Protests raise questions over role of universities

After a month of occupation of university buildings, University of Amsterdam students are increasingly winning support for their protest against pressure on universities to focus on ‘effectivity’ – producing measurable products as efficiently as possible.

They are also demanding a reversal of planned cuts in courses, particularly languages, and a greater say for students in the running of the university, as well as opposing changes in student financing.

Meanwhile, nationally, university and doctoral student representatives are protesting against an experiment in ending PhD candidates’ employee status.

At the University of Amsterdam the occupied Senate House is filled every day with hundreds of students, lecturers, cultural events and continuous discussions with university authorities.

The occupation has received support from the faculty staff, members of parliament, public figures such as the writer and performer Freek de Jonge, and trade unions.

A petition in support of the occupiers, circulated on the social media website Change .org, aimed at 10,000 signatures and had 7,040 signatures as of 10 March, including such notable names as Noam Chomsky, Jacques Rancière, Judith Butler, Axel Honneth, Simon Critchley, Jean-Luc Nancy, Saskia Sassen and Johan Galtung.

Ewald Engelen, an economic geographer at the University of Amsterdam, or UvA, gave a talk last week on “What is wrong with the university?” and said: “This must be one of the most interesting places in Western Europe right now”.

The university is reportedly implementing cuts because it has racked up debt from spending on housing projects. Engelen said the Executive Board of UvA, should put all future real estate development plans on hold and should provide full transparency concerning the financial situation.

“The board should embark on negotiations with staff and students concerning the future governance structure of the UvA and should install a truth and reconciliation committee to do historical fact finding about how the UvA got in this mess, and should guard the interests of staff and students in future negotiations with the minister and other national officials,” he told University World News.

Some more symbolic actions would also help, he said: “dispense with the chauffeur driven cars or agree to spend at least two days per week on impromptu talks with staff and students”, he suggested.

No evictions this time

The Executive Board has not yet asked for a court decision for eviction of the students from the Senate House, as they did for the previous occupation of the Bungehuis, which led to 46 students being arrested.

When the students called for a national day of action on 4 March and delivered a set of demands to the UvA Board with a deadline of 6 March to respond, 85 staff members of the departments of human geography, planning and international development studies signed a petition addressed to the Executive Board supporting the demands of the students.

The letter stressed the democratic deficit within the university, specifically the lack of a governance system that is representative from the bottom up. They demanded subsidiarity in decision-making.

They also criticised the growing division between teaching and research, “exacerbated” by the decrease in priority funding for teaching, and the “winner takes all” system of grants nationally from the European Research Council.

In parliament

In parliament, the socialist opposition party raised questions about the future of minor language training within the humanities, the extent of cutbacks within higher education, and governance culture and participation.

Minister of Education Jet Bussemaker sent a 12-page letter to parliament on 3 March, stating that she would “not let minor languages or unique study programmes just disappear”, stating that a university can remove a course only after a transparent and thorough process “in which [not only] other institutions but also students and teachers are involved”.

She said the government would work with Dutch universities on the issue of the humanities in the months to come and that she supported “good governance” in all sectors of education.

She advised the university authorities to “listen very carefully to the students”, notably also on their argument against “effectivity thinking” – the focus on productivity and efficiency.

She said: “There is a sense of unease and that has to change. A university is not a business. Students should have an opportunity to develop into critical and creative thinkers.”

Jo Ritzen, former minister of education and rector of Maastricht University, said the efficiency and effectivity drive was part of a general problem across European universities that urgently needed to be overcome. “Financing should be on a par with the substantial social and economic returns to higher education,” he said.

Protest about PhD experiment

Bussemaker was confronted with another protest organised by more than a hundred members of university councils and representatives of local and national PhD organisations, concerned about her launch of an experiment in registering 2,000 doctoral candidates as students instead of university employees. They would be given scholarships rather than research contracts, which is standard practice.

The organisations, including PhD Candidates Network of the Netherlands or PNN, sent her a 17-page letter explaining their concerns over her plan.

Bussemaker argues that there will be benefits from the cost savings, allowing an increased number of PhDs, a wider choice of subjects and education for doctoral candidates, as well as providing better preparation for the non-academic job market.

Associate professor in the department of methods and statistics at Utrecht University, Rens van de Schoot, told University World News: “Luckily my own university [Utrecht University] is not taking part in this experiment. I do not see how changing the status of PhD students into bursary students will improve the quality of their research.

"I prefer supervising PhD students who are relaxed and feel secure about their position, including secondary arrangements like pregnancy leave, so that they can focus on writing high-quality papers instead of being afraid not to become ill.”

John Peacock, president of Eurodoc, said: “We are strongly opposed to this experiment and believe it will be a step backwards for the Dutch system.

"We regard doctoral candidates as professional academic workers, and full members of the research community. Classing them as students fails to recognise this, and we risk the situation where academia comes to treat them as an expendable resource.”