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Maastricht, a European city that builds bridges

The Sint Servaasbrug in Maastricht. Photo: Depositphotos publishes 10 articles on the 10 cities where most international residents live in the run-up to local elections in March. Part 7: Maastricht.

Maastricht is a city at a crossroads. On Dutch maps, the capital of Limburg sits at the bottom of a narrow peninsula, but in reality it’s a corner of a region of nearly four million people spread across three countries and five languages.

To the east are the former industrial towns of Kerkrade and Heerlen and the German city of Aachen. The Flemish towns of Hasselt and Genk lie to the west, while the French-speaking Liège lies across the southern border.

Maastricht is also at a turning point in its history. While the city’s population has remained more or less unchanged over the past 15 years, the number of students at Maastricht University has nearly doubled from 12,000 to 21,000. One in six city residents is a student or works at the university.

Around 55% of students are international, the highest proportion of any Dutch university, and around half of the bachelor’s programme, as well as a majority of master’s and doctoral courses, are taught in English.

The city has worked to encourage more international residents to participate in municipal elections. Mymaastricht, the information portal set up for international students, has all the details on how to vote on its website and the expat center for the region is hosting a three-hour debate in English with election candidates .

Other parties, including GroenLinks, D66 and PvdA, also published election material in English, while the pro-European Volt party, which is fielding candidates for the first time, translated the ballot (Stempas) and accompanying documentation.

Student housing

But accommodating thousands of students from around the world has become a major challenge for a city of 120,000 with one of the highest poverty rates outside the Randstad.

Last September, some 400 students contacted the town hall because they could not find a room. University president Rianne Letschert admitted the university had been surprised by the surge in demand as students returned to campus after the coronavirus pandemic.

55% of Maastricht University students are international. Photo: Kléon3 via Wikipedia

“We heard of students having to find a place to sleep in spare rooms every day,” she told 1Limburg. Other students said they were defrauded by fake landlords, giving them money for rooms that didn’t exist.

Cultural divide

But the problems are not just logistical, says Frans Bastiaens, an alderman of the city’s Senior Citizens’ Party (Seniorenstadspartij) whose portfolio includes social affairs and culture. “It is obvious that there is tension between the groups who have lived here for a long time and a large group of relatively young people – mainly students – with a different way of life.

“We need to build more campuses so that students can live their lifestyle and families living with their children can live theirs, and they can still meet in town.”

Bastiaens says culture is a way for communities to connect, through projects such as Malpertuis Neighborhood Opera, a collaboration between Opera Zuid and residents of Maastricht’s poorest neighborhood, Malpertuis, where the income level is lower. 35% below the city average. But there is still much to be done to solve the problems of housing, health and unemployment.

“There are suburbs where people feel excluded and left behind, where there are few shops and libraries or meeting places,” he says. “We need to take an integral approach to elevate these communities to a level where they no longer feel angry with the rest of the population.”

Social cohesion

“Social cohesion in this city is something in which we must really invest”, recognizes Thomas Gardien, candidate of D66. “It’s not like Leiden where there has been a university for 300 years. The older generation knew Maastricht before the university.

But Guardian, 25, says the council has contributed to the problem by capping the number of existing homes that can be converted into student accommodation at 120 units a year, under the so-called 40-40-40 rule.

He says a more diverse approach is needed to better integrate students into the city. “In Dutch we say onbekend maakt onbemind – the unknown is not loved. If we just invest in student housing and campuses, it will delegitimize other groups and lead to more discontent.

“The university holds the key to the future development of Maastricht. Without it, we are in a less beneficial place. But the municipality must absolutely invest in the construction of bridges.

‘No reason to stay’

Maastricht struggles to retain students: A recent study found that only 17% of Maastricht University alumni went to work in the city and seven out of 10 of those who left said a lack of internships or job information was among the reasons for moving elsewhere.

Houses in the center of Maastricht. Photo: mobilinchen via Depositphotos

“A lot of international students have a great experience living in this place, but there’s no reason for many of them to stay in the city,” says Volt candidate Jules Ortjens.

“The region Maastricht is part of is the size of the Randstad and has the same population as the Randstad, but we don’t treat it as an urban area. The train to Liège and Aix-la-Chapelle only runs once an hour. Our education systems are not connected. We therefore do not prepare our own inhabitants for the economic reality of our region.

“We constantly have to ask ourselves: do we want Maastricht to be on the outskirts of the Netherlands or do we want to be part of the beating heart of Europe?

Cross-border challenges

Bastiaens agrees that the city’s future lies in the Meuse-Rhine Euroregion, but forming cross-border partnerships is a challenge. “It’s really difficult language-wise,” he says. “Here, there are not enough people who speak French and the French-speakers on the Belgian side find it difficult to speak Dutch, so there is a difficulty.

“But when you add up the three countries, we have huge potential in terms of jobs and international opportunities, so we as Maastricht need to invest more in this collaboration.”

The city is currently led by a five-party coalition made up of the Christian Democrats (CDA), the Senior City Party, GroenLinks, the right-wing liberal VVD and D66. A sixth party, the Socialists, left council administration 18 months ago in protest against planned cuts to social services.

The cuts were imposed after a highly critical report by accountancy firm KPMG revealed the council had lost control of its youth care budget and needed to make up a shortfall of €6.4 million. But cutting services for the most vulnerable is a sore spot in a city where 8.2% of people are classified as living below or on the poverty line.

Tram delays

Opposition parties have also questioned a number of spending plans in recent years, such as a tram link to Hasselt in Belgium. The line, which was originally due to open in 2017, is eight years behind schedule and has been plagued with problems, such as the discovery that the trams are too heavy to cross a bridge near Maastricht main station.

Manon Fokke, leader of the Labor Party (PvdA) candidate list, said: “I am for international connections, but the tram does not even go to Maastricht station, and when you look at how much it will cost in next few years, you must be wondering why we don’t just have a bus connection instead.

“That’s the kind of stuff this election is about. Do we want to spend millions on a tram or should we pull the plug and fund social services or children’s play equipment? »

Fokke hopes the PvdA can add to its current three seats and participate in the next coalition. She says a change in leadership is needed, but does not rule out any of the current parties in power individually.

“We are not going to join the current coalition,” she said. “This combination is not working for the city. But it may well be that if a few current parties form a coalition with a few other parties, we will end up with a very different Maastricht.

Key information: to follow

This article was made possible through a donation from Stichting Democracy & Media.

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