death, combined with financial pressures meant that her studies suffered.

Natalie is in her fourth and final year at the university and receives Dfl 420 (Pounds 175) from the government each month. Her rent is Dfl 400. She supplements her grant by earning Dfl 400 a month cleaning, babysitting and working as a cloakroom attendant at a disco. "It's really hard to fit work in with studying as the library is open at working times only and I babysit two days a week, but I don't miss any classes," Natalie said.

Her course fees of Dfl 2,300 per year are paid for by the government because her mother's income falls below the statutory contribution rate, "It's been very difficult for her since my father died," Natalie said. "My sister is also in higher education and my mother feels bad that she can't help us out."

Coping with her grief and the added trauma of having to move home five times during the last academic year left Natalie with little time to concentrate on her studies. This put her under further pressure. If a student fails to get a minimum of ten points for exams in one academic year, he or she must pay back their grant to the government.

"I was under so much stress that I only got nine points. I had one more exam to take but took five weeks off because I was under so much stress before taking the last exam. I didn't think I would make it, but I just scraped through with 11. They don't take into account what happens in a student's personal life which can affect exam performance and I think they should," Natalie said. "The idea that I might have to pay back last year's grant this year put even more pressure on me. Sometimes I wonder if it is all worth it."

Natalie insists that she eats well, although she eats only three normal meals a week. "The rest of the time I have soup and pancakes, and eat a lot of fruit," she said. "I buy one pair of trousers and shoes a year. Most of my clothes are recycled - my mum is in this group that passes on clothes - and I spend about Dfl 300 a year on books for my course. Most material I can photocopy free. I cycle everywhere so I don't have any travel expenses."

Natalie regrets that combining study with work leaves her little time to socialise.

"I hardly ever get time to relax and enjoy myself with friends but it's probably just as well. I can't afford to go out. All the money I have is spent on food and rent."

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