Thursday, October 30, 2014

Mission Impossible: Room in Utrecht

Next week is the week of the exams, and I would like to write my last blog before diving in the study.  Since last time I was writing about a subject relating to our studying here, today I would like to discuss about a feature of our life in Utrecht. Something basic: the HOUSING.

Maybe while you are planning to study for your master in Utrecht you imagine yourself sleeping somewhere, and you think of your future room as to one of the details that you’ll set up while organizing your trip in the few weeks before your departure or even once you are arrived. You should not. Finding a room in Utrecht is not a normal housing procedure: it’s a savage hunting in which only the most determined and resilient finally succeed. I will try to illustrate the question according to my personal experience and the ones of my friends in a few (I hope) useful points.

1) The price.
Utrecht is a city of 330.000 inhabitants with more than 60.000 students, and you need not to be an economist in order to understand that prices are going to float high. The lowest prices I’ve had news from real people, talking to me not being ghosts nor fairy dreams, are around 300 euros per month, and they are really few exceptions. The utmost limit is more hardly identifiable, but I know numerous students that pay around 600 per month and even more. I personally pay 430, and I would say that I am not far from the mean. So, to be true, these are probably the prices that you should expect. I know that Dutch students often pay less, but they have the advantage of living on place, and they can subscribe to some mysterious students’ associations with an year of advance, paying very low rents and living with only other Dutch students. But even if you have the chance to be in these waiting lists and to live in such apartments, if you are an international student I would not suggest you to do so (see point 10).

2) When to start looking for a room.
It is a hard question: if you start looking in March probably the room are not available yet, in July and August everybody is on holiday and they won’t answer to your e-mails, while in September it is too late and games are done. I would suggest to start looking as soon as possible, but not because any period is better than others: simply because by looking for a longer period you maximize your chances, and luck is indeed the most important element in your quest. I personally started looking for a room in May, and was not able to find one before the end of August. I would suggest in any case to arrive in Utrecht at least one week before the start of your courses, if you still have not a room (I kept looking for a room during the summer-school).

3) Short Stay Housing: SSH
The Short Stay is at first sight the easiest chance to get a room, since Utrecht University recommends it to you. Moving on time, it is actually easy to find a room with SSH, if you are ready to pay those prices. And while you pay 600 euros for your apartment, you should also remember that the Dutch student besides you, who booked one year in advance, is paying 200 euros less every month for the same house, because he/she received his/her apartment “unfurnished”. But of course, you literally live on campus, so if you can pay for it that can worth the price.

4) Kamernet.
The first option that internet suggests you in order to look for rooms is Kamernet. Whether Kamernet is a valuable instrument to look for rooms, it is hard to say. Personally, I had an account for two weeks, and I was sending around 30 e-mails without receiving one answer. But I heard from some people that they were sending 180 e-mails and received around 15 answers, so it must be a matter of proportions. But you should not rely too much on this website: you see a lot of attractive announcements but the problem is that people don’t remove their announcements even if they found someone, so the site is full of ghost announcements that continuously renovate themselves. Furthermore, the quest is so savage that landlords (I was talking with some of them) receive hundreds of messages and they only reply to people they like (see point 9). No matter if you decide whether to open or not an account on Kamernet, the only thing I want you to be aware is that after two weeks the account will renovate automatically, and you will be charged the fee without being asked: to avoid it you have to de-select the option somewhere in the settings of your account (I was advised like I’m now advising you).

5) So, where should I look?
I would say that the best resources are the free open groups: on facebook you can find a lot of them. In the summer 2014 I subscribed to the following groups: “I know a place…Utrecht”, “Find a room(mate) or house in Utrecht”, “Rooms/kamer/zimm in Utrecht”, “Housing Utrecht”, “Utrecht free adds”, “Utrecht international students”. Maybe when you will look for a room they won’t exist anymore, but for sure some others will be there. Just type “room” and “Utrecht” on facebook and you will find something. The self-organisation of students is always the best resource –and it was on one of these groups that I found a room for the period of the Summer-school. The problem of these groups is that you find a lot of announcements of people looking for rooms, and a few rooms offered –assaulted by crowds of comments and likes. But you should not be discouraged, and by following point 9 you can maximize your chances. There is also a very useful free group on google ( and it is actually there that I found the room where I am in this very moment.

6) How far should I look?
If you watch on googlemaps distances look quite bigger than they are, also because you have to assume that you will move by bike (and on the other hand times that googlemaps gives for bikes are quite trustable). I live in Tuindorp - Oost, in a street that looks quite far from the center and from the campus by the map, but indeed it takes me from 8 to 12 minutes to get to both, depending on my delay. You should imagine yourself biking in the morning under the rain to get to classes: I would say that 12 minutes is still an acceptable time –less would be better, I would maybe not recommend much more. If you live in Lombok, for instance, it can take from 15 to 20 minutes to get to the campus; but on the other hand you live closer to the center. It is a matter of choice. All I suggest is: don’t get scared by the map of the city when you look for a room –only check the distances in biking time on google.

7) To Zeist or not to Zeist.
If you choose to live in Zeist (a small city not far from Utrecht and not very very far from the Uithof) you can maybe find prices slightly lower than in Utrecht. Still, I strongly suggest you not to live there. It will take you at least 30 minutes by bike every morning to get to the campus, and 30 going back (the center is further). And most of the time it will be raining. You can take a bus, but busses are expensive –so your small advantage of price fades away. Furthermore you would maybe like to go out in the evening once in a while: you will have to bike in the dark, or to keep a constant look at the last bus in order to go back. And all your friends will propose you every times to sleep to their places, but you will never accept because the following morning you have to study. This is what happens with my friends who live in Zeist.

8) The market of personalities.
In Utrecht, competition for rooms is so high that landlords (or more often actual tenants) can afford themselves the luxury to select prospective tenants according to their personalities and their characters. So if you ask for a room, you will probably be invited for an individual meeting or for a “borrel” (a collective social meeting) where the actual tenants of the house choose from the aspiring flat-mates the ones they prefer to live with. This is something not even possible to imagine in other cities, for instance Rome, where there is a more balanced equilibrium between demand and supply and landlords are already happy enough if they can find a tenant that takes their rooms at the market price. But in Utrecht the situation is different, so you should prepare your smile and your better jokes and try to be the lucky one among the other room-hunters. But this is also an occasion to check if you actually like the room, and it is indeed always better to verify in person the apartment before paying the deposit and signing the contract. I was going to take a room in Lombok which seemed very nice from pictures, but once I saw the place I really could not fall in love with the house, even with all my experience of tent-sleeping and back-pack voyaging. On the other hand, when I was invited to meet my actual flatmates in an individual meeting, I really liked the house (which had the same price) and I really liked them (so these meeting are a good occasion for you as well to choose your future friends). They were meeting 13 students to find a flatmate, and apparently this was the first exam that I passed in Utrecht (and I hope not the last one). But I confess that I played dirty: by pushing on the Italian stereotype I claimed that I know how to make pizza and so defeated all the other competitors. And my claim is actually true, but I have had no occasion to demonstrate it so far. When it will happen, I’ll let you know.

9) Introduce yourself.
The problem is that if you are looking for rooms when you are in your home country you cannot even participate in such interviews or “borrels”. So what you should at least do is to write a very detailed and convincing presentation of yourself, to add in the mails you send on your posts on facebook, together with some nice pictures of yourself. This is always because of the fierce competition around the few available rooms, so you have to convince your future landlords or flat-mates. You don’t need to do anything more than being honest: describe yourself, your philosophy and interests, what you would like from a room or from your flat-mates. It is really worth spending some time on it, I was sending tonnes of standard and neutral e-mails asking for rooms (used as I was to roman standards), and I only started to receive answers when I added pictures and detailed “nice” presentations.

10) The company.
You will probably experience a long and severe winter during your master in Utrecht, so your flat-mates are presumably the people you are going to meet the most, together with your master fellows –you will probably spend time with them all the evenings that you don’t feel like struggling with the wind and the rain in order to meet someone else. So I would say that they are one of the main variables in your quest. I actually chose my present room mainly for my flat-mates (I send them a hug if they are reading! –Chay should still clean the kitchen) and I’m really happy on that side. We are three, around the same age, one English guy, one Dutch, and a spaghetti-eater (me). One thing I would suggest: Dutch students are generally really foreign friendly, but still I would not live in a flat where you are the only foreigner with other 9 Dutch students, especially if they are particularly young. I experienced that during the summer-course, and it was not easy at all to integrate. Furthermore, I had stories from two different people who were asked to leave the dining rooms because some exclusive parties were held at which they were not invited (Dutch students can have mysterious fraternities that tend to have these kinds of approaches –something incomprehensible to my mentality).

I hope that these points will be somehow useful to you and I now definitely need to go studying!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Group Project

We are in the middle of the first period (two courses for each period, every period of around two months, for the Master in Economics of Public Policy and management and the tracks of International Economics and Business) and I would like to describe some of our work as master students. In particular, let's give a snapshot on our group project.

This is a project correlated -at least for EPPM students- with both courses of period 1 (Empirical Economics and Public Economics) and will end up in a paper to be evaluated, under different perspectives, in each of the two courses.

The interest of the project paper relies to the fact that it's a first occasion to experiment directly what it means to conduct a research in the field of Economics. On this regard, we were left as students with a high level of autonomy: once assigned the groups, any of them received only a general indication about its topic; the regard on which this was to be investigated and the direction we were to give to our research, was up to us.

In particular, my group (and I would like to mention the other three glorious components: Charlotte, Agniezska and Thomas), was assigned to update the work conducted by Goodin in 1999 and published in the book “The real worlds of welfare capitalism”. There Goodin was comparing, under numerous regards, the welfare states's performances of US, Netherlands and Germany from 1984 till 1994. Our initial task was to calculate the same indexes for the German welfare state during the following 15 years, to find out how the performances of its welfare system had been changing over time.

This would have been indeed an original and interesting result in itself. Problem was that, unfortunately, the aim of the research appeared to be too vast, while the data sets for the work (whose finding is in itself a considerable part of the research) revealed to be huge and not easy to find.

As a group, we then decided to focus on a particular aspect of the comparison conducted by Goodin: the category of autonomy, which relies on the extent welfare states are able to allow their citizens a freedom of choice in allocating time between work and leisure. It appeared that Goodin himself, in further works, was developing this category in the notion of post-productivism, an ideal conception of  the welfare state on which our professor of Public Economics, Groot Loek, has been working for a considerable time. Thanks to Loek we discovered that post-productivism is it-self related to the notion of decommodification, developed by Andersen.

By studying the scientific literature related to the two concepts (and the library of Utrecht University Library gives you access to a huge amount of online papers) we found out that it was all somehow relying over a non-seen, implicit, fundamental basic assumption. There we found our research question, and the sense of our work: we are going to verify this assumption, thanks to the empirical datas on OECD welfare states.

So, once done the theoretical definition of the research, we started with the empirical part: find out the datas, think of the variables we would need, look for as many as possible control variables traditionally associated with our questions... And then? We are still on that. But next step will be to actually run the regression, deal with eventual problems and finally discuss the results.

Anyway, the point in all this description is that from a given starting point, we had to look, think, analyze and reflect by ourselves. We were only given a general track, and deepening it we arrived somewhere else, and from there somewhere else, until we found a specific restrained field in which our work could have a little meaning in itself. And apparently, scientific research is told most of the time to be something like that. For us as students this is extremely useful, both to learn how to apply what we were learning during courses (and -especially for econometrics- it is indeed not easy to apply something already hard to understand), and to find out wether the work of research (in some of its various levels) should be fitting for us. To me, it looks really interesting, but I still don't know wether we will finally produce a good paper or not.

By the way we are not alone: our professor of Public Economics and our tutor of Empirical Economics are guiding and helping us, mainly giving returns and suggestions about the work or the hypothesis we are presenting them. We had our feedback meeting yesterday, and apparently, with some corrections, we can go on... so let's see if regressing the regressable will bring us something not to regret.