Amsterdam offers young undocumented workers chance at higher education

Undocumented youth are allowed to attend education in the Netherlands until they are eighteen years old. Those who apply for further study after that are not given a chance. Amsterdam has now laid down in the covenant ‘Access to higher education for Dutch undocumented youth’ that they can usually continue studying. Through a special route.

Suppose you were born in Amsterdam, but you do not have Dutch nationality. However, you did spend your entire educational career in the capital. Perhaps you stacked up, causing you study delay. In any case, you want to continue studying after secondary school to learn a trade. But without a residence permit, that route is cut off after you turn 18. Anna Lima Alves (20) came to the Netherlands with her parents from Brazil when she was 11. After language and head class, she moved on to vmbo. With some delay, though. She was just eighteen when she received her diploma and applied to ROC Amsterdam. Unfortunately. Had she been seventeen, she could have effortlessly gone on to the mbo and been allowed to finish her education. But eighteen is no longer an age under the law for undocumented people to start a new study. Anna faced a dilemma: She wanted to continue her education, but how?

Just as Amsterdam

Amsterdam has many Anna’s, as do the three other major cities in the Netherlands. Despite being fully Dutchified, they hardly have any rights. Anna decided to do havo on the advice of her compassionate teachers. After that, she wanted to study nursing at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam. That route also seemed closed. But she didn’t leave it at that. She scoured the Internet and asked everyone she knew for advice. Through a lawyer, she came across the ASKV een vluchtelingenorganisatie which also cares about undocumented people. And there was an employee there who went all the way.

The Hogeschool van Amsterdam (HvA) also found that niche. Director of Student Affairs Marjolijn Kaak built a close relationship with the ASKV employee, she says with a laugh. ‘The HvA had received requests like this before. At first, you think: we can’t do anything. But of course that is not an acceptable answer for such a prospective student, and not really for me either. Anna came here at a young age. A girl I helped last year was born here. To me, these are children who are just as Amsterdam-like as my own.’ With the vast differences in which children grow up, she struggles by default, so it was natural for her to work on this.

The study visa for foreign students offered a solution. Anna could apply for it, but had to pick it up herself at the Dutch embassy in Brazil. “That didn’t get her there,” Kaak says. A student from a country outside the EU must pay a high fee for the program. The annual so-called institutional tuition fee is already over 10,000 euros. ‘So a four-year study can cost as much as 40,000 euros, not including books, laptop and excursions,’ Kaak says. ‘Undocumented people are often not the wealthiest Amsterdam residents and they cannot apply for a scholarship, so that was a problem.’


Amsterdam has many Anna’s, as do the other three major cities in the Netherlands: despite being fully Dutchified, they have hardly any rights

Legal in the Netherlands

The ASKV employee had an answer to that, too. She helped Anna set up a crowdfunding campaign. That raised 12,000 euros, enough to get started. She also received help from theTesselschade Studiefonds. During the first two years of study, this fund pays for her books. From the third year of study, the study fund takes over the annual tuition. ‘According to the current Higher Education Act, as an educational institution you are allowed to deviate from the institutional tuition fee,’ Kaak explained. ‘So I motivated my board to do this in the case of undocumented students.’ Anna now pays not 10,000 euros in institutional tuition fees, but more than 2,000 euros in statutory tuition fees per year, like all Dutch students.

She is now in her second year of college. Anna is also managing financially. ‘Since I was fourteen I have been babysitting for families, which brings in money. And I now have a part-time job in a nursing home. Here I help the demented elderly with food and other things. I still live with my mother, so I can manage financially. And thanks to the study visa I am now legally in the Netherlands. That feels really good.

Undocumented education too

Amsterdam’s alderman for Social Affairs, Diversity and Democratization, Rutger Groot Wassink, like Kaak, sees the group of undocumented people in his municipality as “ordinary Amsterdammers. He was inspired to do something for the younger undocumented through a project at the Haagse Hogeschool, which had been working on educational opportunities for this group for some time. A memorable debate at Pakhuis de Zwijger entitled “Exploitation-Free City” gave impetus to the idea of entering into a covenant with Amsterdam educational institutions. This should ensure that undocumented young people are able to receive education after the age of eighteen. Forerunner HvA, the Free University, the University of Amsterdam, Hogeschool Inholland and the Amsterdam Hogeschool voor de Kunsten want to start helping with obtaining a study permit or see if they can offer customized services through a form of contract education. The municipality also wants to arrange an alternative form of study financing for these students.

The covenant was signed in March of this year. ‘It is mainly a declaration of intent,’ Kaak says. But it is also a safeguarding of the pathway for undocumented students. ‘It no longer depends on coincidences now.’ Groot Wassink emphasizes that this does not solve the problem of illegality. ‘It may well be that once you have the diploma, you can also get a work permit. Then, in a sense, you also have a status in the Netherlands that you didn’t have before. But even if you go back, of course, it’s always better with a diploma. That’s what’s so great about this.

Unsafe countries

The covenant has not yet tackled all the problems, Kaak says. ‘We would like to see these students no longer have to go to their country of origin to pick up their study visa at the Dutch embassy. Not only because of the cost but also because of security. You cannot ask a young person from the country of origin Afghanistan to travel to Kabul, and there are more high-risk countries like that. We are now looking at how we can lobby politicians in The Hague on this. As another dilemma, she mentions the Language and Accessibility Bill, which is now being debated in the Senate. ‘Currently, the Higher Education Act allows us to deviate from the institutional tuition fee. That new law prohibits this. We’ll have to see how this plays out.’

As Amsterdam, we think it is important to show that we consider our undocumented migrants as residents of our city, whom we try to support as best we can

For now, the parties involved are happy with the covenant. ‘In the Netherlands, you see the discussion flaring up again about criminalizing illegality,’ says Groot Wassink. ‘That’s why as Amsterdam we think it’s important to show that we regard our undocumented migrants as residents of our city, whom we try to support as best we can. In a way, we are trying to give them a face and improve their position, because it is dire enough. That’s what we aim to do with this. And trying to tilt the discourse of discussion about undocumented people.’

Burden off the shoulders

From this same idealism, Kaak looks at current developments. ‘I still think that these children should be granted a general pardon, but it hasn’t worked out yet. I have to follow the rules within education, but I can push the boundaries. It’s nice for Anna that she can now legally study here.’

And Anna herself? ‘It’s like a heavy burden has fallen off my shoulders,’ she says. ‘Before, I was always afraid of the police. Like I’m a criminal. It’s quite a relief that I can now show papers. The covenant is a good thing for all those other young people who are in the same situation as I was. I know plenty of them who went back to their country of origin after they turned 18 because there was no other option. Anna is now letting her dreams run wild. ‘I would like to stay in the Netherlands, but not all my life. First I want to work here for a few years. If I work for five years, I can apply for a Dutch passport. After that, I want to explore other European countries.’

Universities also reduce tuition fees

Refugees from Ukraine who want to study at Nederlandse universities will also start paying regular tuition fees in the new school year. This was decided by the fourteen universities in mid-May. Students from non-EU countries usually pay the institutional tuition fee each year, which is many times higher. The universities also ask the Dutch government to make provisions to cover tuition and related study costs, such as reimbursement of textbooks, travel expenses and preparatory courses. Currently, Ukrainian students can still receive emergency aid from their university if they are in financial distress.


Photo: Anna Lima Alves

This article previously appeared on op Kennisplatform Inclusief Samenleven (KIS) (June 13, 2022).