The responsibility of Utrecht University regarding the student housing problem

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Utrecht University is the highest ranking university in the Netherlands. Each year, more and more international students travel full excitement to this great university and are promised the real UU-experience:  great education and studying in a beautiful and historical city. Also sleeping in a tent for the period of your stay or going bankrupt because you have to pay a fortune for your 5m2 room. It is time for the university to open its eyes and see that not even a great international climate can make up for cold Dutch winter nights in a tent.

By Amber Striekwold
Foto: Yannick Zimmerman

Utrecht University is fanatically participating in the internationalisation trend across Dutch universities: more and more bachelor and master programmes are in English or offer English tracks. Alongside these changes, the student population is changing as well. This year 2500 international students enrolled at Utrecht University, 10% more than last year, and this number is expected to increase by 30% in 2025. Great news for the university! But for students, this increase brings along a big problem. Right now there are not enough rooms to house students and they end up having to pay ridiculous amounts of money for a room or even worse, return home. New student housing is being built – 4000 extra student rooms are scheduled for construction before 2021 – but will that be enough to keep up with the university’s enthusiastic recruiting? To what extent does the university bear responsibility for this? Should they allow less international students? One thing is clear: something needs to be done. Students are fed up and are taking action.

“The university should take its responsibility”

It was a striking image. Students lying on camping mattresses and sleeping bags in front of Janskerkhof 13A. At the beginning of October, students gathered at Janskerkhof to protest the poor organization of housing for international students. At the start of this academic year stories of international students and their housing situation came to light: some are sleeping in a tent on a camping, or are staying at a hostel. Others pay a ridiculous amount of money for an Airbnb apartment. According to Aindríu Butler (22), one of the organizers of the protest, this has to change and the university should take its responsibility.

“The protest at Janskerkhof is the first one – but it will not end there. We are planning on doing much more,” he says. Aindríu, originally from Ireland, came here in September to do a full academic year at UU. The housing problem is personal to him: after couchsurfing for weeks, he finally found a 5m2 for €400,- in Zuilen. Unfortunately his story is not uncommon, that is why he became one of the founders of the organisation ‘We Want Woonruimte’, a group of students who want to bring this problem to light by stirring the pot, by organising a protest, and talking to the media. By bringing this student housing problem to light they want to open a dialogue with actors involved in this situation, like the municipality and the university. I sat down with him and co-founder Laurien Meijer (22), a Dutch student at UU, to talk about the current situation and their organisation.

“The harsh reality is: no means, no room”

Laurien and Aindriú tell me they think other student representative organisations like European Student Network (ESN) and International Student Housing Assistance (ISHA) have been negligent, they have to be more assertive and contact the students. Aindríu: “These organisations should not just say: there is a housing problem here, sort it out yourself. This is rather individualistic. You should be supported, and as a student it is twice as hard. We are working several jobs, low wages and at the same time studying at one of the top ranking universities in the Netherlands – a country you do not know – and then you also have to find a house.” Thus, to level the playing field, there should be an infrastructure to support international students in finding a room. These organisations should get in contact with the university as well. If they see that international students cannot find a place to stay, they should represent them and say that something has to change.

That nothing substantial has come out of the recent commotion, yet this is not necessarily a bad thing. Laurien and Aindríu agree that this is a complicated problem with no single one solution. In order to get a dialogue going, it is very important that the municipality, housing organisations like SSH and the university work together. Aindríu tells me that they have started discussing the issue with the university. During the protest at Janskerkhof the director of Marketing and Communication of Utrecht University, Maarten Post, contacted them. Even though they both are a bit wary that this conversation was initiated to prevent any future protest and thereby ward off further bad publicity for the university (also seeing as it was the director of communication and marketing that reached out, not the international office), they stay optimistic. Aindríu: “It is good from the side of the university but then still they have not really accepted any responsibility yet. But they are up for an open discussion so that is something.”

Student protest at Janskerkhof

Does the university have to accept some responsibility for the problem? Several spokespersons of the the university claim in several interviews that the university’s task mainly lies in research and education, which is hard to argue against. Then again – when you actively recruit students you have to take into account if there is going to be a place for them to live. One could argue that the international students were warned about the difficulty to find a room in Utrecht. According to a survey by Geestdrift, the university did tell international students that it was hard to find a room in Utrecht and that they should start searching early. One of the respondents rightfully stated: “You can indeed tell people and send them links to housing sites. But if there is no place to live, there is no place to live.” Another respondent added that it is difficult to anticipate such a situation abroad. You do not think worst case scenario’s like sleeping in a tent or having to return will actually happen. Both respondents stress that if you get accepted by the university and you have made the arrangements– firstly you think that there is no turning back, and secondly, you cannot imagine that there will not be any rooms available. Especially when you receive a lot of links from the university to websites where you might find a (ridiculously overpriced) room. Until you face the harsh reality: no means no room.

“It is not about the reputation of the university, it is about the experience of the students”

 For a long time instead of addressing the real problem – the problem was framed as one of Dutch students versus international students. The Dutch students do not want internationals in their houses – as depicted by a NOS item this summer. Laurien and Aindríu stress that this is not just a problem for internationals. Aindríu: “One way of looking at this is that they are putting internationals and Dutch students against each other. We are from different countries but we are all going to the same university. We live in the same kind of houses and are on the same housing market.” “Those internationals are a real threat,” Laurien says with a sarcastic tone, “they come and steal our jobs, our education, our Ph.D. position and now our houses as well. That is ridiculous, of course. I guess it fits within the more general discourse in the Netherlands right now.” But this diverts the attention away from the real problem: the available housing and the number of students – not the tenants. Aindríu: “Dutch students who organise ‘no internationals’ hospiteeravonden are not spiteful evil xenophobic students who hate internationals but they themselves see that their housing situation is so difficult. And they value their house so much because there are so few here. They try to make the best out of a bad situation.”

The numbers do not lie: in an article of DUIC Esther Stiekema, policy director of education and research at UU, stated that UU has little international students compared to other Dutch universities: eight percent against an average of sixteen percent. UU strives to get to ten percent – to provide a good international climate for its students. So is it really an international student housing problem? Or a student housing problem in general? Then again, this statement also points out that the university has no intention of reducing the number of international students – they want more. More internationals who are not familiar with their rights on the housing market, do not have time to claim decent housing and have a hard time communicating outside the university, because they do not speak Dutch – and are not represented.

The university has to ask itself if the city can take on that many students and what role the university can play in finding a solution to this problem, instead of saying that it is only concerned with research and education. To provide a good international climate one has to provide decent and affordable living conditions. Not only for international students, but Dutch students as well. Because in the end, it is not about the reputation of the university, it is about the experience of the students.”