Staying with friends, moving repeatedly or paying ridiculous rents. These are the only choices many foreign PhD students have now they no longer get priority on the Wageningen student accommodation market. ‘I found it hard to concentrate on my research and fell behind as a result.’
text Tessa Louwerens illustration Geert-Jan Bruins
Forced to stay with friends
‘When I started my PhD in 2016, I got a room through Idealis. I left for a year in between to do my fieldwork in South Africa. When I returned I couldn’t find housing.
Everyone knows about the housing crisis in Wageningen, but students who come from far away feel it more acutely. I cannot begin to explain the insecurity and uncertainty that engulfs you when you are in a new country, without your friends and family and with no place to call home. I’m lucky that I already knew people here who let me stay with them, but there are many people who do not have this advantage.
Besides stress and uncertainty, being homeless creates practical problems. In order to register with the municipality and receive a BSN number and a bankcard, you need a residence permit and a home address.
I want to know where I and other international PhDs with this problem can go for help. In my contract it states: “WU will assist the PhD candidate in finding housing in Wageningen for the period that the candidate resides in Wageningen.” But what does that mean in reality? I received a link to Idealis and other housing sites. Is that the assistance? The university is accepting more and more students without taking the available housing into account.’
Seven addresses in seven months
‘I did my Master’s in the UK and it was quite easy to find housing there. I had heard it would be difficult in the Netherlands, but it’s still hard to imagine exactly what to expect. My wife and I came to Wageningen from Mexico in March this year. I figured we’d find accommodation once we started meeting people. So I focussed on my application process and arranging my scholarship. But it turned out to be harder than I thought and we stayed in seven different places in the first seven months. Each time the end of the rental contract came in sight, I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to find something else. It cost a lot of time and energy. I had trouble focussing on my research, and I fell behind.
When I asked for help, I was always told to look for a house on the private market. But that is not a viable option for many people on a scholarship. I had some savings, but they were gone after a couple of months because we had to stay in places that were too expensive. Now at last, we have found a flat where we can stay, and that is a huge relief.
Nomads in Ethiopia don’t have internet
‘When I was doing my fieldwork I had to start looking for housing before I returned to the Netherlands. It was very difficult because I was moving around a remote district of Ethiopia with nomads. To get to the nearest town with internet access meant 125 kilometres by motorbike. So I asked a friend of mine to apply on my behalf, but that didn’t work out very well because he didn’t understand the system. So when I got back I spent the first two months doing nothing but look for somewhere to live. It was very stressful and I couldn’t focus on my work. I am now sub-renting a room. It is temporary but with a bit of luck I can take over the room.
WUR has an excellent academic reputation and I’m proud to be studying here. But if the university wants to keep up its international reputation, it is important to solve this housing issue. Because it is not very practical to let more people come to Wageningen when they have no place to live.
Perhaps the university could set up a separate department for housing. I studied in Norway before I came here and there housing is provided via an international relations department. I think communication could be improved too. It might be best if you got all the relevant information before you arrived, maybe via your supervisor.’
PhD students without salaries
Many Wageningen PhD students are salaried WUR employees. But WUR also has sandwich PhD students who do part of their research in their own countries and part of it in Wageningen, and guest PhD students who are often attached to a university or research institute in their own country. These PhD students – of whom there are currently 736 out of a total of 2022 – live on scholarships. Until May this year they had priority on the waiting list for an affordable room from Idealis student housing provider. Now they are dependent on the private housing market, where the prices are often so high that their allowance falls short. The Executive Board is currently looking into how this problem can be solved, says spokesperson Simon Vink.