Florian Wijker

It’s one thing that the average student had to deal with a yearly increase of tuition fees. Another that you had to fight to find any accommodation that you could afford. Add to that a VAT increase and apathy by the (local) government towards the problem of slum landlords and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the situation. Finally, add a ‘social’ system of loans instead of a basic grant and you’ve created the perfect cocktail to shake the very foundations of the student’s financial position for years to come.

Binding study advice

By now the health crisis has been compounded by the associated financial stress, but still the minister believes the time for measures has not yet come. It was already evident that the minister lacks decisiveness: in 2018 Van Engelshoven promised to lower the norm of the binding study advice from sixty to forty points, but in that same year it was announced that she had changed her mind. That the reason for lowering the norm in the first place was the growing concern about the mental welfare of students apparently did not make a difference to her.

Have we seen any structural measures from the ministry to address that welfare in the meantime? It’s an easy guess. If we were to follow Van Engelshoven’s example and use cheap metaphors to mask our lack of ideas and decisiveness, we might say that instead of discussing ‘muscular language’, it would be better for the minister to ‘get off the pot’. It seems there’s little to be optimistic about, but is there anything that can be done?

Invest in yourself

One course of action that the minister is not afraid to put forward is to ‘simply’ increase your monthly loan from the government. The fact that this was already an option before the crisis and therefore isn’t a response to it at all is something we might have to forget about for the moment; there is a word limit to this opinion piece. This ‘nice’ gesture is symptomatic of something that students have been dealing with for a number of years now: the adage ‘invest in yourself’. In a time where everyone’s constantly appealing to mutual solidarity, the message to students is that they can sort it out themselves.

The fact that, as a university student, I am subsequently (and rightly) asked to address complex societal issues such as poverty is as tragic as it is ironic. It’s quite the double whammy: knocking someone down and then resenting them for not helping others to get up. Students are to act like Baron Munchausen and pigtail themselves from the carefully created financial swamp. A generation of students was raised on the idea that concepts of solidarity and investing mainly concern the self. Subsequently we will ask ourselves where our values have gone and why we feel such a lack of community.

No black hole

It completely goes against the plea for more mutual solidarity. Every euro that’s spent on a student doesn’t disappear into some black hole, but rather helps the student to focus on other things than just financial worries in the coming years, such as complex societal issues. Society is suffering.

How will this generation of students deal with a call for solidarity in the future? I can already imagine the confused faces when the topic of mutual solidarity will be brought up: ‘Solidarity with others? I have had to invest in myself for years, what do other people have to do with me? I can’t let myself down right now. After all, I’ve been the one taking care of me.’ Maybe at that time, we’ll wistfully look back at this period, a period in which we missed the opportunity to invest in, and declare solidarity to, one another. Or will we then be able to withdraw that solidarity and sense of community from a DUO bank account somewhere?

Florian Wijker is a Philosophy student and member of the University Council.