'I borrow the tuition fees and get full grants'

Lower course costs and the possibility of work can help savvy UK students graduate from the Netherlands almost debt free

Sam Knight, a 19-year-old student from Surrey, never thought he'd be so pleased, or well rewarded, to wash dishes. By working in a restaurant for at least eight hours a week, he qualifies for a Dutch government grant of €266 a month, which boosts his lowly wages. "I've been looking for work and knew it would be dishwashing; my Dutch still isn't good enough for much more."

Lower tuition fees and the possibility of grants mean UK students studying in the Netherlands have a real chance of graduating virtually debt-free, unthinkable for most students starting the next academic year at English universities. This September, an undergraduate course at a Dutch university will cost, with a few exceptions, €1,771 a year, a flat fee for Dutch and other European Union students alike, and payable in instalments. "Studying here is the best decision I've ever made," says Knight, who is in his first year of studying econometrics and operations research at Groningen University in the north of the country.

British students, as members of the EU, may qualify for several grants and loans, depending on parents' income and whether they have a job locally. While UK students at a Dutch university won't be able to take out a student loan at home, they all qualify for a basic tuition fees state loan of €142 a month, job or no. And if they find regular work of at least 32 hours a month ("odd jobs" don't count) they also receive the basic non-repayable grant, studiefinanciering, of €266 a month and an option of a further loan of €285 a month. On top of this, the Netherlands pays a means-tested grant of €240 a month, providing students are working regularly, in full-time education and under the age of 30.

"I borrow the tuition fees and get the full grants, which add up to €500 a month," says Christian Garrard, who is in his second year of European law at Groningen. He is managing to save a large chunk of his monthly wage and hopes to pay off the €5,000 he will owe on graduation from his savings pot. Unlike in the UK, graduates of Dutch universities must start repaying their loan as soon as they finish.

While tuition fees are fixed, some institutions, such as the handful of new, smaller university colleges with an international focus, levy an extra fee on top of tuition.

International grants are thin on the ground although Nuffic (www.nuffic.nl), the Netherlands organisation for international cooperation in higher education, provides a "grantfinder" search engine on its website. UK students seeking to study environmental sciences, for instance, are eligible to apply for a dozen different grants.

The financial outlook for UK students studying in the Netherlands is rosier than at home, but it pays to be prepared. Garrard arrived at his university too late to sort out loans before the 1 September deadline for tuition fees and had to pay up front from his own savings. Student jobs, pay on average €5 to €8 an hour, but UK students may be hampered if they cannot speak Dutch; most work requires at least a bit.

Dutch universities with large international populations are well positioned to help newcomers fight through the red tape of settling in another country – setting up a bank account or finding a place to live.

A host of unexpected expenses crop up during the first month; Delft University estimates students need around €1,500 to cover settling-in expenses such as rent deposits, books, joining clubs and more. Health insurance, which is mandatory in the Netherlands, costs around €40 a month, or more if you are working. And private housing, which costs between €300 and €600 a month, requires two months' rent deposit plus a month in advance.

"Accommodation arrangements are very inflexible in the Netherlands," says Nannette Ripmeester, director of client services at the International Graduate Insight Group (i-graduate). "If you leave your room earlier than agreed you may lose your deposit." International students may spend between €800 and €1,100 a month on living and studying and Amsterdam is expensive to live in. "Costs of living are slightly higher than back home," says Garrard. "But drinks are much, much cheaper than in the UK – supermarket beer and wine is half the price." Heavily subsidised public transport is another lure; along with regular work comes eligibility for an "OV-Jaarkaart", allowing substantial cuts in train, bus and tram fares. UK students also have to factor in visits home; Garrard returns up to four times a year at €150 a time.

To alleviate the pain, private services have sprung up to help international students wade through bureaucracy for a small fee of around €10. Dani Older, a second-year student at Maastricht University, is currently applying through such an organisation for housing subsidies on a no-win no-fee basis. She works for the university's student services and urges students to visit in person. "All the processes are complicated so when you've made a decision, it's worth coming out as soon as possible."

Freshers' weeks tend to start in mid August. This year, Groningen, which runs the largest, oldest event in the country, is expecting 4,000 first-year students, both Dutch and international, at the bilingual event, and this is followed by an introduction week specifically for international students. "Most programmes will have an introduction week or weekend," says Jessica Winters, marketing officer at Groningen. "It's not a lot of sleep but lots of fun. Administration-wise, students can do a lot online in advance and then we help with bank accounts, insurance, doctors etc."

For instant and informal tips from other international students, universities' Facebook and other social media are often well-managed and responsive; Knight himself writes a blog about his experiences (stkstudyinginholland.tumblr.com). "The great thing about studying here," he says, "is that I now have a network all over the world. I will never need to pay for a hotel again!"

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