The basic student grant scheme has been abolished, and many medical students are starting to feel the pinch. Due to mandatory internships, medical degree programmes already take two years longer than most studies. And as a clinical placement student, you don’t have much time left for a part-time job. Nor are the students reimbursed for their time on clinical rotation.

“Medical students’ debt is already 1.5 times higher than that of other students, and now it will only become more. This is a unique situation – which is why we are asking a reimbursement of some kind,” says activist Christiaan Ponsen on behalf of several medical student associations, including MFVR in Rotterdam. Today, the students will be organising a variety of protest actions, in a final attempt to make Minister of Education Jet Bussemaker sympathetic to their plight.

A piece of wood

Today, the students will be organising a coordinated nationwide protest. “We intend to all bite on a piece of wood shaped like a tongue spatula [‘having to bite on a piece of wood’ is the Dutch equivalent of ‘not having a pot to piss in’] and share pictures of this stunt via social media. We hope our protest will go viral after that,” explains Bo van den Berg, the board member of Medische Faculteitsvereniging Rotterdam (MFVR) who focuses on external education matters.

Around 12:30, MFVR will ask the Rotterdam students to gather in the corridor of Erasmus MC to pose for the group picture. Any students who are unable to make it to that shoot are invited to post their own selfies online to draw attention to the issue.

Bussemaker doesn’t see why the students need to be reimbursed for clinical placement. According to her calculations, medical students will earn enough money later on in their careers to pay back their higher student debt. What’s more: the same scheme applies for medical students as for other graduates with a student debt: they may pay back the loan according to their means, and any debt remaining after 35 years is remitted. Furthermore, according to Bussemaker, working on clinical rotation is not a true internship (which is reimbursed) but a kind of training post.

‘Payment is a matter between the employer and the intern’

According to Bussemaker’s fellow Labour Party (PvdA) member, the MP Amma Asante, the latter argument is slightly off the mark. “You can get all complicated about the definition of an internship, but the fact remains that you are using medical students’ eyes, hands and feet. I’m surprised that clinical placement students aren’t reimbursed for their work, and I’m actually curious to find out why the hospitals aren’t prepared to pay them.”

But Asante won’t be taking up the matter herself. “It’s not up to politicians to tell employers what they have to pay,” is how she puts it. “It’s a matter between the employer and the intern.”

Pieter Duisenberg, a member of Labour’s coalition partner People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) subscribes to Bussemaker’s view. “The Minister’s explanation is quite plausible in our opinion,” says Duisenberg. “And I wouldn’t like to offload this decision on employers and employees. I believe the Minister has been very clear on the basic principle.”