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“Without the university we would still be a sleepy provincial town”

“Without the university we would still be a sleepy provincial town”

Photographer:Fotograaf: archive municipality

Nine questions from the university community for alderman Bert Jongen

MAASTRICHT. Flags along the boulevard and along the Kennedy Bridge to welcome the new students during Inkom or Open Days? Just like with Tefaf. No, there won't be any flags. And the names ‘Maastricht University’ or ‘university city’ on the signs at the city borders? “I think that is a very creative idea, I'll think about that,” says alderman Bert Jongen (D66).

What does the city of Maastricht do for its university? With that theme in mind and nine questions coming from staff and students, Observant went to the city hall for an interview with alderman Bert Jongen. His portfolio includes culture, education, youth care, health and Student and City.

We increasingly hear that Maastricht students wouldn't be citizens of the city, but transients. Why this distinction?

“I don't make that distinction, everyone who lives in Maastricht, is a 'Maastrichtenaar'. I often say jokingly during discussions with hard-core 'Sjengen': it's okay with you that Maastricht is a student city, but preferably without the students. But without the university we would still be a sleepy provincial town. Now we have a place on the map, internationally.

I don't part-take in the discussions of them and us. I'm not trivialising the trouble that is being experienced, we have to deal with that, but the definition of trouble in our city is too often student trouble. How do you know it is students creating a ruckus at night-time? There are also adolescents or hardworking people from Maastricht who misbehave every now and then. People often ask me: what if you lived in a street with students? Well, I do live in such a street. I have five of them living to the left; to my right in the street there are seven. When they have a party that causes a nuisance, I ring the bell and ask if they could be little quieter. My request is always honoured. I often find a note in my letterbox to say that a party has been planned. That is how you deal with each other. We need to talk to each other more.”

The city council has an annual budget of € 150,000 for Student and City. There are university cities that spend many times this amount. Is Maastricht going to follow this example?

“That assumption is incorrect. The € 150,000 is only for the Student and City project, which aims to interconnect students and city. By the way, I don't like this name; it is as if there is a distinction between the two. I propose that we change the name after the city council elections into Student City.  But aside from that, we also allocate funds to cultural events aimed at students: things like the Muziekgieterij and the Lumière cinema. Or take the new bicycle parking facilities at the train station; that also benefits students.

Should the city council not have made student housing a priority much sooner? Did Maastricht not lean back and wait far too long and is that not the reason why we now face a potential shortage of rooms?

“It was and is a high priority for us. We base ourselves, just like all other university cities do, on estimations from Student Housing Knowledge Centre Kencis. We have been able to set our course on the basis of their data reasonably well until this year, even though it is difficult because this model doesn't include foreign students. And our university has a lot of those. My colleague Krabbendam has almost weekly discussions with the UM to try and solve this problem. We are working on a temporary housing solution - temporary meaning ten years in this case - and we are now thinking about Annadal or Randwijck.”

The connections (train, bus) with Brussels and Aachen are hopeless. What is the city council going to do about this?

“We are constantly working on that. Our coalition is a strong advocate of a tram link with Hasselt. Since the introduction of the new timetable, there are buses to Aachen four times an hour and the train connection is going to change as well. The transfer time will be shorter. Brussels is still a cause for concern. The city council, provincial authorities and the university are working hard at that, but it takes two to tango. We are dependent on, among others, the Belgian railway.”

What role does the city council see itself having in the further expansion of higher education in this city?

“From a legal point of view, we are responsible for the accommodations for primary and secondary education, but not for higher education. But we don't say: that is all up to you. We are grateful that the UM has made such good use of the listed buildings in the city centre. We are happy to work together on the development of the Tapijn location and the further expansion in Randwijck. We really need each other, we have a common interest. At the same time, we feel it is important that both the UM and the local neighbourhoods have a say. Sometimes these are tough considerations. Look at the student quota for certain neighbourhoods. We would prefer if this was not necessary. Other university cities also struggle with student housing, we are all looking for the perfect solution. It's about the mix, we have to serve all groups in the city.”

What does the city council (and region) do to entice knowledge workers to stay?

“Let me start off with a profit warning. It is quite normal that students come to study here and afterwards return home to their own countries, cities or villages. I see them as ambassadors of our city. The fact remains, however, that we are working hard to keep knowledge workers in the city and region, among others, by the development of Brightlands, the Chemelot campus, and the Health and Smart Services campuses. We need a lot of highly educated workers there, but also craftsmen and semi- and unskilled workers. Economic growth in South Limburg is higher than in the rest of the country at the moment. The labour market is tight. At the same time, we are trying to make the city as attractive as possible, by offering cultural programmes, but also with the Expat Desk in Centre Céramique where anyone can go with queries. In this we are fairly unique. We are also the only city in the Netherlands that has a United World College.”

Does the city council look to other university cities for examples of ‘best practices’?

“These days the opposite is the case. The other cities come to see how things are in the youngest university city. It used to be because of PBL, now it is to see how we deal with such a large group of foreign students. Aside from that, we are a member of the 'Nederlands Netwerk Kennissteden' (Netherlands Network of Knowledge Cities) and exchange intensively.”

Why are there no welcome flags in the city during Open Days, like there are now during Tefaf? And why doesn't Maastricht literally roll out the red carpet on the station square, like Leiden does during the Open Days? The UM would also like a red carpet linking the faculty buildings in the city centre during the Open Days, to emphasise that all historical buildings are within walking distance of each other.

“The flags are a great idea, but we won't be doing it. It confirms the preconception that students form a separate group. Tefaf is an event, but why should we hang flags up for students? Why not then for other groups in the population? We want to treat students just like any other ‘ordinary’ citizens.  Besides there is also a practical objection: those flags would cost fifteen thousand euro each time you hang them up, I would rather spend that on other things for students.

The plan for a red carpet appeals to me, nice out-of-the-box thinking, but the practical objections are too great. It is dangerous, people trip over them. I do want to think about a red band, like I saw in Hannover. In that city you can make your own city walks by following the rote Faden. I would have to look into whether something like that would be allowed in our city.”

Why is the UM not mentioned on the Maastricht signs when you cross the city border? That would be promotion for the UM and the city.

“I find it a creative idea, I will think about that. Maybe this is something for the next coalition." This is a reference to the city council elections on 21 March 2018. Alderman Jongen calls on everyone to go and vote. “If you don't know who to vote for, fill in the stemwijzer.nl or mijnstem.nl in.”

 

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