Dutch student protests ignite movement for the democratisation of universities

An edited version of the following piece appeared in The Guardian on 17th March 2015 with the title “Dutch student protests ignite movement against management of universities”. For other pieces in the Guardian see my contributor profile.

Protesters outside the University of Amsterdam on 25th February 2015. Photograph: © 2015 Wimer Hazenberg/flickr.com/photos/monokai

Protesters outside the University of Amsterdam on 25th February 2015.
Photograph: © 2015 Wimer Hazenberg / flickr.com/photos/monokai

On 24th February 2015, mounted police, live television crews, protestors and crowds of onlookers surrounded a building called the Bungehuis, a six storey art deco style construction that currently houses the University of Amsterdam’s humanities faculty, and which is scheduled to be converted into a luxury hotel and spa complex as part of an international chain of private members’ clubs called Soho House.

Eleven days earlier dozens of students had occupied the Bungehuis in response to a programme of sweeping changes that the university’s administration was apparently unwilling to discuss. The students’ demands for a “New University” included greater democratisation of university governance, greater transparency of the university’s finances, halting plans to restructure and cut a number of departments, a referendum on plans for departmental mergers with other universities, better conditions and protections for temporary staff, and an end to risky financial and property speculation with university funds.

The pretext for the cuts and structural changes being opposed is an unprecedented crisis in the university’s finances – including a deficit rumoured to be up to twelve or thirteen million euros, according to one professor’s letter to his colleagues. While only a small handful of senior managerial staff are privy to the current state of the university’s finances, the crisis is alleged to have been immediately precipitated by a combination of risky speculation and unaccountable financial mismanagement.

The university board of directors responded to the Bungehuis protest by initiating a lawsuit against the occupying students seeking a fine of €100,000 per student per day. This prompted an open letter from hundreds of academic staff and a petition signed by over 7,000 people – including internationally renowned scholars such as Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, David Graeber, David Harvey, Axel Honneth and Saskia Sassen – urging the board to reconsider their legal and financial threats, and expressing sympathy for the students’ demands for democratic accountability and their challenge to the “ongoing financialization and managerialism that is increasingly coming to dominate academic life”.

The day after the police successfully evicted several dozen protesters from the Bungehuis, a mass rally of “well over a thousand” students (according to one national broadcaster) took place in the heart of Amsterdam, challenging the university board’s assertion that it was only small and unrepresentative minority of the student population who opposed the plans. The rally culminated in the “reappropriation” of the Maagdenhuis, the university’s main administrative building, as security guards capitulated to a groundswell of protesters who have subsequently hosted a busy fortnight’s worth of public talks, debates, screenings, performances, exhibitions and international guest speakers amongst the tropical foliage of the eighteenth century former orphanage’s lobby.

In a live televised discussion with Amsterdam’s mayor Eberhard van der Laan in the Maagdenhuis on evening of the occupation, students urged him to use his influence to ask the university board to take concrete steps to listen to them, to increase the transparency and accountability of university decision-making processes, and to pause and reconsider their programme of restructuring, cuts and sell-offs. Donning an eye patch and briskly swigging from a bottle of water, the mayor talked with the protesters into the wee hours and ultimately failed to convince them to vacate the premises and to express their views through an officially organised consultative event, which the students argued would be disregarded just as their previous requests for serious dialogue had been ignored.

David Graeber speaking to students occupying the Maagdenhuis, the University of Amsterdam’s main administrative building. Photograph: Guido van Nispen

David Graeber speaking to students occupying the Maagdenhuis, the University of Amsterdam’s main administrative building. Photograph: Guido van Nispen on Flickr.

Public support for the Maagdenhuis protest and the nascent New University movement appears to be high. The Dutch education minister says the protesters “have a point”. National newspapers and broadcasters across the political spectrum have given them sympathetic columns and coverage. Numerous political parties and trade unions have expressed their backing. City residents and local organisations have contributed food and blankets for those who are remaining in the building overnight. No doubt part of the reason the reappropriation of the Maagdenhuis is eliciting such a widespread positive response is due to the lasting memory of student protests in the same building in 1969, which led to legislative changes giving students and staff a much greater say in how their universities were run.

Professor Rob Hagendijk, a social scientist who recently retired from the University of Amsterdam, argued that there are many parallels between protests in the 1960s and today: “The year before the occupation in 1969 there were several reports about the reform of universities, arguing that they should follow a more business-like model with stronger centralised management and that universities should be more functionalised for the economy. If you look at universities now, all of these years later, you can see that this way of structuring universities has effectively been introduced. At the time these reports came out the students were very concerned and demanded greater democratisation and participation for the students in decision-making in the university as a counter to the plans the government had.”

Student protests in Amsterdam and other Dutch universities in 1969 gave rise to the 1970 “University Governance Reorganisation Act” which established a much stronger level of student and staff representation in university governance as well as greater democratic oversight and control of university finances. In Professor Hagendijk’s view these democratic safeguards helped to stave off some of the worst excesses of new public management style reforms driven by increasing efficiency, marketisation and stronger top-down management until the mid–1990s, when the University Governance Reorganisation Act was scrapped. He suggests that part of the reason the current student protests are gaining traction more broadly in Dutch society is because they are rejecting and calling for alternatives to market-orientated managerial changes that have taken hold in many areas of life and work, including in hospitals, housing corporations, schools and colleges. But though there is an awareness of historical parallels, today’s students are seeking new alternative models for how universities might be run in the future, rather than looking nostalgically back to the past.

While the University of Amsterdam’s protesters’ demands are far from being met, last week the executive board issued a list of “ten starting points” on transparency and democratisation which is being cautiously cautiously welcomed as a “U-turn” by ReThink UvA, a group of 600 university staff members who support the protest. The protesters are now preparing for “a battle over detail” to ensure that their biggest concerns are not eclipsed in forthcoming negotiations, as well as developing proposals for alternative arrangements that will be discussed both within the university and the education ministry.

The New University movement looks like it could become a national phenomenon in the Netherlands. The energy and momentum of the Amsterdam protests has provided inspiration for similar groups being established in Delft, Groningen, Leiden, Nijmegen, Rotterdam, Tilburg and Utrecht. Students, teachers and university researchers across the country are expressing support for the protests, and discussing ways to challenge the kinds of market-driven reforms that have been so aggressively pursued in the UK, and to develop alternative visions of the role of universities in society. One newspaper argued that the occupation reflects “the great ideological struggle of our time”. Another columnist wrote that the protests could represent “an important turning point” leading to a break with “protracted political apathy and democratic fatigue”.

In the coming days the protestors at the University of Amsterdam need all of the international support they can muster as they prepare for negotiations. If you want to back their cause you can sign and share their petition, help them to gather public statements of support, like them on Facebook or follow the @hetMaagdenhuis or @RethinkUvA accounts on Twitter.

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