About 10 years ago, I was awarded a master’s degree at TU Delft. Imprinted on matte paper in dark ink and wrapped in a cylindrical red tube, the degree was capable of opening doors that were otherwise not even visible to my next of kin. The economy had already recovered from the financial shock of 2008 creating plenty of new opportunities for anxious students thinking about their future. New, well-paying jobs, start-up opportunities and research endeavours called my peers to all parts of the world. In what some academics would call a moment of upward mobility, I went to ETH Zurich next, in the hope of finding an even better future.
Many people from the so-called Global South travel to western countries to gain a better quality of education, and access resources and opportunities that are usually not available within our developing nations. An obnoxiously high tuition fee is accepted because it comes with a promise of a better future for ourselves and our nations. The privilege to study abroad grants many of us a chance at the ‘western’ way of life, job security, free healthcare, unemployment benefits, clean air, and cheap and guaranteed education for our children. Some others dream of returning home with newfound knowledge to improve the functioning of our own societies.
Impact of the pandemic
By 2012, my truly wonderful educational and cultural experiences at TU Delft had cost my family EUR 18,000 in tuition fees over two years. Even though my friends from the European Union (EU) spent a fifth of that – EUR 3,500 – we revelled in each other’s graduation parties and celebrated bright futures ahead of us. But as years pass and the promise delivers, the cost of opening doors also shoots up. Today, international master’s students pay EUR 17,666 a year – a 100% increase in tuition fees for pretty much the same quality of education that I received in 2010-2012. In comparison, the EU statutory tuition fee is set much lower, at EUR 2,168 for 2021-2022.
As the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on society, the cracks in our education system were laid bare. The flip flop of Government rules set off waves of panic and anxiety among the student and teacher body. Throughout the lockdowns, we all struggled to reduce the impacts of an online university for our students. Many international students worried about their well-being, the timely completion of their degrees and the conditions of their families back home. Some even questioned the high tuition fees in light of the naturally degraded quality of online education.
‘The education packages fail to acknowledge inequality’
A year into the pandemic and amongst a patchwork of botched responses to our collective societal needs, the caretaker Dutch Cabinet announced an EUR 8.5 billion package to cushion the impact of the pandemic on higher education. Part of the package stated that all students would receive a benefit of EUR 1,084 in 2021. In addition, the Government also made it possible for students with study delays (in Dutch) to not pay extra tuition fees.
Today, an international student paying around EUR 18,000 a year may find some relief in the disproportionate benefits, but it will not cushion the true impact of the pandemic on their health, well-being and future opportunities. Quite a number of international students I taught suffered from severe anxiety. Amid a drought of quality jobs, a few returned to their home countries to find comfort with friends and family. Some started working in poorly paid jobs and others moved away in the middle of the programme to find better opportunities for their future. Despite the tremendous resilience shown by our students in finishing their programmes on time, it is likely that there will be fewer jobs available in the Netherlands this year as organisations and institutes are only now beginning to recover from the huge economic losses they suffered.
Token of ignorance
Without understanding that students will struggle very differently depending on their socio-economic conditions and nationality, a Government decision that is intended to bring utilitarian benefits to the student community is great in intention, but is merely a token of ignorance. The education packages fail to acknowledge the inequalities in the higher-education system. In addition to the cost of accessing good education, there are immeasurable yet significant inequities in opportunities that are available to the student body.
In non-pandemic years, most non-EU graduating students end up staying and building a life for themselves in The Netherlands or the EU. They contribute to the development of the nation through the labour markets by paying taxes, buying property, and generally consuming overly priced and carbon intensive goods and services that contribute to the GDP of the country. But this year, in the absence of carefully deliberated support for our student body, will an increasingly expensive degree open the same doors it did for me? I hope that is the least it can do!