Caoilfhinn Hegarty speaks to three university-goers about their experience of the pandemic in one of Irish student’s favourite destinations
"The most popular European destinations for Irish students are the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany", that’s according to Qualifax.ie, the national learner’s database for Ireland. It probably comes as no surprise to anyone who has been following the trends in Irish students' college applications that the Netherlands ranks so high in preference. Since 2017 there has been a marked increase in interest in studying in the lowlands country. The feeling is reciprocal, with groups of Dutch universities hosting events such as 'OMG We're Going Dutch' aimed specifically at attracting Irish college-goers. According to the European University Central Application Support Service (EUNiCAS), tickets for this event sold out for it’s December 2020 dates, prompting a second round of (online) talks in January of 2021 to cater for demands. As it stands, there are currently 1,200 Irish students enrolled in Dutch universities, with lower costs and entry requirements, as well as higher-ranking institutes, being the main pull-factors.
Unfortunately and inevitably the pandemic put the breaks on the plans for many people hoping to spend the 2020/2021 academic year in the Netherlands.
Clodagh Johnston’s original hope for the year "was to study English Literature in the University of Amsterdam for the Spring Semester". She says that "Getting the email to say that the University of Amsterdam were canceling their exchange students placements, while an email I expected, was still a roundhouse kick to my emotions. So much had already been canceled and altered due to Covid and having Erasmus canceled was this final event that cemented in my mind that I was never truly going to get the full college experience I'd been promised. Even when we're 'back', I can't re-apply, I just have to move on and hope it was all for the best".
Johnston is quick to add "that UCD were very helpful and offered other spots in other universities that hadn't been filled, but I figured they were going to be canceled so I declined", before continuing that "It's safe to say that seeing that some of those placements weren't canceled and watching people currently on Erasmus, going out and doing Erasmus things, sucks. I can't think of a more eloquent way to sum up my emotions than saying that it sucks that the college experience as I knew it, and was promised it to be, no longer exists and cannot be reclaimed".
For those who did manage to make the move, the experience is not quite what they’d envisioned. However, these students have a unique perspective on the Coronavirus pandemic both at home and abroad.
Ugochi Enyoazu, Patience Jumbo, and Niall Torris are all young Irish people attending universities in the Netherlands, and all three have had the opportunity of experiencing the reaction of two different governments to an unprecedented global health crisis. Until last Autumn, when the Dutch government began to take more intense health measures, the Netherlands and Ireland had diverged quite widely in their handling of the virus. When Jumbo’s plane touched down in the Netherlands last August she remembers that "I thought there was no pandemic". She was "shocked because no one was wearing masks" and "when I went into the shops no one was social distancing". In a televised address on the 16th of March last year, just as COVID-19 was beginning to rear its head in Europe, the then Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte declared that "The Netherlands is an open country" which would be taking the approach of pursuing 'population immunity’ by allowing the virus to spread in a controlled manner. Ireland had already entered its first lockdown the week prior to Rutte’s statement.
Ugochi Enyoazu had "always wanted to go abroad". A student of International and European Law, she first arrived in the Netherlands last August to commence a full degree at the University of Groningen. Having just spent the Summer of 2020 at home in Ireland, she found the Dutch approach to the virus, when she initially arrived, to be an adjustment. "The Dutch government really didn’t want to go into lockdown" she recalls, "so they came up with this idea of the ‘partial lockdown’" which involved "almost all the elements of [a] lockdown" but kept most retail open. "It was like normal life" she says, "It was really weird". In particular, she notes how different the attitude to masking up was; "the Dutch government said that you’re not supposed to wear a mask and that if you [did] it [meant] you had Covid". Niall Torris, a Masters student in Clinical Psychology, is also attending the University of Groningen. Of the three, he is the only one to have spent time living in the Netherlands prior to the pandemic. As he observed it, the debate over mask-wearing was "as to whether or not the masks were of material benefit". He notes that, in his experience, Dutch citizens are more likely to respect the reasoning for measures if they are explained clearly. His case in point is the anti-curfew riots which took place in late January in several Dutch cities after a 9 pm to 4.30 am curfew was initiated. Torris agreed, when asked by The University Observer, that he had found the riots alarming but made the point that when mask-wearing was made mandatory in the Netherlands last December to cope with rising numbers, it was "explained really well (..), and they waited until they had good evidence before they asked people to do it", whereas with the curfew it was "very different" and "there were kinda these vague notions about why people were not being able to be out (...) a lot of the reasoning behind it seemed to be based more in vagaries". When describing the riots, Enyoazu mentioned that she had noticed a generational skew in terms of participants towards older age groups, which she understands as being due to the fact that "it reminded them of the wartime". Indeed Mark Rutte had himself made a point of saying last March that measures prompted by the virus were "unprecedented in peacetime". These comments highlight the vastly different social context to lockdowns that exist in the Netherlands as opposed to the historically neutral Irish state.
When Jumbo’s plane touched down in the Netherlands last August she remembers that ‘I thought there was no pandemic’
Despite the unrest, the students view the positives of living in the Netherlands to be outweighing any negatives. Jumbo explains that she did not meet the requirements to study Social Work in Ireland as "Trinity wouldn’t accept a PLC course" to get onto the programme she wanted. Her current university in Nijmegen not only accepted her qualifications, but was a cheaper option than the UK. Torris also cites vastly cheaper fees and cost of living as big factors, as well as a more accessible programme: "Normally you do a masters in Psychological Science or Applied Psychology and then you would move towards Clinical Psychology as a specialisation", but this was not a necessity in the University of Groningen, allowing him to "get on that path a little bit earlier". Enyoazu points out that the law course in Groningen is "one of the best". Despite the added complications and frustrations to living abroad, along with the restrictions to their college experience, the attitude of these three young Irish people is summed up by Jumbo, who states with certainty "I don’t regret moving".