Research paints painful image of housing international students in Utrecht

Over the past two years, Utrecht University has placed internationals students who were looking for a place to live in a holiday park for some time Photo DUB

International students trying to find a room in Utrecht are in an extremely difficult situation. This has become clear once again in an article by Utrecht researcher Christian Fang. It was published this week in the journal Housing Studies. Fang conducted the research as a Master's student, but now works as a PhD candidate at Sociology.

In 2018 and 2019, Fang interviewed eighteen international students about their Utrecht housing experiences. A few of them understand the Dutch approach in which universities leave the housing of students to housing associations such as SSH Utrecht. But many of the interviewees complain about the lack of support from the university in finding accommodation.

For example, an Austrian bachelor student says about her contact with the university: “I think the worst thing is when you call the university and they just tell you: ‘Yeah, we know that it’s bad’. Thank you for helping me. You just think, well, in the worst case, I can always contact the International Office, but they can’t help you, either.”

Undisguised racism
Moreover, the students often say they encounter discrimination during ‘hospiteeravonden’. It would be more difficult for internationals to meet the ideal type of the ‘sociable’ roommate.

According to some internationals, the sessions are even the scene of undisguised racism. A student from Curaçao said that a house refused her even though she spoke excellent Dutch. “They would tell me: ‘No, you’re international!’. And I would tell them: ‘No, actually I’m a local because I speak the language fluently, I understand it. So, you don’t even have the issue that you would have to speak English or switch languages when talking to me’. No, then they’re like: ‘We prefer our Dutch’.”

Students also feel discriminated against when searching via Kamernet or Facebook. Often rooms were unavailable for internationals and messages opened with NO INTERNATIONALS in capital letters.

A lot of stress
Although all students encountered similar problems, some of the students surveyed found a desired room earlier than others. Students who start searching in their own country at an early stage, or who have more to spend, eventually fare reasonably well. But others hop from temporary place to temporary place or even have to resort to the couch of friends.

According to the researchers, the interviews also show that the difficult search for suitable housing in an overstrained housing market does not only cost a lot of time, but comes with a lot of stress as well. This was often at the expense of their studies and other activities.

Given their findings, Dutch universities and policymakers should reconsider their housing policy for internationals, the researcher concludes. If they accept students, and in many cases have them pay high tuition fees, universities should also feel the moral responsibility of ensuring good housing.

In a response, UU says that it is aware of the issues raised by the researchers. The housing shortage in popular Utrecht makes searching for a room difficult and stressful for all students, but according to spokesman Maarten Post the situation is extra precarious for internationals. “They don't have a home or network to fall back on. We recognise that and we are working on it within the limits of what is possible and what is allowed."

In contrast to what students in other countries are used to, Dutch universities do not have the role of housing providers themselves, Post emphasises. But according to him, the number of rooms that UU reserves at housing providers such as SSH has risen in the past five years from 560 to 900. The number of rooms for internationals has yet to increase considerably. This is possible in new student complexes. This spring, for example, four hundred temporary homes in the Utrecht Science Park will become available. A part of those is intended for internationals.

The university also tries to inform students fairly about the difficult housing market, including through a webinar. It also provides tips, for example about the need to start searching early. There is also extra staff in the summer months to inform internationals looking for a room.

Regarding the negative attitude of Dutch students towards international roommates, Post says: "In our communication we try to point out to students the added value that an international can have as a roommate."