By Levin Stamm
Doing paperwork feels like any other job to her. AUC third-year Science major Milus Tóth has spent hundreds of hours operating within the intricate mills of Dutch bureaucracy. All with one goal: to get the thousands of euros of financial aid she is entitled to under legislation of the European Union (EU).
Standing in the way is a powerful, stubborn opponent. It is none other than the government of the Netherlands itself. It is the story of a deception that comes from the very top and targets some of Dutch society’s most financially precarious members: non-Dutch university students.
Tóth, 23 and from Hungary, sits in a pizzeria in Amsterdam Oost as The Herring meets her for an interview, in front of her a glass of water. It is a Saturday afternoon; she has just finished her five-hour shift. “I get a scholarship from AUC – 555 euros a month. But that barely pays for my rent and tuition,” Tóth says.
Tóth works next to her studies to make ends meet at the end of each month, but sometimes less than 56 hours a month. Those are the ominous minimum that Dienst Uitvoering Onderwijs (DUO) – a government agency of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW) – requires EU, EEA and Swiss students to work to access some of its financial support structures. The financial aid includes a free nationwide public transport pass for either weekdays or the weekend, and a maximum supplementary grant of 430.27 euros for students whose parents earn less than 35,226 euros per year.
When deadlines for university assignments start to pile up or Tóth is away during university breaks, her monthly income from her minimum wage employment often remains under 568 euros. This corresponds to 50 percent of the social security norm and is the second criterion that makes her automatically qualify as a “migrant worker”, as DUO states on its website.
Being a migrant worker to receive student finance? This is where the legislation of the European Union comes in. Established after World War II, the EU was conceived to be a peace project with economic cooperation being one of the main tools to keep its members from going to war with each other. To spur this process, the member countries soon agreed on the unrestricted movement of goods, services and labour within the EU.
In the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) – one of two treaties that provide the EU’s constitutional basis – article 45 states that “freedom of movement shall entail the abolition of any discrimination based on nationality between workers of the Member States as regards employment, remuneration and other conditions of work and employment.”
It is autumn 2020 as Tóth reads about the 56-hour requirement on the DUO website. The pandemic is in full swing and with horeca operating at a bare minimum, jobs are hard to find for students like her; to occasionally work as a delivery driver remains her only option. Tóth is disappointed, but accepts her fate. “At that point, I had already prepared myself to be short of money for the coming three years,” she recalls.
Shortly after, however, Tóth takes heart again. A fellow Hungarian psychology student from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) tells her that, after all, EU students are entitled to DUO’s financial assistance – even if they do not work 56 hours. Even more interesting: There exists a Dutch law firm that helps EU, EEA and Swiss students through the process.
Tóth is suspicious as she first looks at the law firm’s website. “They were not an NGO, but also did their work pro bono for students using their services. How was that possible?” she asks.
Said law firm is called Avant Advocaten, located in Utrecht and run by two Dutch lawyers. The founding partners, Patrick Folsche and Gor Gabrelian, are the driving force behind the fact that hundreds of international students studying in the Netherlands have won tens of thousands of euros in court since 2014.
Folsche vividly remembers Avant Advocaten’s first case nine years ago: Gabrelian’s life partner, who studied at Tilburg University at the time, had received notification from DUO that her application for student finance had been rejected, namely on the grounds that she did not have sufficient working hours. Folsche and Gabrelian, both specialising in European law at Radboud University in Nijmegen, decided to look at her case more in detail.
Soon they came across a range of rulings from the European Court of Justice that all concluded the same: “Effective and genuine [work] activities, under the supervision of another, in exchange for salary,” are sufficient to be protected by article 45 of the TFEU. More importantly, while most rulings specified the aspects that fall under “effective and genuine activities”, Gabrelian and Folsche did not find not a single indication of the 56 hours that DUO propagates on its website to this day.
Instead, they found that the 56-hour rule has been rather arbitrarily determined in a policy made by then-Education Minister Jet Bussemaker in late 2012 and has been enforced since 1 January 2014. Before, the OCW already considered EU citizens migrant workers if they worked at least 32 hours per month. “At that point, we thought that something was fishy. But we weren’t aware yet of the systemic dimension with which DUO deceives international students,” Patrick Folsche says.
The trio filed an appeal and lost several times until they took the case all the way to the Court of Appeals – the highest court in student finance cases. “When we had a hearing at the Court of Appeals, the court was so critical of DUO’s position that DUO rescinded their decision before the hearing had even ended!” Folsche recalls. In other similar cases, DUO had changed their decision immediately after a complaint was filed.
During the next few years, the case of Gabrelian’s partner spread through word of mouth across the international student community; more and more students began approaching the two lawyers for help. They decided to provide a detailed explanation of the process on their website.
It is June 2022 when AUC student Tóth – in the meantime working in horeca and tired of the constant fear of running out of money – decides to approach Avant Advocaten for support. “Once I had found that it was my right to get that grant, I really wanted it. I knew it could take a lot of pressure off my shoulders,” she says. Guided by the advice of the two lawyers, Tóth thus embarks on a Kafkaesque journey into Dutch bureaucracy.
Tóth’s process to get access to student finance comes close to a replication of what Gabrelian’s partner had experienced years earlier. She first sends in a normal application – and gets rejected.
Lawyer Folsche points out that this is the crucial moment to contact them in the procedure. “Students have six weeks to file an appeal. If they miss that deadline, the case gets closed and there is nothing we can do for them.” Technically, students could file the complaint themselves, but Folsche advises against it. “Even though DUO misinforms students, they themselves are well aware of the existing EU regulations. Accordingly, they attempt to prevent students from making use of them as much as possible,” he says.
In some cases, DUO will uphold the appeal, meaning that the student will directly receive the money. In other cases – like Tóth’s – DUO will persist, forcing Avant Advocaten to take their client’s case to court. According to Folsche, this is a huge mental barrier for many international students: “Some even ask me if they have to pay compensation or go to prison if they lose.” An additional deterrent: Most of the paperwork for the appeal and court case is in Dutch. Tóth testifies, however, that the struggle against the government Leviathan loses its horror with the help of the law firm. “They almost always picked up my calls and responded to emails within a day,” she says.
Still, the initial application requires her to gather dozens of documents: from her Dutch insurance, the Hungarian tax declarations of her parents, monthly payslips. “I first felt anxious about the amount of paperwork piling up in front of me,” Tóth says. But by now, red tape has become part of her daily schedule. “It’s almost a sense of justice that makes me sit in front of my computer for hours. I am entitled to this money.” She even estimates that the time she has spent writing emails and calling DUO and Avant Advocaten would correspond to 18 credits of AUC courses.
Tóth’s case shows how arbitrarily DUO provides student finance to entitled international students. The agency granted her student finance for 2022, while rejecting her application for 2021 and 2023. Avant Advocaten is currently appealing the cases in which she was previously rejected. Tóth has already won more than 3000 euros from DUO and received an additional 1000 euros compensation for delays; another approximately 3000 euros are still outstanding in the appeal process.
Tóth’s specific case raises even more questions. Her insurance report, which The Herring has been able to look through, proves that the Hungarian has often worked even more than the alleged minimum of 56 hours per month. With two jobs, she currently accumulates an approximate 70 work hours.
Folsche from Avant Advocaten explains: “It’s possible that DUO in that case determined that even if the student did work 56 hours or more in a given month, the yearly average was still below 56 hours.” He also highlights that DUO often contends that internships do not qualify students for students for student finance – despite Dutch judges having repeatedly ruled otherwise in the past.
According to a statement by Folsche, it looks like Tóth has good chances to win her ongoing cases: “For students in regular employment who work more than 25 hours on average per month across the year, I am 99 percent confident that we would win,” he says.
But why is DUO so hesitant to offer additional support to international students in the first place? An excerpt in the 2014 OCW policy seems indicative: “The current 32-hour standard […] has led to an increasing number of migrant workers on student grants,” then-Minister Bussemaker justified the increase to 56 hours per month.
The policy was signed into force at a time when universities in the Netherlands were already starting to groan under the influx of international students. Since Brexit, the situation has only intensified. In 2022, 115,000 international students were enrolled at Dutch higher education institutions – exactly twice as many as eight years prior when the 56-hour requirement started to make its way through Dutch bureaucracy.
The objective of the 2014 policy: To keep the cost of student finance to Dutch taxpayers from going through the roof. Students from poorer EU countries prove to be especially costly. Their parents, living in poorer EU countries like Bulgaria, Greece or Hungary, are more likely to meet the minimum income threshold for the gift – consisting of student grants and travel products – that The Hague has originally designed for the Dutch lower classes. Lawyer Folsche knows: “Each student entitled to full assistance costs the Dutch government around a thousand euros each month.”
The hundreds of lawsuits that Avant Advocaten alone takes to court every year make it even more expensive for the government. Through legal subsidies, the lawyers from Avant Advocaten are able to neutralise costs and offer their services for students seeking student finance pro bono.
Still, despite Avant Advocaten offering its service pro bono, Folsche points out that many students remain sceptical at first. That the Dutch government itself would act unlawfully remains unthinkable for many.
“I once got a call from a distressed student counsellor at a university,” Folsche recalls. A student had approached her with the information they provided. After double-checking with DUO, the counsellor thought that the law firm was making wrong promises to the international students. Folsche then told her to talk to a professor of European law at her institution. “A few days later she called back and apologised,” he says.
With a system change in sight starting from next academic year, a ray of hope remains for international students: The student loan system that the OCW had rolled out in 2015 will be replaced by a grant system for which the Dutch government has set aside 500 million euros. As for now, it seems like that all students – international students included – will be eligible for a monthly basic grant of up to 439.20 euros. With the current number of international students, this would correspond to additional expenses worth more than 50 million euros.
What then for students like Tóth who – in addition to the basic grant – continue to be eligible for the supplementary grants? Politicians in The Hague have already expressed an interest in further tightening the requirements for international students.
MPs Zohair El Yassini (VVD) and René Peters (CDA) brought in the idea of adjusting the threshold of 35,226 euros per year for the maximum supplement according to the income level of the student’s origin. “I think that’s a creative idea,” HOP quoted Minister of Education Robert Dijkgraaf. He also admitted, however, that a nonuniform threshold may be difficult to implement.
Patrick Folsche, too, is unsure what will happen after the new student finance system is implemented. “Will DUO clamp down on even more students? Will more students fight for their rights? It will be interesting to see what happens.”
Tóth adds: “It is frustrating, yes, but it will be worth it. In the best case, you get a university education out of it.”