National Ombudsman: Caribbean students frustrated by practical obstacles

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Caribean students

Each year, some 1,600 ambitious and optimistic young people from Curaçao, Aruba, St. Maarten and the Caribbean Netherlands arrive in the Netherlands to begin their further education.[1] Unfortunately, many soon face various hurdles and fail to complete that education. The National Ombudsman has investigated the problems that can arise. Some prospective students face difficulties before they even set foot in the Netherlands. On arrival, they must contend with practical matters such as finding accommodation and arranging health insurance. The course itself may not be what they expected, while there can be a significant ‘culture shock’. Education staff and fellow students show too little consideration for the specific challenges faced by this group of Dutch citizens, many of whom go on to experience financial difficulties as they struggle to repay student loans.

The National Ombudsman, Reinier van Zutphen, calls on the governments in The Hague and on the islands to resolve the problems Caribbean students are facing. “These talented young people are of immense importance to the future of the islands. It is important that they are able to build a sound foundation for their future career, whether here in the Netherlands or at home. They just need that extra bit of support. Government agencies should not assume they are entirely self-sufficient or know exactly how our complex society works.”

“For young people in the Caribbean, studying in the Netherlands must be an option. Not everyone has the aptitude or desire, but those who do must not be held back by unnecessary obstacles. Good preparation is of crucial importance. I intend to join the ombudsmen of Curaçao and St. Maarten in discussions with the governments in the Kingdom. Our aim is to ensure that prospective students are fully prepared for what awaits them, both in terms of their education and when navigating Dutch society.”

The National Ombudsman’s report 'Concerns of Caribbean Students' presents the findings of a study among 624 students and former students from the Caribbean Netherlands. It confirms that many experience a range of problems prior to, during and after their studies in the Netherlands. They receive little specific guidance, are unable to obtain a Citizen Service Number (CSN) in advance, are excluded from Dutch health insurance, and do not understand our system of taxes and allowances. They are unfamiliar with Dutch society and culture. Many accrue significant debt in the form of student loans.

The National Ombudsman calls on the Dutch government, and in particular Ms Ingrid van Engelshoven, Minister of Education, Culture and Science (OCW), Mr Raymond Knops, State Secretary of the Interior and Kingdom Relations (BZK), and their counterparts on the islands, to do everything possible to ensure that Caribbean students find studying in the Netherlands as straightforward as possible. They must actively seek cooperation to remove practical obstacles and provide all necessary support. Reinier van Zutphen: “Our investigation reveals some serious shortcomings. Action to resolve the issues will ensure that future students need not face the same difficulties and can use the qualifications they gain in the Netherlands as the basis of a successful career.”

The main problems

Inadequate preparation

Many Caribbean students find it difficult to adjust to life in the Netherlands. They are given no overall picture of what to expect. They do not know exactly what the coursework will involve. They are unfamiliar with the culture, the climate, the language and our system of taxes and allowances. Everything is new and very different. The report concludes that many students consider the preparation process to be inadequate, with 26% rating it ‘poor’ or ‘extremely poor’.

A student: “There is a strong focus on choosing the right school and programme, but nothing about life in the Netherlands.”

Citizen Service Number (CSN)

Students should be able to make certain practical arrangements before they leave the islands, especially where it is possible to do so online. At present, they are unable to obtain a Citizen Service Number (CSN) until they have registered with a local authority in the Netherlands. This means that they cannot enrol on an Intermediate Vocational Education (MBO) programme or open a bank account, for example. Finding accommodation is also a significant challenge.

Reinier van Zutphen: “Some problems affect everyone studying in the Netherlands, regardless of origin. But in practice we see that some aspects are far better organised for international students than for the Caribbean students.”

Dutch health insurance

Caribbean students are not eligible to take out standard Dutch health insurance. Without a policy issued by a Dutch insurer, they are not entitled to claim the health costs allowance. Many students nevertheless apply for Dutch health insurance, usually on the recommendation of friends or family, and for the health costs allowance. If it later proves that they were not entitled to this allowance, they must repay it in full. This is likely to be a significant amount. Because Caribbean students are not familiar with the rules concerning allowances and taxes (including municipal taxes), there is a significant risk of financial problems.

Adapting to Dutch society

Caribbean students can find it very difficult to adapt to life in the Netherlands. The language is not the only hurdle: there are also significant cultural differences. Being unaware of their rights and obligations can only reinforce feelings of alienation and helplessness. Some students face discrimination and exclusion. Over half of respondents report having fallen behind with their studies, most citing psychological reasons. There is no adequate support network. Many students are reticent to ask for help. Organisations in the Netherlands seem not to appreciate the ‘culture shock’ that Caribbean students experience when they come to our country. Some go without help or support for a long time, which increases the risk of depression. Reinier van Zutphen: “Caribbean students need support and guidance, not only at the institutional level but from individual teachers who are mindful of the extra challenges faced by this group.”

Debt

A relatively large number of Caribbean students switch courses (perhaps more than once), fall behind with their studies or drop out altogether. As a result, many accrue significant debt in the form of student loans. Most Caribbean students must take out a local student loan – on top of the student loan from DUO – to finance their studies. It would not be financially viable to pursue further education otherwise. In addition, the current Covid-19 pandemic has severely reduced opportunities for part-time employment. Almost half of the (former) students who are currently repaying student loans report that they are experiencing financial difficulty. Because the majority have more than one outstanding loan, the total monthly repayments are more than they can comfortably afford. The relevant agencies often take no account of the fact that students have multiple loans (although the ‘start-up’ allowance for Caribbean students is taken into consideration). The affordability of loan repayments is a particular problem for students who return to the islands, where employment opportunities are limited. This deters many from going home at all.

Look below to see a video of the National Ombudsman, Reinier van Zutphen, and the Minister of Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, in conversation with Caribbean students during their recent online breakfast meeting.


[1] Approximately 1000 enter university or Higher Vocational Education (HBO), while a further 600 enrol in Intermediate Vocational Education (MBO).