The senate effect

By Anne de Vries and Hannah van der Wurff

The Dutch provincial elections of last Wednesday ignited a discussion on the political polarisation in the Netherlands. The Stand went out on the streets of Groningen to ask those who voted, for their thoughts.

In the elections on Wednesday, 56.1% of those 13 million people eligible, voted for the Provinciale Staten and waterschappen (provincial states and regional water authorities). Some view voting as their civic duty, some don’t. The other group is comprised of those who have no idea what voting on the provincial states and regional water authorities actually means.

The provincial states, of which there are 12 in the Netherlands, have seven core tasks to execute over their four year period. These core tasks range from urban planning, regional economy, transport and climate regulation, as well as electing the Dutch senate.

The elections for the regional water authorities, the regional institutions that decide over water management, were linked to the provincial elections in 2014 in the hope the voting percentage would increase.

The results

The outcome of the recent elections shocked left-wing Netherlands, as political newcomer Forum for Democracy (FvD) collected 14.4% of all votes nationally. This unexpected political surge led to a tie in senate seats between FvD and VVD, the neoliberal conservatives who have been heading the government since 2010.

“I wonder where this is going to take us,” says an elderly woman when stopped in front of the Groninger Museum. Holding back tears she says: “We had a very important period of peace after the war [WWII] and for me that feeling is fading.”

The crossing in front of the museum is crowded with trainloads of people passing into the centre from the central station. Even with all the noise, the woman’s message is clear. When asked what she wanted her vote to mean, she says she wants “peace, human connection and integration.”

FvD’s new prominence on the Dutch political stage didn’t go unchallenged. Some call their standpoints on the political system, race, climate change, the EU and immigration ‘controversial’, while others laud them for nestling between the conservative and globalist VVD and the radical anti-Islam PVV.

In Groningen, a miscalculation cost the green party PvdD one seat, after the FvD managed to manifest five provincial seats instead of the preliminary four, when the polls closed. While the greens GroenLinks dominate the municipal council in Groningen’s last election, the recent provincial elections granted them a mere one seat advantage over FvD.

The turnout

This year, just like the years before, the turnout for the provincial elections is low when compared to that of the national parliamentary elections. This isn’t unusual, and it’s rather a trend that doesn’t only go for the provincial elections but all elections, as the figure below shows. For the past 10 years the parliamentary elections have drawn out most voters.

What is especially interesting, as visualized below, is the difference between the national turnout, and those of the province and municipality of Groningen. While this follows the general trend, it overtakes national numbers on occasion.

“Turnout is an indicator for the importance the electorate attaches to certain levels of government,” says Eddy Habben Jansen, the director of the political educational institution, ProDemos. He predicted that the turnout for last Wednesday’s provincial elections would be relatively high compared to previous years because “there is quite a bit of focus on the cabinet majority in the senate,” which are in turn elected by the provinces.

When we consider the turnout for the Provincial Elections in Groningen this year and those for the past ten years, this does show. It’s a small increase, but it’s there.

Habben Jansen introduces the ‘senate effect’ as an indicator for sudden higher turnouts for provincial elections. Political tensions and a near cabinet majority show how these abstract elections can in turn “be transformed into national elections instead”.

On the Gedempte Zuiderdiep in Groningen, these sentiments were affirmed by a young man, who told The Stand that the electoral power of the provinces was the precise reason he went to vote to begin with. But, the elections “felt less important than the parliamentary elections”.

This senate effect, in combination with FvD’s growing supporters-base of dedicated voters frustrated with the current political climate, prompted the current senate construction.

“An excellent opposition party”

In front of Groningen’s synagogue on the Folkingestraat, The Stand speaks to a FvD supporter. He considers the election’s outcome “outstanding” and embraces the “countermovement against recent years of political foul play.”

Although he wouldn’t want to see Thierry Baudet, the highly controversial party leader of the FvD, behind the prime minister’s desk, he says “Forum is an excellent opposition party, as they call out the elephant in the room for what it is.”

Criticising the VVD’s vision for “managing the country as if it were a company” he calls out VVD’s stable voter-base for “structurally giving the rest of the Netherlands the finger.”

“That is why I think it’s good that someone like Baudet stands up. But still, I wonder if anything will change, because people like him aren’t wanted in the Netherlands.”

Introducing The Stand Off: The Stand’s First Live Broadcast!

Welcome!

We came back from our hiatus with a brand new journalistic endeavour: radio. The last few weeks we, the 18 journalists in training at the University of Groningen, have worked very hard to put together our first ever live radio production. 

We, critical journalism students, have broadcasted an hour long show with the aim to challenge your perspectives during this festive period.

We discussed big topics such as the power of investigative journalists who were just coined the TIME’s person of the year, the future of journalism, and media representation. To lighten the mood we also presented stories on love, Christmas, and the everlasting banter between our two pairs of hosts. 

It aired on Thursday the 20th of December at 2pm CET!

This show has been fully written and produced by students. The Stand Off had a team of 18 young students working around the clock. This show was created, curated and edited by William MacMaster and Hannah van der Wurff, the editors of the show. The first dynamic presenter duo consists of Valerie Scholtz and Benjie Beer and the second duo of Frank Verschuren and Anne de Vries. The two ladies running the studio are Annewil Schippers (studio producer) and Dimi Karapanagiotou (studio director). The fantastic foursome that put together the segments specifically produced for the show are Sophie Pizzimenti, Gabriele Cruciata, Natalie Lange and Rebekah Daunt. Out on the streets with a microphone and a million questions were Edward Szekeres, Clemence Waller, Juliane Glahn and Tadhg O’Sullivan, the live reporters. Without our social media team, consisting of Oscar Cheng-Kai, Wu and Yujia Yang, all of you, our listeners, would not have known the show was even happening. 

Enjoy!


Hundreds of Students Still Homeless in Groningen

By Rebekah Daunt

In September 2018, the Democratische Academie Groningen (DAG), a critical student movement which strives for the profound democratization of the University of Groningen, calculated that 500 international students were still without homes in the first week of the academic year.

“The city of Groningen cannot handle the number of students attending university, the housing market is not ready for this.” said Koen Marée (24) a spokesperson for the DAG.

According to law, Dutch universities are under no obligation to provide housing for students, but The RUG encourages students to start searching for accommodation as early as April each year.

However, despite beginning their research in good time, many students found it extremely difficult to secure accommodation from overseas. “I arrived in Groningen last Thursday, but I have been searching for a room since mid-June” said Camélia Barbachi (20), an International Business and Management student.

Like so many others, Miss Barbachi has spent months contacting agencies and independent landlords advertising rooms on Facebook without success. “I really hope to find accommodation soon, otherwise… well, I don’t want to think about what might happen” said Miss Barbachi.

There are approximately 50,000 students studying at the University of Groningen and Hanze University combined. According to the briefing notes from the University Council meeting on the 28th of June 2018, the University of Groningen (RUG) will continue to raise the head count with an average of 800 students per year resulting in a grand total of 35,000 students by 2025.

RUG’s competitive ratings have been evaluated across a set of impressive standards. According to the World University Ranking website, these standards include teaching, research, international outlook and reputation.

Reporting for UKRANT magazine, Gijs Altena outlines how an increase in the number of international students at RUG will benefit the university’s growth, financial position, and higher education rankings.

Marée, who is also a Freelance journalist for Dagblad van het Noorden, believes that the housing crisis is due to overpopulation and bad planning.

UKRANT magazine has specified that the DAG, along with a number of other student organisations have been trying to raise awareness of the great need for student housing and the unbridled growth the university is experiencing.

The DAG Couch Surfing Initiative connected 130 students to a couch or a spare bed in the first week of September. This initiative strives to provide safe and homely temporary solutions for students without the price tag.

This is not the first time there has been a housing crisis in Groningen. Hundreds of students also struggled to find accommodation in 2017.

This year the university assured students that new rooms would be made available and uploaded to the new housing module, At Home in Groningen, in due course.

However, this initiate was not launched until July, and by the middle of August, when students were arriving in Groningen, only 320 rooms had been listed.

The Suikerlaan Container Project is another university led initiative. These purposely built containers were made available to students a batch at a time. Students had permission to reserve these containers upon signing a contract, agreeing to a rental fee of 500 euro per month. These containers have yet to be completed.

A Delayed start in the Suikerlaan Student Container Project means that students who have already paid their deposit and first month’s rent, must find alternative accommodation until the 15th of October 2018.

“I am lucky to have finally secured a container” said Karl, a German Erasmus Student dining at the Feel Good cafe in Groningen this afternoon. “This container will not be ready until mid October, so in the meantime I am grateful to be sleeping on my friend’s couch”.

Jorien Bakker, a spokesperson for the university, acknowledges the overwhelming demand for student housing but believes that the university warned international students in good time.

“Efforts made by the DAG are making the situation better” concluded Marée, “I never want to see a student sleeping on the street but this is not our responsibility”.


 

Teachers’ Working Conditions are Students’ Learning Conditions

By Natalie Lange

In Groningen, the quality of higher education is at stake. University professors are challenged by the rising number of students every year: the classes grow like weed and the workload goes
through the roof.

Juggling their time between research and education, university teachers struggle to find enough time to properly prepare their lectures. In their fight against time, they recycle lecture material from years ago by simply reusing them. “It would be better for the students and myself to dive into something new, but the problem is that you get less time for the same tasks”, says Thijs Lijster (36), an assistant professor in Philosophy of Art and Culture.

The overwhelming workload of university teachers not only threatens to affect the quality of education offered to students, overcrowded lecture and seminar halls also contribute their fair share. The rising number of students in classes makes it impossible for teachers to properly give feedback to each student individually. The World University Rankings estimates twenty-four students per member of staff at the RUG, while it is half of the students per staff at the University of Amsterdam.

Overcrowded lectures are on the daily agenda for psychology teachers and students. This year’s
number of new bachelor students went through the roof, counting 800 new international psychology students compared to 400 students in 2015.

The movement WOinActie (Higher Education in Action) creates awareness about the increased
workload and lack of investment in university education throughout the country. Attached to the
clothes by a safety pin, a red square of fabric functions as a sign in public space.

However, Barend van Heusden (61), director of Humanities at the University College Groningen,
thinks that at the RUG not many professors or students know about the red square and its meaning due to the lack of information. At the opening ceremony of the academic year, professors were offered to wear the red square. But, as many did not know the symbolic meaning behind the piece of fabric, “the protest failed miserably”, says Barend van Heusden.

Back in September only four to five professors actively tried to raise awareness about overcrowded lectures, increasing workload for teachers, and the lack of funding. Barend van Heusden believes that other professors would also endorse the ongoing protest if they knew about it and weren’t swamped with work.

Only a few weeks later, things changed for the better when RUG professors participated in the
national action week of WOinActie, running from the 24th till the 28th of September, holding open-air lectures to draw attention to the breaking point of higher education.

Sitting in the same boat, more professors and students in Groningen started to wear the red square in hope to change the devastating working and studying conditions at the RUG.


 

Usutu Virus

The Black Birds’ Black Plague

By William Macmaster

The Usutu virus has arrived in The Netherlands and birds are dropping out of the sky in Groningen.

The virus originated in Africa, but according to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, hundreds of thousands bird deaths across Europe can already be attributed to the virus that is believed to have arrived from The Netherlands’ neighbouring country Germany. The virus predominantly affects blackbirds, but can also harm sparrows, starlings and thrushes, with a couple of suspected cases in grey owls too.

According to Dierenambulance, an animal ambulance which has been charged with the responsibility of picking up dead birds across the region, the true scale of the disease in The Netherlands is difficult to tell. “It’s almost impossible to verify an exact number. We are not veterinarians, so we cannot judge if a dead bird might be carrying the virus as we pick up so many.” Stephen, a general worker at Dierenambulance, explained.

Its symptoms are like those seen in humans who contract influenza. The birds grow very weak, so they either become unable to search for food and starve to death, or they become easy prey for predators. Early signs are a loss of feathers, mainly on the head, and susceptibility to being handled. According to Pim Lollinga, the founder of the Fauna Visie Wildcare in Westernieland, which is looking after some of the diseased birds. 

If birds are treated with the appropriate medical attention provided by self-funded animal sanctuaries such as Pim’s, the birds do have a good chance of survival. They are treated with a form of salt as well as by force-feeding the birds a mixture of crushed pellets and insect extracts until they are healthy again.  

“We have about a 70% survival rate at the moment.” Pim explained. “They come alive more and more every day. We have saved around 14-15 which are flying well and have new feathers, but a few died on arrival and there were four we couldn’t save. It’s a lot of work, but it’s fun to do and it’s good to see some birds survive.”

Once treated, the birds are immune for life. Many of these birds have already been released, with more expected to be released at the end of this week when the weather improves.

However, Pim believes there will more reason to be worried in the coming weeks, “More members of the blackbird family will migrate from Scandinavia in October. If they get in contact with the sick ones then the migrating birds might also get the virus, so I hope it’s gone by then.”


 

gas extraction

Groningen: “Gas Extraction is Causing Earthquakes”

By Gabriele Cruciata

Gas extraction in Groningen is producing earthquakes with consequent fall in the houses price, scientists and the Dutch government recently said. The problem is that the activity is an enormous business. Nowadays, Groningen gas is extracted by NAM, a company jointly owned by Shell and Exxon. It is the most important gas source in The Netherlands, providing half of the total domestic product.

The state earns lots of money from concessions and taxes, while total private revenue since extraction began, in 1959, has now reached 300 billion euros. Journalists have calculated that NAM earns about 300 euros per second thanks to the Groningen gas field.

Unfortunately, citizens living in the area haven’t been as lucky as the state and the energy companies. Machiel Mulder, a renewable energy expert at the University of Groningen, investigated the topic. “Up to now,” he says, “about 1.5 billion euros has been spent on the repairs for damage to houses resulting from the earthquakes caused by gas production. In addition to this, it is estimated that the earthquakes have reduced the average value of houses by 2 to 4%,”.

Mulder’s papers show how tremors are strongly linked to gas extraction. About 1,500 earthquakes were detected in the area from the moment extraction started. More than one hundred houses in the region have been demolished or declared unsafe. An independent study revealed that the number of earthquakes is rising as the extraction of gas continues.

A report from 2013 shows how for two decades the government didn’t act despite its knowledge of the problem. In recent years something has changed, and the government had now obliged companies to stop extraction by 2030.

Luckily, there’s a hope. “The Government’s announcement to stop extracting gas from Groningen opens up opportunities for the region to develop alternative energy solutions”, Mulder adds. “The region may have a comparative advantage in the field of a transition towards renewable energy sources”. 


 

Severe Flooding Hits Capital of Taiwan

By Oscar Cheng-Kai, Wu

 

A storm has caused flash flooding in the Taiwanese capital. According to local media and several sources, no casualties have been reported, but the flooding is disrupting daily life. The Stand spoke to a professor who specializes in urban planning to understand the issue.

Charles Lee, a sociology student from the National Taiwan University, said that “It is dangerous to ride my motorbike on those flooding sections because it either risks the whole bike to shut down due to water cooling, or me falling down on the slippery ground and thus injuring myself. So I decided to take a walk, though it takes about one hour instead of 15 minutes on normal days.”

It is estimated that more than 4 inches of water poured into the city. Some regions in the city had been choked by 2 inches of muddy water.

Flash flooding had spilled over the surface and almost reached the entrance of underground tunnels. Many entrances and exits of the system had been closed by the Metro Rapid Transit, Taipei’s subway system beforehand.

Some of the city’s areas reported extreme traffic congestion. In other flooded regions, people were trapped on isle-like high grounds, waiting for the water that surrounded them to draw away.

Vun Kong-Ti, a NTU student who majors in politics said: “Luckily, I avoided the flooding by staying on high ground that night.”

Kong-Ti later told the Stand about what should be done in order to free the city from the curse of occasional flooding, “The city needs a revolutionary renovation that does focus on reducing the impact of the inevitable future flooding on people’s daily life.”

Professor Liao Kuei-Hsien, who specializes in urban planning and water management, offers her assessment of the cause: “The infrastructure is outdated and only serves the purpose of guiding the water out as rapidly as possible. But it no longer works in times of extreme downpouring like this.”

“We spend a lot of budget on transforming the river in order to guide the current. By removing obstacles along the river, we actually make things worse because it will result in the flash flooding in the downstream which is exactly the problem that our capital has” she said.

She suggested there should be a shift of perception for both policymakers and ordinary people: “The authority should review the spatial planning and people’s perceptions need to change.” she also suggested. “People need to accept flooding is actually inevitable during times like this and adjust their lifestyle to a more flooding-resilient fashion.”


 

International Student House Target of a Series of Break-ins

By Dimitra Karapanagiotou

 

Over the past few weeks, a series of break-ins and robberies in the international student house in Vondellaan, a street in the south of Groningen, was reported, raising concerns and spreading fear among the residents.

On a Tuesday night, Mireia Antolin Estefania, an exchange student from Spain, went to the kitchen for a glass of milk, only to find her laptop, mobile phone and money missing when she returned to her room. “My door was open and the lights were on,” she says with her voice breaking, barely holding back the tears. “When I saw that all my things were gone I immediately called the police, but they couldn’t do much.”

Her room is cold and there is no mattress on the bed. “I don’t sleep here anymore. I sleep in my friend’s room. I don’t feel safe,” she says.

The incident alarmed the students and made them particularly careful, but locking their door was not enough as David Pauly, a student from Germany, soon found out. On a Saturday night, a little after midnight, David was asleep in his room when he heard a noise coming from his window. “At first I thought it was one of my friends calling me to join them in the basement so I didn’t react” he says, “but then someone broke and opened the window.”

The intruder fled without stealing anything or causing any harm once he saw that David was in the room, but the incident raised questions among the residents concerning the security of the building.

According to the contract between the tenants and the landlord, the latter is supposed to provide a safe environment and constant supervision. Most students noted that the owner of the building is usually impossible to reach. “I’ve been trying to contact him for a week” says Mireia, “he didn’t care about me, he didn’t ask if I’m ok or what happened. When I complained about the lack of security, he said that I am lucky to have a room at all.”

With the housing crisis in Groningen leaving over 300 students homeless by the beginning of the academic year, it is no wonder that many students find it hard to demand better living conditions once they finally find accommodation.

In fact, in Vondellaan, half of the building is still under construction, the internet connection is weak and the security of the building non-existent. “It’s still better than sleeping in tents,” notes David, “but the landlord is earning a lot of money through us, he should be able to do something”.


 

Divide Between Dutch and International Students?

By Sophie Pizzimenti

 

The academic year has started, and Groningen University is welcoming thousands of international students who have mixed feelings towards blending into Dutch society and integrating with their fellow students.

A debate was sparked last year from the publication of the UKrant article “When Dutch ‘directness’ hurts” by Megan Embry, in which she discussed discrimination received by internationals from local students. The article highlighted the divided views of students regarding the relationship between the two groups.

Interviewing Dutch and internationals at the RUG campus regarding the topic of discrimination and how they feel about their relationship with their classmates, different opinions came out.

Sitting outside the library, speaking Spanish among themselves, bachelor students Xenia Ramos and Carla Heterington said that, not only do they not feel welcomed, they feel highly excluded by the Dutch students.

“I think it is difficult if you are international student here in your first week because Dutch people are very close to each other and they don’t welcome other people. She is my friend and I am glad I know her because, if not, you really have to find another international student,” said Carla, who has just arrived and is in her first year of her bachelor.

Xenia and Carla also addressed the issue of discrimination, saying they did receive comments about their identity as Spanish which made them feel uncomfortable among their fellow Dutch students.

When confronted with the topic, a few Dutch students highlighted the tendency of Dutch and internationals to stay among their respective groups, resulting in a strong division.

Dutch student M.M.* studying international law, said: “There is a huge gap between a Dutch student here and internationals. We experience it ourselves, because in the first year and second year for our bachelor we were put in a class with international students and there was a huge gap, because all the international students knew each other, and we [Dutch students] were there thinking ‘what to do?’; and you kind of isolate yourself then.”

Similarly, Dutch student Lianne Pit, studying for a Masters in German Education, said she believes the interaction is limited as knowing the Dutch people in her class leads her to stick with them.

Most of the students indicated language as the main cause of the divide.

Tjitske Kommerie, a Dutch student studying with Lianne, said “it can be hard, especially when your English isn’t that good or when you are nervous about speaking in English because you think it’s not good enough to make yourself understandable.”

Wouter Baas, a Dutch student from the same course, is also bothered by the necessity of using English with internationals as they do not learn Dutch. “My opinion is that, when you come here to study you also have to show some interest in the country you are moving to. Not a lot of international students do this, learning the language and not stay in their international bubble and not expecting everybody to speak in English,” he said.

Lianne Pit, Wouter Baas, Tjitske Kommerie and Niklas Kingman

Arno Hegedus, a Hungarian student of International Law, hopes to be able to create long lasting friendships with Dutch students and to connect with their culture.

However, on this matter Wouter Baas replied, “These kind of relations can only exist if you can master the language very well. We talk now in a very formal way […] but if you talk about personal feelings and so on, it’s very difficult, for me at least, to do this in English.”

Arno Hegedus and Ife Bolaji, a fellow classmate from Nigeria, believe this division could be reduced if international students were given more chances to learn Dutch. “Language is the way to someone’s heart,” concluded Bolaji.


*Chooses to remain anonymous

No House or Bad House?

By Benjie Beer

 

While debate rages over the lack of student housing in Groningen this year, the question is: is all the housing on offer worth it?

In a large, dark, musky room, Max Müller, 19, a Bachelors student from Germany, points to a set of pipes that jut intrusively from the wall. With no overhead lighting present, he then scans the torch from his phone over the ceiling, finding several holes where polystyrene boards once covered the filth-encrusted wires and rusty piping. On the sill of a window with no latch lie several mouse droppings, and in the corner is an enormous hole that falls through to the floor below. Overlooking the pained scene are the words written large on the wall: ‘VIP Area’.

‘This is what they gave us,’ says Müller with a dejected sigh. ‘And we all hate it’.

Müller and his nine housemates were among many new students who thought they had struck it lucky by signing for a house in Groningen only to find the reality that awaited was anything but fortunate. Their ‘flat’ is a disused nightclub, stripped of its bars and most of its furniture; the air is dusty, damp and cold, and the surfaces are decorated with an endless assortment of chemical stains. Whatever aspirations these students may have had for healthy living are now as trampled as the dirt that lines the floorboards – where, indeed, there are floorboards at all.

‘There is mould everywhere,’ says Isi Dimitriadis, 24, a Masters student from Greece. ‘We don’t have heaters or proper internet. We even found a dead bat when we moved in… They just don’t care about us.’

When it comes to student housing, the debate in Groningen this year has centred almost entirely around the lack of it. What has gone largely undiscussed is the terrible state of some of the housing students do have.

The Groningen Municipality Council will meet tonight to discuss new measures to tackle rogue landlords, in particular a proposed law that would issue landlords licenses that can be revoked if they misbehave. The immediate problem, however, is that, were a license to be revoked, the tenants would have to leave the property.

‘While I think this is a good idea,’ says Müller, ‘there should be some sort of support for the students if they are ejected.’

‘It is really appalling, no matter what,’ argues Dimitriadis. ‘If I had known it would be like this, I would never have come.’