Over the past decades, the Dutch government has gradually and consciously retreated from public education. State ownership of university buildings – often very old ones, some of them monuments – was transferred to the universities themselves. The state no longer provides grants to its students and, as in the rest of Europe, it hopes that the private sector will start funding more and more of its academic research.
Yet, on the morning of April 11th in Amsterdam the state was more present than ever before: in the form of police horses and officers in riot gear warding off a small group of students and teachers. In the meantime tired looking, ragged students were sitting on the Amsterdam cobblestones, in the drizzling rain, listening to a lecture on the history of the Medieval university. It was a bizarre image.
Months earlier the students had occupied two buildings, led marches involving thousands of sympathisers and turned the whole Dutch discourse on education on its head. In London fellow students at the London School of Economics and Goldsmiths followed their example.
How did it come to this? And what where these protests all about?
In the Netherlands the protesters turned against the so called “rendementsdenken”, a term that cannot be straightforwardly translated to “efficiency thinking”, because (like in French) the term “rendement” also has the meaning of “yield”. Higher education in the Netherlands was for many years funded by output; universities literally get paid per graduating student.
For a couple of years now the Ministry of Education is only paying for those students who graduate on time. If students choose to spend a couple of more years studying, or if they engage in time-consuming extra-curricular activities, their departments get nothing. And recently university managers went even further, and have by now expanded this model to whole programmes: studies such as Scandinavian languages or courses in logical analysis, so the reasoning went, attract too few students to earn their keep.
This system forces university teachers to either expel those students who have difficulties in their first year of studying, or gives teachers the incentive to grant their students ‘mercy grades’, letting them pass courses with low grades while they would be better off elsewhere or by giving the course another try.
At the same time, rules that guaranteed a certain democratic way of governing the university through student and teacher councils have steadily been dismantled since the ‘90s (democracy, as everybody knows, isn’t efficient). For years these reforms, systemic changes and new public management incentives were considered the inevitable fate of the university. At least until the autumn of 2014.
A turning point
That year the humanities faculty of the University of Amsterdam (UvA) received 25% less first year students than the year before, which created a gaping hole in its budget. The dean quickly produced a reform program: A ‘broad bachelor school’ would replace all individual humanities BA’s. No more BA’s in philosophy, history, art history or French. Just ‘humanities’.
Teachers and students were dumbstruck. Of course, they reasoned, you have to cut costs when you lose 25% of first year students, but how can you study more efficiently when your departments are effectively dissolved?
For five students in the department of philosophy it was absolutely inconceivable that the quality of their studies could be retained in the new plan, thus they launched a protest group called ‘Humanities Rally’ (with the slogan: “humanities, rally!”). Demanding that the humanities should be funded for their intrinsic value, not their profitability. Within a day their Facebook page had 2000 likes.
During autumn and winter, several protest marches were held, but they didn’t achieve a thing. Neither did a protest lecture night, which ended with the police kindly asking everybody to leave after 10 pm.
The restructuring plans went ahead. In response to the protests, the dean pointed towards the executive board of the university, saying they were the ones who decided how government money should be divided over the faculties. The executive board pointed towards the government and the minister pointed back to the university.
In a sense everybody was right. It was government policy to spend as much public money as possible on study programmes that benefit the economy and the private sector. Yet, the students of the Humanities Rally argued, it was fully within the executive powers of the board to divide the money differently – easing the government bias towards applied sciences and siphoning off some money to the humanities. By not engaging the students and teachers in a discussion about how money should be divided, they argued, the board refused to live up to its academic responsibility.
Back to the 60s
On February 13th a small group united under the new flag of ‘The New University’ and barricaded the enormous bronze doors of the humanities faculty. The dean was shut out, classes were suspended, although many professors showed up to give impromptu lectures and classes to the activists.
Students slept on improvised beds in the library. Over the days the impressive art deco façade of the faculty building was draped with banners demanding not only an end to the cuts, but also the re-installment of democracy at UvA. It was almost as if the restless ‘60s were back.
But is this realistic? People were starting to ask. Aren’t these students being too romantic?
But these concerns were quickly swept away by a big and unnecessary PR-blunder of the board of executives: the board went to court to get the students out, demanding 100.000 euros per student for every day each of them stayed after the judge ordered them to leave. Teachers were appalled by this excessive, out of touch demonstration of force and declared their solidarity. Days later riot police cleared the buildings of student occupiers. As the tired philosophy and history students – and one teacher – were dragged out of the building by big, muscled cops, other students and teachers cheered in the street, applauding their fellows.
“We’ve created a truly public space”
It could very well have been the end of all the protests, had not the chair of the executive board that night appeared on the Netherlands’ most prominent news show. Dr. Louise Gunning declared there that the protest movement represented ‘just a small group of students.’
This was taken as a challenge, by many students and professors. Early in the evening the next day more than a thousand students and teachers marched past the faculty of humanities, down the street to the seat of the executive board, the impressive neo-classical Maagdenhuis. After more than an hour of protest songs, speeches and shouting, angry students kicked in the doors. Over three hundred students poured into the atrium of the Maagdenhuis. To their genuine surprise they had now occupied a second building.
“Well, it’s not an actual occupation,” one of the students said six days later, “we call it an appropriation. We’ve created a truly public space.” It was early morning, in the alcoves and corners of the building students were slowly waking up. To their groggy surprise the headmaster of UvA, prof. dr. Van der Boom used the morning quiet to sneak up to her room to get some paperwork. Security guards were present in the “appropriated” building the whole time. Tulips set in empty beer bottles adorning their desks.
The students managed to hold the Maagdenhuis for an astonishing one and a half months. During that time the movement sprouted a teachers action group called ReThink:UvA, which in term spilled over to other Dutch universities. The students received visits from radical anthropologist David Graeber and philosopher Jacques Ranciere.
The police are coming
Tentatively, Humanties Rally, the New University and ReThink:UvA engaged the board into talks. They demanded more democracy and a decentralization of power and money. By early April the talks actually lead to the signing of an agreement, the board granting the activists most of their wishes and the activist promising to leave the building within a week.
And then, as happens so often with improvised protest movement, the radical wing balked. On local television one disgruntled, sleep deprived teacher declared that they indeed would leave the Maagdenhuis “only to start tougher, more aggressive actions.” Through emails and social media most activists distanced themselves from the statement.
But things were happening fast. And as so often with humiliated directors and managers, the executive board grabbed for the most decisive and violent tool it had at is disposal. They called in the riot police.
Early in the morning of Saturday, April 11th police batons went flying. The protestors had already cleared out the building when they saw buses of riot police coming up to them. Only the hard core set in front of the stoop, where they were dragged away and arrested.
They left a small group of protesters and sympathisers, huddled together on the square and a handful of teachers giving a lecture on the history of universities in the Middle Ages.
No minister, no MP…
Later that week a handful of the arrested protesters who refused to identify themselves to the police were put into illegal alien detention – because after all, who could identify whether they were Dutch citizens? This obvious bullying of students who stood up for the integrity of their university, coupled with excessive police violence during the clearing out of the Maagdenuis prompted the student and teachers’ councils to declare their no-confidence in the board.
The next Sunday, president of the board prof. Gunning resigned.
An uneasy calm has returned to UvA over the past months. The committees that should look into new possibilities of democratisation and decentralisation are slowly emerging and starting their research. The air of revolution seems to have disappeared.
One thing has been accomplished: nobody, no minister, no MP, no manager wants to be associated with ‘rendementsdenken’. What the concrete effects of this will be, is still unsure. But as with all forms of protests, the big change will be visible in the long run, when new phrases, new ways of speaking and thinking about the value of the university have become commonplace. The climate of renewed academic zeal has spawned one child for now: A group of students – not related to the activist movement – has launched an ‘Academy for Bildung’. I hear more and more students are signing up for it.