The housing of our international students has been neglected by the university, the ‘Ringeling commission’ concludes. This neglect led to last August’s fiasco when dozens of new international students had nowhere to live. There were numerous complaints and worries for the future.

It was never a secret that the welcoming of international guests is often fraught with problems. At the start of this academic year, there were students who did not have accommodation. Some were even housed in caravans. The international offices of the different faculties reported they were inundated with requests for accommodation. But it is the Stadswonen housing corporation who is responsible for this task, as the entire housing issue was contracted out to Stadswonen. Students did not know where else to go, unless they were willing to pay in excess of 600 euro for a room with Stadswonen.

The housing question should not be the university’s main concern, one could argue. But the university’s Executive Board (EB) has now become worried, because of the university’s desire to grow exponentially as far as numbers of international students are concerned.

Therefore, the EB set up an independent commission last December to tackle the housing problems. The commission, chaired by professor emeritus Arthur Ringeling, presented its very clear conclusion in its report on Monday 20 April: “The university’s policies have failed on a grand scale.” Ringeling adds: “With the university’s large internationalisation ambitions, one has to realise that the university has a responsibility towards the students’ housing needs. Some students pay 13,000 euro in tuition fees annually to study here.”

Preferred Supplier

Since the 1980s the housing issue has been neglected by Erasmus University, according to Ringeling. But only when the Bachelor-Master system was introduced did this become apparent, because students have been able to switch universities more easily from then on. One policy in particular seems to have provided the university with the possibility to neglect its responsibilities: The university can assist in searching for accommodation, but accommodation cannot be guaranteed by the university. The EB was mainly concerned with the costs, like the risk of rooms remaining empty. This in itself is not too lamentable, Ringeling’s report shows. But to the commission it is telling that terms like ‘costs’ and ‘remaining empty’ dominate the discourse.

Cutting costs was the reason for the university to contract out the accommodation of international students to Stadswonen. The consequences of this move were underestimated by the university though. The faculties no longer arrange accommodation, as Stadswonen became the ‘preferred supplier’. The commission: “A monopolist was created, with all its – dire – consequences.” Stadswonen’s service is poor and the rooms are too expensive.

In addition, the commission stumbled upon another problem: communication. Students do not know what they can expect, nor do the employees of the different international offices. “There are no records of numbers; definitions are explained differently.”

The university ‘cannot afford’ the way it currently handles the housing issue, according to Ringeling. The International Student Barometer shows that students are already dissatisfied with certain things, not with their education but with their housing arrangements. And word spreads fast.

The Ringeling commission concludes that the housing of international students must change from a sideline to one of the university’s main concerns, in which the facilitating of good preconditions comes first, in stead of the purely business-like calculation of costs.

Bricks and Concrete

Very concretely, Ringeling recommends the establishing of a Erasmus Housing Centre, a Housing Desk and a Steering Group Housing which can take responsibility at a central level and which can analyse supply and demand. Representatives of the different faculties can join in. These bodies will then organise communication and also coordinate better the rooms that become available when Dutch students temporarily leave.

As a result, it will be possible to have more suppliers as opposed to Stadswonen only. Perhaps the university can create its own supply of student houses too. Furthermore, this summer there must be a central ‘director’ who must be physically present, whom students can turn to. Also, there must be a contingency plan in order to deal with another last-August scenario. But perhaps most importantly, new deals must be made with Stadswonen to increase the amount of available houses for international students, “with the first tangible results in 2010”. Ringeling: Investments in bricks and concrete must be made.”

Kees van Rooijen accepted the report on behalf of the Executive Board. He wants to implement and take on the recommendations as much as possible. Whether there is money available for this: “We are dead-serious about this; there is a budget for important matters.”   

Text: Daan Rutten and Jeroen Rosier, photography: Levien Willemse