Angry students protest against university reforms
As previously reported in University World News, the Netherlands government last year introduced a bill that would convert student grants into loans from 1 January 2015, freeing up €1 billion (US$1.1 billion) from the state higher education budget.
Under the plans, an estimated €200 million to €300 million a year would be allocated as grants to students whose families earned less than €46,000 a year. The remainder would be ploughed back into the higher education system to improve its quality.
The Dutch National Union of Students and the European Students’ Union condemned the move, claiming that under the new system students would accumulate greater debts, or have to work during their studies, hence risk prolonging the time to graduation.
Under the proposed changes, students would start to repay their study loans once they earned more than the minimum wage. The loan, which would have a fixed interest rate, would be repaid over 35 years.
Student unions and an organisation of students and staff called ‘The New University’ (for a democratic university) took part in the national day of action while a group occupied one of the University of Amsterdam’s buildings.
In an open letter published by openDemocracy – “a digital commons not a magazine” – academics from Amsterdam and Leiden universities said the Netherlands was “a mere 10 years behind the UK but seems eager to catch up”.
“Twin pressures of authoritarianism from above and neo-liberalism from below make it necessary to develop the democratic alternative put forward by the movement for a new university,” the academics wrote.
“The structural similarities [between the Netherlands and the UK] are striking: in 1999, the Labour government of Tony Blair introduced tuition for university education at the moderate level of £1,000. Within little more than a decade, undergraduate tuition had exploded to nine times its original level. This is privatisation in all but name.
“Thanks to the students and their protests we are now in a political moment where these questions are on the public agenda, where what seemed utopian and unrealistic two weeks ago has become a real possibility.”
Academics and students have called for “fully-elected and accountable university boards”, a roll-back of cuts to the humanities, cancellation of a proposal they say would jeopardise the jobs of dozens of teachers in the humanities, and of mergers of subjects and disciplines “in attempts save money”.
The student and staff occupation of the university building started on 13 February, disrupting the work of several hundred students and staff who work or take classes there.
The occupation was endorsed in a website calling for national and international support for the student demands. The action has received the backing of European academics, members of parliament and trade unions.
Court order ignored
Initial response from the university was to take the occupying staff and students to court and demand they leave or pay a fine of up to €100,000 a day. The court subsequently ordered the students to leave and pay €1,000 in fines per day for any prolonged occupation.
After the students ignored the court order, police evicted the occupiers, leading to 46 arrests. The following day students occupied another building, the academic senate house, and at the time of reporting were still there.
Several stakeholders met the students and tried to persuade them to stop the protests. They included the president of the university’s executive board, the mayor of Amsterdam, the police chief and parliamentarian Jasper van Dijk
Education Minister Jet Bussemaker met a delegation of students to discuss the protests. Bussemaker said in a television interview that she was against the trend of “rendement [efficiency and production] thinking” in higher education.
Attracting broad attention
Professor Hans de Wit of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences told University World News that it was interesting how a still relatively small but gradually expanding protest by students was attracting broad attention in politics and the media.
“This cannot be explained only by the reference to the student protest movement and occupation of the Maagdenhuis [Senate House] in 1969,” De Wit said.
“It is a manifestation of a broad discontent with the focus on rendement thinking in Dutch higher education and the lack of democracy since 1997 with the abolition of student participation on university boards, and with the boards and deans being appointed by external supervisors. In this it reflects the increasing discontent in Dutch society with politics and privatisation, which also explains the broad attention to the protests.”
Meanwhile, the government has backed down on some of its proposed changes and postponed others until 2018, while the University of Amsterdam has announced that it will allow one student representative to join the university’s executive board.