News - August 27, 2015

To university without a grand

Rob Ramaker

This year’s cohort of Dutch first-year students do not get a government grant but a loan. Borrowing money was expected to influence their behaviour. But there is no sign of that yet. We asked around during the introduction days and found that the first-years do not see a loan as a problem and most are still moving to Wageningen. ‘It is a fait accompli. Protesting is pointless now.’

It is dark in the big hall at De Bongerd sports centre. Down one side of the room there are screens, mats and cupboards with red and blue lamps dancing around them. Once your eyes are used to the dark you see that behind those lamps are first-years moving around with plastic weapons in their hands. They are shooting at each other and the lamps flicker at every hit. This is Christian student society NSW’s introductory activity for newcomers.

You can see this afternoon that the AID is already into its fi fth day. Towards the end of their round the laser gamers shuffle around, making very little effort to avoid enemy fire. One lanky red-faced lad sinks into a chair in the Bongerd pub and stares blankly. Is the introduction fun? ‘Oh yes.’ And what else was he planning to do today? He gives this a moment’s thought. ‘I’m going to have a nap.’

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For a week Wageningen has been taken over by roaming bands of lads and lasses sporting coloured armbands and brown AID bags. With a broadly similar programme every year, it is diffi cult to separate the various past editions in your memory. But there is something different about this year. After years of uncertainty, the basic grant has been scrapped, a loss of 15,000 euros over a three-year bachelor’s course. Students do still get a free public transport pass but must now cover their own maintenance. This means borrowing more from DUO, working more or receiving more support from their parents. Student organizations are worried that student life will enter a downwards spiral as a result of this system. They are afraid first-years will be slower to move away from home, less inclined to join a society and strongly focused on studying efficiently.

But the first-years at the Bongerd aren’t talking about the loan system at all, as it turns out. ‘It’s not really a big issue, no,’ agree Thom (Nutrition & Health), Alger (Biology) and Joep (Plant Sciences). At the AID your mind is mainly on partying. They were at Nji-Sri until about three am last night – they don’t know exactly what time it was – and then they partied at SSR-W until breakfast. ‘A good party’, they all agree. The trio are defi nitely moving to Wageningen, basic grant or not. But there wasn’t really any choice: they all live far away. Joep comes from Hoorn and Alger from Sint Nicolaasga in Friesland – in both cases, two hours’ drive away. Thom could in theory have opted to live at home: as the crow flies his parental home in Culemborg is nearby. But in practice it still means three hours’ travel per day.

A great many AID participants say staying at home is not an option because of the distance. That is nothing new: a relatively large proportion of Wageningen students move to the town. A survey of thousands of Dutch students in 2012 showed that only six percent of all Wageningen students – from fi rst-years to Master’s students – live at home, compared to a national average of 27.5 percent. Wageningen University offered a lots of specialized programmes, so students come from nationwide. Because of the large amount of contact time, lectures often start and 8.30 in the morning. It is often too difficult, or even impossible, to reach Wageningen by public transport by that time.

The survey carried out by Resource during the AID also suggests that new Wageningen students are still moving into rooms in town. Currently 65 percent already have a room and another 22 percent hope to find one in the first year. This impression is confi rmed by Corina van Dijk from student housing provider Idealis: ‘The total number signed up is bigger than last year, and the number of responses is comparable.’ Idealis is on the lookout for the effects of the loan system. ‘But we are not seeing anything.’ At Cantil, student society KSV’s clubhouse, the firstyears look a lot more active than they did at the Bongerd. Outside a few students (mainly men) are bobbing about in the ‘pond’, an improvised swimming pool, and some people are playing beach volleyball. It is dry at last: this is the first day of the AID on which there has been less than 15 millimetres of rain. And yet one KSV members asks whether lots of first-years are still in bed – it’s so quiet. Social societies such as KSV were very worried beforehand about the new loan system. The national umbrella association of student societies (LKvV) had also opposed the introduction of the system, saying it would ‘destroy the atmosphere of university life.’

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But today there doesn’t seem to be a cloud in the sky for KSV. ‘Everyone is talking about joining a society,’ says Daphne (Health and Society). Around her on the clubhouse roof, people are sitting chatting at long tables. Daphne has just been cutting Belgian fries and the last load is on its way to the fryer. There is now just a mountain of potato peel and a colander full of greasy toilet paper and mayonnaise on the table. KSV recruitment is going well, after all. The society seems to have even more applicants than last year, in fact.

Daphne is not going about student life any differently because she isn’t getting a grant. She had to move to Wageningen too – she comes from South Limburg, but she did not consider switching to her local university, Maastricht. The Health Sciences degree there takes a different angle and is more natural sciences-oriented. So it had to be Wageningen, and her parents were happy to help financially. ‘Now I am only borrowing to pay the tuition fees.’ The more fi rst-years you talk to, the more you might start to think that nobody is at all bothered by the loan system. But a sharp older student at NSW remarks that there is one group we won’t be talking to at the AID: the people who decided against going to university. If you really look, there are first-years for whom the loan system was decisive in not renting a room. Jur is one of them: a new student of Soil, Water, Atmosphere, who is hanging out with three people from his group at a high table in Buurman and Buurman cafe. The workshop on serving draught beer, run by the Brabant Students Guild, has finished and a few firstyears are playing cards. Jur was already doubtful about whether to rent a room. ‘When I knew I wasn’t going to get a grant, my decision was clear.’ This year he will be making a 45-minute journey each way to attend classes. He had wanted to join a society, but he has decided against it. ‘Perhaps I will regret it,’ he says, ‘but the difference is too big, financially. I’ll review the situation again in the second year.’

Others who are staying at home have done the sums for the long term. Sophie (Molecular Life Sciences) is playing with her smartphone in the Bongerd. The loan system has had a big effect on her plans. At fi rst she was still thinking about going to university in Enschede, but in the end she opted for Wageningen, which is easy to reach from her home in Veenendaal. Sophie already knows she wants to go on to do a PhD. She is not heading for a highly paid job so she has decided fi rmly not to pile up tens of thousands of euros in debt. In Resource’s survey, almost 30 percent of the students who are staying at home said the loan system played a role in their decision. For six percent, the price of a room was another strong reason not to move away from home. Her AID companions are open-mouthed in wonder. ‘You have already got it all worked out.’ They themselves have not changed their plans, they say with a shrug. And they don’t want to worry about that now. ‘It’s a fait accompli; protesting is pointless now.’

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This attitude of resignation is common among firstyears. There is nothing to be done about it, and they don’t give it any more thought. What these fi rst-years want is exactly what all previous cohorts have wanted. To get to know new people, to decide which society to join, and above all to have interesting and enjoyable years in Wageningen. ‘Of course it would have been nice to have been given money,’ says Joep, who we met earlier at the Bongerd with Alger and Thom. ‘And it does feel unfair.’ Joep knows someone who did the fi ve-year HAVO course at High School and then completed the fi rst year of an applied sciences degree before transferring to Wageningen. So this person got into higher education in time to get a grant. ‘And there I was, dutifully carrying on to VWO level.’ On the other hand, the conditions for the loan are quite friendly and none of the three intends to borrow the maximum possible. Alger gets a supplementary grant, and Joep wants to get a job.

Will they manage that way? Hard to say. They have only been in Wageningen a few days now and they don’t know how life will be. ‘I have no idea how much I will spend,’ says Joep. It might be less than he expects, it might be more. ‘It would be chill to start out in life without a debt,’ says Thom. They move on: there is no sign of the Frisian pole-vaulting workshop at the Bongerd. ‘That would have been a nice activity for our Frisian friend Alger,’ say Joep and Thom with a grin. They’ll be taking it easy tonight and saving their energy for tomorrow. Then they want to let their hair down one last time at the AID festival.

Photo: Sven Menschel