The Netherlands: a relaxing way of life and learning

Ask some British students why they might be drawn to the Netherlands and you’ll elicit a knowing smirk, but there’s a lot to enjoy beyond the coffee shops. The region has a rich history and a liberal outlook while the Dutch accept visitors with open arms, which is particularly evident in its student bodies. According to the Netherlands Organisation for International Co-operation in Higher Education (Nuffic), there are currently 76,750 international students on roll.

Marina Caspers studies international business and economics at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). She comes from Poole but grew up Germany and South Africa as well. The Netherlands suits her. “Amsterdam is a very international city,” explains Caspers. “Everyone speaks English. I think in most countries, even in Europe, not speaking the host language can be a handicap, but here it really isn’t,” she says.

According to Mercer’s 2010 Quality of Living survey, which evaluates 320 cities worldwide, Amsterdam is the 13th best place to live. In the 2010 pan-European International Student Barometer, 92 per cent of UvA’s students said it was “the place to be”. Caspers says: “Amsterdam has a huge variety of things to do, including a great clubbing scene.

There are some great bars and in the summertime we often have big picnics in the parks. There are lots of comedy nights too, many of which are organised by the university. And we have borrels, which are when students and faculties meet up for drinks in local pubs.”

“Amsterdam has got so much culture and so many museums, and that’s something I really enjoy,” adds Caspers. “There’s a scheme where students can buy a card for €25 that gives you free entry to all the museums for a year.”

The only aspect of Dutch culture Caspers can’t rave about is the food: “It’s an acquired taste”, she says tactfully. “They make good chips.”

UvA has 2,000 international students from more than 80 countries. They are supported by the International Student Network (ISN), which offers pastoral care, as well as a lively social calendar, including film nights, excursions, parties and weekly drinks, much like the other Dutch universities. Each institution has a network of associations run by students that bring them together for academic activities, sports and recreation.

Two of the largest international student associations are AIESEC and the Erasmus Student Network.

The capital isn’t the only Dutch city with credentials to boast about. The Hague is bursting with natural beauty, history, employment opportunities and nightlife. As the seat of parliament, governmentand Royal court, business and culture abound. It’s a pleasant and vibrant place to study, boasting an 11 km coastline, 850 restaurants, pubs and cafés, 30 theatres, 26 cinema screens, 45 museums and 4,200 shops. There is a significant expat community, so British students will be in good company. What’s more, it hosts Parkpop every June, one of Europe’s largest free pop festivals.

“The Hague is a fun place to go to university – and I say that both as an international officer and as a former student. I had a great time when I was at university here,” says Nicki van Campenhout from The Hague University. The beach is a particular draw. “That’s one of our major assets. For students, in the summer, it’s a big plus.”

The university has a fully equipped fitness centre and sports hall. Van Campenhout says: “Students can get a card that entitles them to use the facilities and attend subsidised classes.” Activities include football, tennis, martial arts, hockey, pilates and ice-skating.

Having fun in the Netherlands is unlikely to break the bank – especially for those used to paying their way in pounds. The Hague University says students typically spend between €600 and €1,000 per month on accommodation, food and living expenses. In Amsterdam, the most expensive element of student life is socialising. “To go to one of the big clubs costs about €10 to €15,” says Caspers.

Jessica Winters, a spokesperson for Groningen University, says socialising comes easily for its international cohort. “UK students will have an excellent experience here,” she says. “Groningen is one of the most fun student cities in the Netherlands.” The place was elected City of the Year 2010 and scored highest on tourism and recreation. “It’s a city with a relaxed atmosphere,” says Winters. “It’s safe, yet full of life. Not too big, not too small, and with easy access to all European cities. It’s one of the Netherlands’ hidden jewels, nicknamed ‘student heaven’ by Dutch students.”

Groningen students network enthusiastically, notably via its Facebook page. A local student group, Stranger Things Have Happened, offers a witty insight into Dutch university life with their a sitcom, North, which follows the trials, tribulations, studies and social lives of an imagined group of international students in Groningen.

Caspers got lucky and managed to bag herself a place in a student dormitory along with 65 other international students. “I can only stay here for a year, and it’s specifically for people coming from overseas to help them find their feet,” she explains. “Usually, students in the Netherlands have to find their own place to live.”

International students should look for their university’s Facebook pages, scour their websites, and get in touch with international offices. Local accommodation search websites can also help. Many new students will have met, chatted and found shared flats over the internet, often even before leaving their home country.

Another difference is that few Dutch higher education institutions have a campus and instead have buildings scattered throughout a city. The institutions and destinations may offer wildly different environments. Students looking for a thriving social scene should do some research before filling out their application form. Will Walshe from Ireland got his Bachelors degree at the University of Birmingham in England and a Masters in architecture at the Delft University of Technology. He says his experience in the Netherlands was strong academically, but relatively quiet outside the classroom.

“The nightlife wasn’t overly visible to me, so I just got on with my studies and didn’t really socialise very much,” he says. “Delft is close to Rotterdam, so I went to gigs there sometimes. Within 40 minutes, we could be in Amsterdam too, so we sometimes spent a night there. But locally, the Dutch students I knew tended to have house parties, rather than head out to bars and clubs.”

That meant it was more a case of waiting for an invite than popping out for an impromptu beer. “That was good for me, because I knew I had to work hard and focus,” says Walshe.

Caspers’ experience couldn’t be more different. “Students here know how to have a good time,” she says. “I’ve got a busy social life. In fact, it’s quite difficult to combine that with my studies, because there’s always something to do. Every now and then, I have to shut myself away to get some work done. That takes willpower.”

But when it comes to exploring, Caspers agrees with Walshe: “It’s really easy to get out and see the Netherlands. We do daytrips to the cities around Amsterdam, and if you’re quick to get the best tickets, it can be really cheap to see other nearby cities in other parts of Europe.” She has visited Brussels, for example, and plans to use her time studying in the Netherlands to do some sightseeing. “We sometimes go for long weekends,” she says.

As for the stereotypes, British students take note. “You have to have a bike,” says Caspers. “Absolutely everyone has one. We use the canals, too – in the summer, we have a lot of boat parties; drinking and suntanning and playing music. But I’ve actually never been in one of the coffee shops. The Dutch people and most of the students I’ve met don’t see it as a big deal, and most don’t go at all.”

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