How Dutch Students Became Victim of a Failed Loan Experiment

By Parag Dass and Tal Ben Yakir

Collage by Camie Clarkson

— The past eight years have proved to be socio-economically difficult for Dutch students. While expectations and pressures to perform are skyrocketing, inequality between students has also been on the rise – whether it be between generations or between economically disparate groups of students. The shifting governmental approach to student financing has been identified as a major culprit. 

In 2015, the Dutch government introduced a new loan-based financing system for students, replacing the grant-based system. Despite widespread opposition to the plan, the loan system was put into place, after which students could loan a maximum of €1000 per month from the government, at a 0% interest rate. Seven years later, the loan-system has been proclaimed a failure: young adults start out their careers tens of thousands of euros in debt, inequality between students has risen, and students have increasingly relied on their families for funding or housing. Set to take effect in 2023, the government has decided to revert to the grant system. What about the generation of students who got stuck with the loan-system, the so-called ‘tough luck generation’? They will receive a compensation of approximately €1000 per student. Considering that debts often run at least ten times as high, the student community has expressed its fury. Frederique de Ridder, a fifth year UvA student majoring in East European Studies, explains: 

“You begin your career with debt, and many people experience a lot of stress and concern because of this. You ask yourself: what do I do to pay this back? Will I get a job that pays enough for me to settle my debt? Will I be able to get a mortgage or buy a house?” 

De Ridder describes that the loan-system has engendered shifts within student culture in the Netherlands. While her parents’ generation could spend up to ten years on their studies, now there is time pressure to finish as quickly as possible and start working. To top that, she asserts, “there is a pressure to do something within your field of study, otherwise it feels like you build up a debt for nothing.”

There are other shifts, too, that have resulted from the loan-system. De Ridder says that many students chose not to leave their family homes given the increased cost of living. Those who did, she notes, often had no choice but to loan money, particularly in a city as expensive as Amsterdam. She states: 

“You know this money is actually for tuition and books, but it is impossible to study full-time, while living in Amsterdam and paying rent without making use of the loan.”

De Ridder states that she has had friends move back in with their parents due to financial struggles. She herself experienced stress due to the loan system, and confesses to having accumulated more debt than she intended:

“During Corona I fell behind on my studies, and I have often had to move around because for a long time I lived in anti-kraak* apartments. For a long time I could not afford the rent for a regular apartment, and anti-kraak is cheaper, but the living situation is very unstable and unpredictable. Sometimes you have to move out of an apartment on a two-week notice. At one point I needed to live somewhere secure. Those developments caused my debt to rise.”

Recent elections featured a prominent interest for students’ financial concerns – with student unions around the country pushing for the abolishment of the loan system and a reversal to the old grant system. These concerns were encapsulated in the ‘Studenten Op Eigen Benen’ (Students on their Own Feet) initiative of the Interstedelijk Studenten Overleg (ISO) – the largest Dutch national student organisation. Despite the attention given to the issue – with some political parties like the CDA and D66 prioritising  the abolishment of the loan system in their election manifestos, the resulting government policy has been remarkably underwhelming. 

While the government abolished the loan system and moved on towards the grant system, the recovery package for the eight years of students who studied under the loan system was capped at €1 Billion. This would result in roughly €1000 per person, a drop in the ocean compared to the amount of money every student spent during the period – at best €5000 for students living at home, and at worst roughly €14,000 for those living independently. This has been a source of frustration for students across the Netherlands. So much so, that the other Dutch national student union Landelijke Studentenvakbond (LSVb) and the Youth chapter of the Federatie Nederlandse Vakbeweging or the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions (FNV Young & United), organised a protest in Museumplein earlier this month. Students from all over the country who felt impacted by these blunt government policies were in attendance.

De Ridder attended this protest on the 5th of February. She explains that the main point of the protest was to be heard, and to hold the politicians responsible for these policy decisions accountable. Her frustration towards the government’s ineffectuality is evident:

“Ten years ago living costs were a lot lower. Paying €300 for rent was normal. I feel the steep price increase has not been taken into account when they calculated the compensation package. All these party members showed up [at the protest], acting very theatrical, and they would ignore the students’ reactions. Of course the parties actually responsible for these policy decisions did not show up.”

Alina Danii Bijl, head of press communications for FNV Young & United, spoke to The Herring regarding the rising student concerns at FNV since the introduction of the loan system. Financial stressors for not so wealthy students have significantly shot up, so much so that some have been having panic attacks, and those in debt have been unable to get a mortgage. Lately, Bijl finds herself quite disillusioned by political parties like the CDA and the D66, and does not trust them saying that they ‘prioritise students’ – “words are pretty things but deeds make them true.” Bijl finds their actions to be severely lacking.

The pride of Dutch education, Robbert Dijkgraaf, who recently became Minister of Education, also featured in AUC 1.02, recently took to Twitter to address the Museumplein protests. The gist of his response – there was no more money the Cabinet could spare for student allowances given high levels of government spending lately, and that he wanted to talk to more students to better address the larger issues they face. Bijl finds this to be empty political rhetoric, likening it to counter-BLM protesters chanting ‘All Lives Matter’. She criticises the government as follows:

“When this system was voted into place I was 14. We had no impact whatsoever on the system and it’s only now that it is going to be abolished. You’re basically going to have eight years of students who are a step behind other generations. Compared to our neighbouring generations, we are literally victims of this failed austerity experiment because it creates big inequalities. This generation is going to pay for the housing crisis, for the climate crisis, and for the Corona crisis while also being high in debt. That’s very unfair. It is also morally unjust.”

Antikraak (meaning anti-squatting) is a housing initiative that connects its members to houses that are temporarily empty, in order to safekeep the unoccupied homes from squatters. These houses can be empty for a number of reasons, for example because the owners are gone for a period of time or because a housing complex is newly built and will only officially open later in time. Antikraak housing offers cheaper rents, with the downside of being short-term and unpredictable — yet for many students this is the only viable financial option.

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