Inviting foreign students into local democracy

International students make up a large part of the Groningen student population. Yet, they are not as involved in the local democracy as they could be. City council member Arend Jan Wonink wants to encourage them to have their say.

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Making sure the experience of international students in Groningen is a good one, that is one of the aims of Arend Jan Wonink, a member of the city council for the liberal political party D66. Last year he came up with the idea to ask international students how the city council could facilitate their stay in Groningen. ‘With my friend Loes Damhof, who is a teacher at Hanze, I organised a brainstorm session between international students and members of the Groningen city council.’ Ten students of RUG and Hanze and two local politicians kicked off the experiment under the banner Start the Conversation in May 2015. In the City Hall, the international students shared their experiences in Groningen and discussed ideas to improve their stay in the city. The main topics that the international students brought up  were housing, job opportunities for internationals and the integration with locals and Dutch students.

Groningen misses out
Arend Jan thinks the positive experiences of international students can be of marketing value for the city. He also believes internationals look at Groningen with other eyes than locals. ‘Because they are not officially a part of Dutch society, they can be more critical. This can result in fresh ideas.’ Benedikt Wieferig (21), a International Communication student from Germany, also looks at it this way. ‘In Groningen, the number of international students is incredibly high. To have such a large part of the inhabitants of the city miss out on crucial decisions is a big loss because their input can bring new ideas.’

EU students that live in Groningen have the right to vote during city council elections

Yet, creating good marketing for the city and acquiring a fresh outlook are not Arend Jan’s only reasons for the conversations. ‘I hope to create awareness among international students. They really can have political influence in Groningen. For example, EU students that live in Groningen have the right to vote during city council elections, but they rarely do so.’ Benedikt would like to cast his vote. ‘However, I think it may not be all too easy, especially for those who don’t speak Dutch, to get the background information needed in order to vote’, he adds.

Building bridges
Sophie Walker (20), a Game Design & Development student from Switzerland, also took part in Start the Conversation. She sees involving international students in local politics as bridge building. ‘We have to make sure that both sides understand what the other side wants, or at least where the other side comes from. This dialog has to be made possible in the first place.’ She thinks it’s a big privilege that non-Dutch EU students are allowed to vote. ‘I was surprised that the city council wanted to talk to foreign students, but that most of them are also allowed to vote is almost unbelievable.’

The city council has to think about a way to reach us

Two years ago Alexandra Crisan (25), a masters student in International Business Law from Romania, was a representative of international students in the RUG university council. ‘I was involved in improving the situation for international students at the university. This interest led me to take part’, she explains. Alexandra thinks keeping international students informed is very important when trying to involve them in the local democracy. ‘The city council has to think about a way to reach us. Transparency and communication are the most important factors to get relevant information through to us.’

Unreadable Dutch contracts
Overall the students that participated in Arend Jan’s conversation were very positive about Groningen, yet they saw room for improvement. An important issue that the students pointed out was that the bad organisation of housing. Sophie Walker: ‘An often heard complaint is that a lot of official letters are in Dutch. Internationals often have to sign Dutch documents they do not understand, like lease contracts. Some also miss deadlines to sign up somewhere, because they didn’t get the information in English.’ Arend Jan has striven to realize an English-language information platform on housing for internationals. ‘We have requested the municipality of Groningen to create a separate English website about housing issues. Sadly enough, there wasn’t money for that, but a new English-language webpage on the topic has been created on the municipality’s website.’

Lack of interaction
Another issue is the integration between international students and the Dutch, locals as well as students. ‘On our part, learning the language is something that we can improve on’, says Sophie. ‘Many of my friends have done the beginners course in Dutch, however they don’t speak Dutch properly. Mixing up international and Dutch students would help us to really learn Dutch.’ Law student Alexandra recognizes the lack of interaction between internationals and locals. ‘There are few events that actually give these groups a chance to interact and to learn from each other. The municipality could organize more of these.’

Even for doing the dishes in a restaurant Dutch fluency is demanded

She too sees the challenges for internationals in learning Dutch and adds that this is exactly what makes it hard for internationals to find a job. ‘Even for doing the dishes in a restaurant Dutch fluency is demanded. Yet the beginners course that the university offers for free is not enough to reach a sufficient level and the follow-up courses are too expensive for most students.’

Where are the… Dutch?
Arend Jan plans to continue involving internationals in the local politics of Groningen. ‘Last year’s  meeting was to see how the experiment would turn out. I think we can take it a step further now, for example by inviting more participants and combining the brainstorm session with a workshop.’ This year’s meeting will most probably take place in May as well. Sophie hopes this time Dutch students will also be invited to take part in the initiative. ‘A lot of the issues we discussed last year also apply to Dutch students. When I talked to my Dutch friends about Start the Conversation, they were disappointed that the city council hadn’t invited them to take part in the discussion.’

Photos: Mariska de Groot (c)