Why DUO should give you a call before they fine you

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A grant and a loan with almost no interest. The Dutch stufi system enables thousands of international students like Filippo to come to study in the Netherlands. But there’s a catch: an unexpected 2.000 euro debt.

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In the distant year of 2013, I made up my mind  by deciding that I wanted to study at Utrecht University. The prospect of living alone in a foreign country was too cool an opportunity for me to simply pass by. The first problem however, as usually is the case, was money. My family was in a bit of a financial slump, so I knew right off the bat that asking my parents for money wasn’t an option. We struck a deal however: I could go to Utrecht, as long as I paid for the whole thing myself; tuition, room, food, and all the good stuff. I started doing a little research and one of the first things I looked at were scholarships. There were many, but frankly, my grades weren’t good enough. I dug a bit deeper, and that’s when I heard of studiefinanciering.

Coming from Italy, the idea that the government gave you and lent you money to pursue the degree you wanted sounded like nothing short of a fairy tale. Of course most of you know this, but for the internationals reading this, studiefinanciering, or more colloquially stufi, would mean that every month I’d receive about 270 euros in the form of a grant and an additional 750 euros as a super-low-interest loan. If that didn’t seem like it was enough, I would also receive ‘free travelling’ around the Netherlands during the week or the weekend. Exactly what I was looking for, it was basically the dream. Living and studying abroad while becoming financially independent.

Just 13 hours a week
Hold your horses cowboy! There is a catch however. Dutch students can get stufi just by being Dutch. European students need to work for it. If you’re from the EU or the European Economic Area and want to receive the sweet deal that is stufi, you’re gonna have to work a minimum of 56 hours per month alongside your degree programme. Another option is to live in the Netherlands for five years, but that wasn’t really an option for me. I chose work. “Chill. Whatever. It’s still doable right? 56 hours a month is like, 13 hours per week,” was the mantra I repeated to myself. “Just 13 hours of work per week.”

“But DUO, why set a seemingly arbitrary 56 hour requirement?” I asked myself. I didn’t think of it too much back then; I was mostly happy with the prospect of being able to live and study away from home. But with age comes wisdom and almost five years later, I decided to do my homework.

The rule is based on a loosely defined framework by the European Court of Justice. The framework outlines that European Member States have the right to impose requirements for foreign European citizens such that they have access to the Member State’s social services, among which, stufi. In order to have access, this EU citizen has to be considered a migrating worker.

Basically, anybody from an EU/EEA country who goes to work a significant amount of hours away from their home country. For the Netherlands, this requirement is 56 hours and they calculated it by taking 40 percent of the average full-time job’s working hours. According to DUO, about 10,740 non-Dutch, EU/EEA citizens receive some form of stufi. Out of these students, however, those who personally work and study are 2,046, representing a mere 0.083% of the stufi receiving population.

“Great! But that still doesn’t really answer ‘why impose the rule?’” The reason the Dutch government claims is that without the rule, “EU students could just use stufi to finance a program in their home country.” While this reasoning doesn’t really convince me, the rules are the rules. But let’s get back to the story.

A job as a pizzabaker
Fast forward a couple of months and I’m in Utrecht with a room in Oudwijk, a job as a pizzabaker (as any Italian worth their salt should be), health insurance, and stufi! Things were going really well for me: first exams went well, Utrecht was a blast, and I’d even get free pizzas where I was working. And all the while I’d be getting stufi-of-dreams. So where’s the problem and how did it get so hairy? “Just 13 hours per week” meant that I’d work three to four days making pizzas for a year. Send in my salary slips (salarisspecificatie) and bank account balance (as proof of payment) to DUO.

In these good ol’ days, Utrecht even had their own DUO office, which was far more productive than holding a phone line for 47 minutes on a Tuesday afternoon. I didn’t always work 56 hours, in some instances I worked less, but I still averaged about 65 hours a month over a 6 month period, which is what I was told I needed to do to keep my stufi going. I didn’t work in the second half of my second year, uni was getting tough and needed to study more. And besides, I’d saved up about 8.000 euros from the stufi loans. So I stopped my stufi and that was that for a while.

A bailiff called Bosveld
Beginning of third year. A lot happened since second year, but most importantly, I moved into my then-girlfriend’s apartment without registering at the municipality and eventually we found a place together in which we both could register. This is where the proverbial shit hit the fan.

I got a letter stating that I owed 2,000 euros to a bailiff called Bosveld. Reason? OV schuld. The 4 months in which I worked less than 56 hours. Indeed, I was eligible for stufi, but not for the free travelling (studentenreisproduct). Because I lived at my girlfriend’s for a long time I wasn’t getting any mail, you know, the one that lets you know you’re in debt. Worse yet, the initial amount was about 660 euros. Not insignificant, but not 2.000 euros either. Had it been a couple more days, they would’ve knocked on my door, and start liquidating my possessions. “Why didn’t I see this coming?” I asked myself. Well, Filippo from the past, you didn’t see it coming because you weren’t getting any mail. And you weren’t getting any mail because you were living at your girlfriend’s. “Ah...” sighed Filippo from the past.

This marked the beginning of a lengthy process in which I appealed DUOs decision, printing salary slips from two years prior and frantically scrolling back in time on my bank transactions and hope that a person in Groningen could see I wasn’t trying to steal government money. My argument was something along the lines of “I was told that 56 hours per month didn’t matter per se, what mattered was that the average needed to be 56. I also didn’t get any of your correspondence telling me I was in debt.” DUO rejected my appeal and I appealed again and again and again until every subsequent appeal would cost 45 euros.

An uphill battle
I guess that where I’m trying to get at is that DUO could handle these cases a little better. I know for a fact that other students, international and Dutch, whether for negligence or bad luck, face very similar problems with bailiffs because of OV schuld. The goal of studiefinanciering, as I see it, is to make it easier for students to study in the Netherlands, irrespective of their economic background. And this is already the case for many. Sure, it was a bad coincidence and my case was a complicated one. But, as I said, a lot of people end up with OV schuld.

Luckily, things fell back into place. I finished paying Bosveld last October and I’m almost done with my Master’s. I did stop appealing DUO’s decision because it really felt like an uphill battle. You win some, you lose some. And sure, I will eventually have to pay back the 14,000+ euros I borrowed (maximaal lenen=maximaal leven), but that’s a manageable problem for future Filippo.

So, dear Ome DUO, I know that you and I...we have a history. But next time, before you call Bosveld, It would really mean a lot if you called me first. After all, you do have my cell.

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