“I feel a bit ignored and frustrated because I wish there would be some more information about this, but I guess they want to gatekeep it because it doesn’t feel fair to me to figure out years later that all this time I could have got the money with working fewer hours and maybe focusing more on my studies, which is exactly why I came here,” said Andreea, an international working student while laughing in tears.
This is not only Andreea’s case. This is the case for many EU students who come to the Netherlands for their studies.
The Dutch government and DUO, the education executive agency tasked with distributing study finance, assure EU students that they can benefit from study loans if they are working. Nevertheless, the requirements that dictate who gets the money are blurry, causing a lot of distress among students who try to balance both their studies and work at the same time.
Andreea is a Romanian citizen who came to study in The Netherlands. She claimed that every time she applied for a study loan she got rejected, although she met all the requirements imposed by DUO.
“The first thing I saw was that I don’t meet the nationality requirements, which is very weird to me because I’m from Romania and a European Union citizen, so I don’t understand what kind of nationality requirements I need to provide,” said Andreea.
Andreea’s decision from DUO states she doesn’t meet the nationality criteria (Source: Iulia Boncan & Gloria Turetta)
To get study finance or not to get study finance
So, what makes an EU student eligible for gaining study finance? No lawyer can say for sure.
“It seems that DUO rejects every application as it comes in, even though, uh, they might apply and comply with all the rules,” says Jillian Van Damme, a lawyer that specializes in cases related to educational law. Honore Advocaten is a Dutch law firm based in Utrecht that deals with cases like this every year.
“If you work more than 56 hours per month it’s no problem. If it’s less, sometimes it’s still possible,” says a DUO employee when asked about the eligibility criteria.
The case-by-case evaluation DUO claims to carry out falls very much into murky territory.
“We have to look at students who are migrant workers. That’s the rule. We have to look at it individually,” said the employee from DUO.
DUO’s office in Groningen (Source: Iulia Boncan & Gloria Turetta)
DUO has not yet clarified on the basis of what criteria they assess individual cases and distinguish between those entitled to loans and those who are not.
EU students go through long processes that can take up to one year to get a response from DUO, check all the requirements, and still get rejected. Discrimination might not be the root of the problem, but rather an unavoidable byproduct of a faulty system they risk falling through the cracks of.
In the last academic year, 2 out of 5 students enrolled in a Dutch university were internationals.
“I haven’t gotten anything yet. I am mostly self-funding; I have two jobs. So, I pay my rent, my parents only paid my tuition,” says Damyana Zaharieva, an eighteen-year-old bachelor’s student from Bulgaria, whose pay slips vouch that she has always worked well beyond the cut-off amount of hours requested by DUO.
If the 56-hour requirement is met, the working EU student will be considered an equal contributor to the state as a regular Dutch worker, therefore entitled to study finance.
Many that apply and get rejected even though their file shows they meet the 56-hours requirement, decide to file an objection and go to trial with DUO.
“They told me I didn’t work enough hours during the first few months of 2022, which was not the case,” says Lilli Deutsch, a twenty-three-year-old Austrian studying Forensic Psychology and Victimology in Groningen, as she complains about the arbitrariness and lack of homogenized practices within the government agency.
She is one among those asked to pay back some of the supplementary grants, which are based on parental income and are supposed to be gifts for not having worked in July 2021, when she went home for her holidays. Eventually she returned the money. “It’s a complicated system and I didn’t want to fight it even more.”
EU vs. NL
But the pattern exposed so far is that DUO seems unwilling to move proceedings to court, ending up admitting a miscalculation and handing out the money to the people who reach out for legal assistance, as DUO’s activity doesn’t seem to comply with the Art 45.
The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) states that:
- “Freedom of movement for workers shall be secured within the Union.
- Such 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.”
“If you’re not a worker in the sense of art. 45 of the TFEU, then you do not meet the nationality criteria. So purely legally speaking, if someone indeed would not qualify, this would be the correct Dutch legal way to say it,” says Patrick Folsche, a lawyer at Avant Advocated, a firm that has been taking on hundreds of cases like Damyana’s and Andreea’s for the past nine years.
To be deemed a worker, one must perform “effective and genuine activities”. Here is where the European and Dutch laws merge and overlap. Equal treatment is grounded in paid labor. If you work, you are entitled to get the same social security benefits.
“We talk to the government and together we say the rule is 56 hours,” says the DUO representative.
The European Court does not mention a minimum number of hours, neither it mentions that the labor activities should be performed within the country’s borders. So long as one works and pays taxes in the Netherlands, they should be considered as equal as a national citizen and reap the same benefits.
So, why is there such a discrepancy between what EU legislation lays out and the policies the government and DUO enforce amongst international students?
“The real money maker for DUO is not in the cases where people file a complaint. It’s in all of the cases where people don’t file a complaint”, says Folsche. The fewer students know about their rights, the less money will be assigned to study finance the following year. It’s a vicious loop.
“It starts with awareness,” he reiterates while making it clear that it is a tough process. “Once students realize that they have a right here, that they don’t need the 56 hours, even if DUO tells them otherwise, they will find their way to us.”
A money issue?
Nevertheless, the fight seems to be endless. “It’s only received by Dutch students, that’s very inefficient because internationals are funding the universities, they’re funding the cities. So, without investing in them back, you’re going to lose,” stresses Damyana with a hint of defiance in her voice.
Given the fact that the government allocates a certain budget to universities to actively recruit students from EU countries, there is a lot of confusion surrounding the treatment that EU students get.
According to the last data available from CBS, the total government expenditure on education was 5.4% of the GDP. In recent years the government progressively reduced the amount of money allocated to study finance, which amounted to no less than 6.9 % back in the 1980s.
Government expenditure on education, student grants and loans (Source: CBS)
Could this be the reason for such stressful proceedings?
“Every year – during the budget cycle – these figures are evaluated and adjusted based on (among others) the expected number of students in the coming years and the realizations from last year. There is no separate entry for international students, as all entries are for all eligible students,” declared the spokesperson of the Ministry of Education and Culture, Jacco Neleman.
Last year, the government has asked universities to revisit their strategy of actively recruiting students from abroad, due to a lack of housing within the country. “In the border regions, you may have to look at more options. But now it’s too much,” declared MP Pieter Omtzigt in a public statement.
When asked about how these requirements comply with EU law, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Education has announced that “the Minister of Education, Culture and Science will address these issues regarding migrant workers and study finance in a letter that he will send to the Tweede Kamer later this spring.”