A student from the Faculty of Science
Before leaving for exchange
Finland or The Netherlands? When investigating potential masters programs in Europe, I had narrowed it down to a choice between the two countries. In the end the interdisciplinary nature and course content of the Urban Studies and Planning programme at the University of Helsinki swayed me and I chose to study in Finland. To compromise, I planned an exchange semester in The Netherlands to have the opportunity to experience student life in both countries. I also wish to stay in Europe after I graduate, so my exchange was kind of a ‘trial’ to see what living in The Netherlands was like and explore options for a future there. When selecting an exchange university, I was limited to the Erasmus agreements between universities and particularly faculties at the University of Helsinki (UH). A new agreement between the University of Groningen (RUG) Faculty of Spatial Science and UH Faculty of Science started in 2019 and with many urban planning subjects, going to Groningen was the most appropriate choice for me.
The application for exchange started very early, I needed to apply in January for the autumn semester in September. Do not underestimate the time it takes to submit the application as a motivation letter and a study plan are required for each university you apply for. Think about why you have chosen the university and the country: cheap alcohol, partying and sunshine cannot be the only reasons and probably won’t go down well on your motivation letter! Read through the university website and think about what attracts you to that specific university or how you hope the exchange will enrich your UH degree. There might be certain topics related to your field that are of interest or a language you are hoping to improve. These are great things to write about in your motivation letter.
The study plan takes quite a bit of time to prepare as you need to explore specific courses. Usually Erasmus agreements are faculty specific, so exchange students will be limited to courses from the faculty of their Erasmus only. Also, course selection is not so straight forward, many courses at RUG did not accept exchange students or required prerequisites. So, after considering these points the course options available in the Faculty of Spatial Sciences was limited. Most likely study plans can be changed after you have been accepted, so you are not locked in completely to initial choices. Another thing to consider is how exchange can fit into your program at UH. Being a non-EU student, I need to take 30ECTS a semester to graduate within two years. However, at RUG, exchange students are only allowed to take 25ECT a semester due to the high intensity of study. This meant I had to take a summer course prior to my exchange to complete the extra 5ECTS. So, it is important to look into this if you have a strict graduation timeline and start planning your exchange early.
At the end of the Spring semester I attended the tutor session ran by UH exchange services. I spoke with UH students who had just returned from The Netherlands and they provided many tips about bikes, study etc. I would recommend attending these sessions prior to your exchange. I would also recommend printing copies of important documents such as: the Erasmus agreement, visa details, health insurances, accommodation address and details. Overall, communication with the UH exchange services and the RUG exchange coordinator was very easy and efficient, and I felt I had ample information before I left. RUG sent out a booklet detailing a step by step guide to follow when moving to The Netherlands. It even contained a check list of what to pack, what to expect on arrival, setting up bank accounts and information about the city. While organising my exchange I received warnings from RUG of the housing situation and advice on how to book accommodation early. I also signed up for ESN Introduction Week and got weekly emails on tips and advice. ESN sent information about the Dutch travel OV-Chipkaart (like the HSL Card) and I ordered an international student version with ISIC before I left. The card gave 15% off all off-peak public transport journeys which saved me money on buses in the first week while I was organising a bike. I also bought a discounted train ticket from Schiphol to Groningen in advance, which saved me around 20euro.
RUG offered an online beginners course in Dutch created by the university language centre. This went for 3 weeks in August and I learnt very basic Dutch, greetings, and introductions. The online course is worth doing prior to your exchange as you probably will not learn any Dutch while in The Netherlands. Unfortunately, Dutch courses are not offered to exchange students at Groningen University. There is an option to pay for Dutch classes but at around 400euro, this kind of money is out of reach for most exchange students.
As a summary, before the exchange I had organised and completed the following things-
- Housing *MOST IMPORTANT!*
- Health Insurance
- Subject Plan and Erasmus certificate
- Online Dutch course
- Exchange grant
- Temporary housing for arrival
- Train ticket from Schiphol airport to Groningen
- Signed up for Erasmus Student Network and ISIC travel card
The beginning of the exchange and bureaucracy /practicalities
Groningen is the economic and cultural capital of in the northern Netherlands, it has around 200,000 citizens, of which approximately 50,000 are students. I had never lived in a student city before and on my arrival, it was alive and buzzing with students excited to embark on a new university year. Although I had visited The Netherlands previously as a tourist, I was still overwhelmed by the bikes and all the really tall and attractive people! The first weekend I relaxed in the sun in Noorderplantsoen (park) with what felt like most of Groningen. People were mingling in groups, playing music, laughing, and just enjoying the weather. Groningen is a beautiful city and during the first few days I walked around in awe of the architecture, canals, cosy cafes, small alleys, boats, sunsets, fields, cats, and ducks!
The Welcome Ceremony kicked off the day I arrived in Groningen, it was full of useful information about what the city and university have to offer (sports, cultural facilities, student associations, etc.). The ESN Introduction Week began the day after and the first night started with a pub-crawl. I attended but left early as it was mainly 19-year olds venturing out for their very first party and nightlife experience. There were many drunk and messy students and I soon realised I did not want to be a ‘babysitter’ and needed to find an older crowd. I did not attend any other ESN parties, luckily ESN also organised other activities including a cultural day, sports day, band night and comedy show. ESN also provided information on practical issues such as getting a bicycle and a Dutch sim card.
Get a bike!
One of the first things to do when moving to The Netherlands is buy a bike! Having a bicycle is the quickest and cheapest way to get anywhere within the city in 20 minutes. No one has a nice or new bike as it would get stolen, a cheap old bike is perfect to ride around town. There are many options for purchasing a second-hand bike: Facebook groups, from a previous student or bike shops. Be careful to buy from a reputable source and not support the stolen bike trade! Companies like Swapfiets are also worth considering. Basically, you pay a monthly fee to rent a bike and the fee also covers the cost of any maintenance and roadside assistance. A warning: have bicycle lights with you as police regularly check and there is a fine of €90 for not having working lights. Also, make sure you always lock your bicycle with two locks, the wheel lock and a chain lock. The weather in The Netherlands is not very extreme and it is possible to ride a bike all year round, so I saved a lot on transport costs. However, the wind can get very strong and, on a few occasions, I was even blown off my bike!
Visa issues and registration
Every person moving to Groningen from outside the region must register at the municipality to live legally in Groningen. To do this you need to make an appointment with the municipality and take in evidence of a permanent address in Groningen and valid ID.
I am not an EU citizen and had to do a lot of investigation into visa matters for my Erasmus. I found the Intra-EU mobility program and through this agreement my student permit in Finland could cover my stay in another EU country for study purposes for less than a year. This meant I did not have to apply for another student visa in The Netherlands, but instead register as an Intra-EU mobility student with Dutch immigration. This process usually runs smoothly, however I got caught up in the backlog issues that Migri had during summer 2019 and had to leave for my exchange before my Finnish student permit extension had been processed. Rather than the usual 6 weeks, it took Migri nearly 5 months to process my permit extension. This caused a lot of stress and many emails between immigration departments and both universities. At one point I thought I would be deported back to Finland! Also, without my visa extension I could not open a bank account or register with the municipality. Although Migri issues are (hopefully) unlikely to happen again, it’s just a reminder that things do not always go to plan when on exchange.
The biggest annoyance with money is that Visa and Mastercard are not widely accepted in The Netherlands. Most stores only take Maestro cards and some stores only accept Dutch cards. This causes a headache for foreigners. Be prepared and see if your existing bank can offer a Maestro card for you to take. Otherwise, always carry cash on you to avoid the awkward situation of getting to the cash register, not being able to pay on your card and having to run to the ATM! However, some stores do not even take cash, so in these cases it is not possible to actually purchase anything!
The best thing is to set up a bank account in The Netherlands. This is very easy as long as you have registered with the municipality and have an address in The Netherlands. Information in English is available for each bank and foreigners have full access to all the online features, a luxury that is not available in Finland! Note- at the end of August and beginning of September appointments to set up bank accounts were booked out for up to 2 months.
Valid health insurance is obligatory when living in The Netherlands. There is a fine for not having health insurance if you are staying in the country for longer than 3 months. All non-EU students in Finland must purchase private health insurance to apply for a Finland student visa anyway and this covered me in The Netherlands. But I was sure to check this with my insurance provider and obtain confirmation in writing before I left. Health care is very expensive in The Netherlands, a basic 10min appointment with the GP costs over 50 euro! The downside with my insurance is that I must pay medical bills upfront then claim for a reimbursement which can take up to a month. I was sick during my exchange and had to see a specialist, the appointment was 200 euro upfront. This put stress on my finances until I got the money reimbursed by my insurance company. Make sure you have some savings for emergencies that could arise during your exchange. Some exchange students purchased Dutch health insurance to make sure they were adequately covered and not out-of-pocket. RUG sent details about different insurance policies and GP services they recommended. Be sure to register with a local GP clinic when you arrive as it can take some time to get an appointment if you are not registered.
Each student at RUG gets a student card to certify student status. It is also used for several things including identification during exams, gaining access to the University Library, using printers, and buying coffee from campus coffee machines! I was sent an email in August with instructions on how to upload a photo for the student card and given my RUG email address. Once you have uploaded your photo and are completely enrolled in your study programme, your student card will automatically be created. It takes approximately two weeks to print student cards and there is a massive backlog in August, I recommend uploading a photo before you leave so your card will be ready as soon as you arrive.
Overall, the bureaucracy processes at RUG were easy, and all services and information were offered in English. There are many international students in The Netherlands and as such processes have been streamlined to make it easier for everyone. I did not experience any of the same challenges that I had when I first arrived in Finland! A semester of exchange goes extremely quickly, and I had to deal with the unfortunate visa situation with Migri and a lot of bureaucracy being a non-Eu student. This took up a lot of time in the first two months and I got very behind in my studies and had little opportunity to explore the town during this time. If you have the funds and opportunity, then I would highly recommend going to The Netherlands a week or two earlier to explore the city and become orientated with the university campus. Also, to set up a bank account, register with the municipality and get a bike early to beat the influx of students who arrive in late August. That way you can be ready to fully dive into orientation events and start studies as soon as the semester begins.
Over the last few years, the housing crisis in Dutch university cities has been well publicised and I was well aware of this prior to my exchange. In Groningen in 2018, the crisis was at its worst and international students were sleeping in cars, tents, and large sporting halls for months before they either found a room or left the city. To ease the housing shortage, temporary accommodation of questionable standard has sprung up around Groningen. Most student rooms and houses are pretty small, and not up to the quality we are used to in Finland. It is also popular for students to live in converted shipping containers for around 550 euro a month. If you want to go to Groningen or The Netherlands in general, student housing is difficult to find and rather expensive compared to HOAS in Helsinki. It is important to factor this in when organising your exchange and make sure you arrange your accommodation VERY early.
There are two main housing options available for exchange students: renting through the private market or applying for a room through SSH a private student housing organisation (similar to HOAS). Finding a room in the private market is difficult and if you go down this route, I suggest you arrive in Groningen in June or July. It is important physically to be there, as when applying for a room in a share-house the other tenants usually hold interviews to see if you will be a good fit. By August most of the rooms are already full and around 40 students compete at ‘group interviews’ for a single, small, overpriced room. I know many students who arrived without arranging housing prior, they struggled to find accommodation and had to sleep on friends floors all semester.
Applying for a room with SSH is the second option and the option I took. The application process for SSH housing was in April. I had to be on the website at exactly the time the application period opened to secure a room. So, research which building you want to stay in and have your banking details ready prior to the online application opening, as within 24hours all the SSH rooms were taken! There are numerous SSH buildings around Groningen, ranging from small houses of 30 students to eight storey buildings accommodating up to 200 students. There are shared and individual rooms available with shared kitchen and bathroom facilities. Prices range from 400-600 euros, including bills and some pretty terrible internet! RUG is also spread out across the city of Groningen with four main campus hubs. I recommend looking where most of your classes will be held and then see if there is SSH housing close by. Although Groningen is a small city, if you get housing south of the train station it can be a 30min journey by bike to class. The town centre is where the library and main building, cafes and pubs are located, but it can be very noisy at night. None of the SSH buildings are particularly nice or comfortable. Therefore, I chose my room based on location, proximity to the university and the type of student house. Being a second-year master’s student, I knew that I would have a heavy study load and did not want to be stuck in a party dorm with 18-year-old Bachelor students. I chose a building that catered for PhD and master’s students and I was very glad I did! I heard stories from other exchange students in different buildings, of people partying in the corridors outside bedrooms until 4-5am and others having to get up for 8am exams.
It is important to note- SSH housing contracts are per semester and start on the 1st of September for the Autumn semester. However, the orientation started on the 28th of August, so I had to book accommodation for three nights before I could move into my SSH room. Remember to book any extra accommodation extremely early! I booked an Airbnb in June for the extra nights and already there was barely any accommodation left in the city.
The SSH rooms available to exchange students are very basic and of poor quality compared to HOAS accommodation in Finland. However, I was very happy to have a roof over my head and a bed as so many other students did not. I had read a lot about the housing situation and been warned by other students, so I was prepared for the worst. My student house had three floors and around 25 people on each floor, sharing one kitchen and three showers. SSH were supposed to organise weekly cleaning of the common spaces, but this rarely happened so we organised our own kitchen cleaning roster. The showers were very disgusting, purchasing footwear for the shower is highly recommended!
My room was furnished with a bed, wardrobe, desk, and chair. The furniture was basic, and it looked rather like a prison cell when I arrived. I needed to bring my own bedding and towels. To save having to buy new things, I squished a pillow, sheets and covers in my suitcase from Finland, also beneficial as I had something to sleep on straight away. Although kitchens are shared, cooking utensils are not and each student needs to have their own plates, bowls, and cooking items. You can purchase these items at Ikea or Hema. Better still, there are many second-hand stores and Facebook groups that sell items for half as much or look on ‘Marktplaats’ (like tori.fi). Also, at the end of my exchange I made up a kitchen package of my things and sold it on Facebook to an incoming exchange student.
Some other highlights of my ‘lovely’ SSH accommodation included: mould in the showers, rats in the kitchen, asbestos removal in my room, constant renovations starting at 7am, an African church group singing at 7am each Sunday morning and living on the floor above a mental health facility. But this all makes for an interesting and colourful experience and provided ample material for funny stories! One thing I got very familiar with on my exchange is taking the good with the bad! I loved being so close to the university, which is a luxury I do not have in Helsinki. My house was a 7min ride from Zernike campus which meant I could roll out of bed at 8:30am and make it on time for a 9am lecture! I was a 5min ride from the gym and sports centre, so found it easy to exercise and there was also a shopping centre a 5min walk away. I had everything I needed within easy distance and this was extremely convenient.
I made good friends with so many interesting PhD students from all over the world and some masters students from Italy and Russia. I really enjoyed the communal atmosphere and having people around each evening to enjoy dinner with. Sharing a kitchen was also nice, as you could chat while cooking and get new international recipe ideas. Each Sunday we had international dinners, where someone would cook a dish from their country. Living with such a diverse group of students, I enjoyed beautiful homecooked Italian pastas, Spanish omelettes, Costa Rican soups, Chinese dumplings, and Russian salads. However, this type of food sharing always poses a problem when you come from an immigration nation like Australia, as there is no such thing as a traditional ‘Australian dish!’’ Luckily, my housemate in Helsinki taught me to cook salmon soup and another friend had given me some rye bread as a going away present, so I knocked together something Finnish instead!
Studying and Teaching
The teaching timetable at RUG consists of two semesters a year and each is divided into two periods, like the University of Helsinki. However, the semesters do not line up between the two universities. For example, the semester 1b period did not finish until the end of January, so if you’re on exchange in the autumn (semester 1) you will miss at least 3 weeks of classes at the start of the UH Spring semester. This is important to consider, I planned and asked for online material catch up work and homework from my UH classes which started in Spring. But this did make the final 3 weeks in Groningen chaotic as I had final RUG exams and study for classes beginning at UH! In the Faculty of Spatial Sciences, all incoming exchange students are required to take the course Spatial Problems and Spatial Policies (10ECTs). For my other classes I took tourism, participatory planning, and environmental psychology. The tourism class was held in the neighbouring city of Leeuwarden about a 50min train ride away. I liked going there each Thursday and it gave me the chance to explore another city and the campus was a lot quieter for studying.
The education environment at RUG is extremely strict and rather traditional, this was a massive shock after studying in Helsinki. I would have to say I found the stringent rules of the university rather frustrating, I felt like I had no freedom or flexibility in my learning. The door of the lecture/ tutorial room would be shut precisely at the time the lesson started and if a student was even a minute late to class, they could not enter the lecture/class until the first break up to an hour later. In every course I took attendance was 80% to pass and a doctor’s certificate was required if you were absent. I felt more of a number than part of a student group. Teachers were not interested in giving individual help or feedback. Even as master’s students we were treated like high school students and this was very frustrating for me.
I found some lecturers rather condescending to students. Class discussions or debates did not exist, just teaching and listening. I really missed the intellectual conversations and the breadth of knowledge offered by students from different backgrounds and life experience in my master’s program at UH. The content in Spatial Problems and Spatial Policies was extremely basic, however there were many contact hours. While it was nice getting a rounded education on topics relating to Dutch planning, it could have been condensed into half the time. This class also included field trips in which we were shown interesting examples of planning techniques in practice. However, the field trips took up three full Saturdays! Listening to the professor talk constantly for 8 hours on a Saturday, after having 10 contact hours for that class during the week, got very monotonous and I was glad to have my weekends back!
When exam weeks came around, a wave of stress washed over Groningen! Students rushing here and there. The libraries became completely full and to get a seat to study required joining the line outside prior to opening time at 7am. Exams were conducted on computers in a big hall seating around 200 students. Exams were 2 or 3 hours long and started as early as 7:30am and ran late into the night. I had one exam that finished at 11pm!
The marking system in The Netherlands is out of 10. There is a saying that 10/10 is for god and 9/10 is for a professor. So, the top mark a student can achieve is an 8 and a 5.5 is required to pass. Dutch students are very good at following exact criteria to the point, obviously their whole schooling prepares them. They are not fussed on receiving top grades and lead active social lives and engage in many sporting pursuits. Most students receive grades of 6-7/10, but a lot of study is required to achieve this in most classes. Assignments were submitted via an online portal and if it was one minute over the deadline, a whole grade out of 10 was lost. In my exchange class we all failed our first assignment and many students were in tears as they had never failed an assignment before. It was very disheartening and counterproductive as it created an environment of stress and anxiety amongst the exchange students. One Erasmus student was asked to leave early as their academic level was not up to Dutch standards!
Marking of assessments seemed arbitrary and highly subjective based on the preference of each individual teacher. I felt that teachers did not even read the actual content of the essay and instead focused on formatting and referencing. Creativity or different approaches to a task or learning were not encouraged and the traditional academic essay or exam was favoured. There were so many essays! In the 4.5 months I wrote 7 essays. It was extremely boring to write so many individual essays of the same format and I became really tired of writing. It would have been nice to have some group work to get to know other students, but this did not happen. Also, any feedback was often perceived as criticism, so I quickly learnt the best way to get through RUG studies was to just keep my head down, do the work and focus on the more pleasant things outside of the teaching environment.
Overall, the learning experience at RUG was a little disappointing for me and not the type of learning environment that I think is beneficial at a master’s level. However, I had to try and let go of this and focus on the positives of Groningen: the beautiful city, my new friends, food, bikes, and travel. It made me appreciate the learning environment at Helsinki and how we are treated as adults, have flexibility in our learning and encouraged to think outside the box. I think the style of teaching at UH is much more suited to teaching the skills and knowledge required for a master’s degree. However, my experience with studies at RUG was useful to help me reflect and gain a better understanding of what works for me. It ultimately made me thankful I had chosen UH to complete my master’s program.
Useful tips/information for future exchange students
Although the learning experience at the university was not really what I expected, I still enjoyed many other elements of my exchange. I really loved living in The Netherlands and particularly in the student city of Groningen. I found The Netherlands culture and way of life similar to Australia, so I did not really experience the same kind of culture shock as I did when I first arrived in Helsinki! It was easy to fit into the ebbs and flows of city life in Groningen. The city itself is stunning, very safe, easy to ride around and full of activities. I would live there again and if you are going on exchange to a different city in The Netherlands then I would highly recommend a weekend trip to Groningen.
I enjoyed being in the epicentre of Europe, so close to many countries and during my exchange I travelled to neighbouring Belgium and Germany. I also went to Austria for a friend’s wedding and spent a week in the UK with family friends over the Christmas break. It was very easy to travel cheaply throughout The Netherlands. Flixbus offers cheap bus services and student discounts, making it easy to travel into Germany and Belgium. The NS (Dutch Rail) has various promotions and discounts, including a 10euro train trip from one end of the country to the other or 19 euro passes for unlimited travel in a single day.
The Netherlands is a beautiful country with many unique towns to explore. I rode around the country towns, there is absolutely nothing in them except houses and a very small store (take food with you!). But they are fringed by beautiful windmills, small farms, waterways, and boats. A highlight for me was when my Dutch friend came to visit and said she was impressed by my bike riding skills! With all the travelling and seeing friends, plus the Christmas break and three Saturday field trips, I found I rarely had a weekend free.
Foodwise, the first thing I missed was Unicafe! Dutch students take a loaf of bread and a slice of cheese and meat to make sandwiches at the university. There are cafeterias to purchase food, but with a small bowl of soup costing the same price as Unicafe, it was not worth eating at them! Living so close to campus, I often rode home for lunch. While the food on campus was average, the food around the city definitely was not! Groningen is an absolute foodie paradise hosting small cute cafes and restaurant with food from all over the world. Food to satisfy every taste is available and restaurants are not expensive which meant students can dine out. I had weekly dinners with friends, trying out all the restaurants in town. I loved being back in a dining out and café culture, something I dearly miss when living in Helsinki.
My favourite thing to do on Saturdays was visit the Vismarkt when the square is filled with vegetable, fruit, cheese, and fish market stands. The best time to go is around 30min before closing time when you can snap up lots of cheap deals! A bag of avocados for 2euro?! Yes Please! In December, squares transform into Christmas markets with traditional Christmas food.
I would have to say the best thing about my life in Groningen was being able to cycle everywhere. I have never experienced such freedom before. Being able to just jump on a bike and not be restricted by limited public transport or stuck in traffic jams. It was amazing and each time I was on my bike I felt an air of happiness. In summary, there are always positive and negative parts of any experience and we must endure the hard times to appreciate the good times. Overall, I loved the living environment of The Netherlands and I am currently exploring work and PhD options there after I graduate. While there were some elements of the university I did not enjoy, these challenges make us grow and I believe it is always good to push our own boundaries and explore being outside our comfort zone. Variety is the spice of life and experiencing different cultures, countries and environments also enables us to reflect and gain a better understanding of ourselves.