For 2 Months, Amsterdam University Was Occupied By Students, For One Great Cause

Posted on April 21, 2015 in Campus Watch, Staff Picks

By Shinjini Devbarman:

A group of students and teachers are challenging the growing neo-liberalization of higher education in Netherlands. In Amsterdam University (UvA), dozens of students and teachers had been occupying the Maagdenhuis– the administrative building, since 25th February as a protest against an anticipated funding and resources cut to the university’s humanities department. Referring to themselves as De Nieuwe Universiteit (The New University), the student movement has garnered immense support from the academic community all around the world.

Photo Credit
Photo Credit: Guido Van Nispen

Lasting two months of occupation until they were forcefully evicted by the police on 11th April, students’ demands include greater accountability and democratization of the university decision making process. The students’ protest has led to the resignation of the management board chairwoman Louise Gunning as of 19th April. The administration has been receiving flack for months for the way they have handled the issue, filing lawsuits against students and sending police to evacuate the protestors.

The student occupation of UvA speaks of a deeper crisis in higher education not just in Netherlands but worldwide. Higher education worldwide has become over-financialised as market oriented managerial changes are being aggressively pursued by universities. With all the energy being directed towards pointless paperwork and implementing destructive workload on students as well as teachers, it seems like the university as an institution has lost sight of what it should be. Instead of providing a free environment for the exchange of ideas and opening room for dialogue, education and research has taken a backseat as commercial concerns have become the main focus of university administrations.

It is in that context that students in UvA have been compelled to take matters into their own hands and defend the importance of free education. The struggle is against what the Dutch call Rendementsdenken- a prioritization of profit maximization and efficiency, a rationality which has become the logic of rule.

As a consequence, the students’ demands on their website include greater democratization of university governance, transparency in the finances and the cancellation of the Profiel 2016 (Profile 2016) among other things. According to the Profiel 2016, the UvA had plans to make cuts in programs due to budget issues. In the proposed reformation, the humanities faculty was going to be the most affected with the resources being focused on career oriented programs. In addition, it also included plans to eliminate some of the language courses, much to the contempt of the students. The administration justified the cuts by stating that the enrollment in these “small languages” (language courses) were dismal. In reaction to this students occupied the Bungehuis- the humanities faculty building first on 13th February. As negotiations with the board of directors failed, the students were evicted by the police, which aggravated the cause of the students struggle and led to the occupation of Maagdenhuis.

This student movement is the most serious of the student struggle since 1969, when the Bungehuis was occupied by students demanding greater student and staff representation in the university governance. The occupation led to major legislative changes in the university, and perhaps its legacy itself is one of the reasons why the occupation this year has received such a positive response worldwide.

Apart from the cuts in the humanities programs, the administration also had plans to fire about 150 staff members, which includes everyone with a flexible contract. Not only that, there has also been a rumored deficit of 12-13 million Euros in the university finances, although the number keeps changing. Naturally the students became impatient with the sweeping changes that the administration had planned and were unwilling to discuss.

Meanwhile, the website of UvA’s faculty of Humanities section reads that it “…manages a broad array of study programmes and maintains a healthy financial position”.

The objective of the movement is to challenge the commercialization of the University. The logic of Rendementsdenken devalues the importance of areas of inquiry, as most courses in the humanities don’t directly translate into profit.

The occupation at UvA is only one in the wave of student movements across Europe. Over the recent months, the academic community in countries like Netherlands, Canada and UK has been fighting against the commercialization of universities. Equally strong is the occupation at London School of Economics that started March 18 raising a range of issues with the university administration like precarious work conditions and criticism against the “profit driven model of higher education”, to name a few.

The occupation at LSE has encouraged the protestors at UvA, as people are viewing this as a turning point in higher education worldwide. A kind of domino effect has started, and it is sure to make history when it all goes down.

What we see here is a fight to resuscitate a free academic space. The struggle is still on for a better university which focuses on educational values rather than financial gains. In coming together against the commercialization of education, they have become an important symbol of power.

Perhaps the best way to conclude would be in the words of the students itself:

We are not asking for a free University, we are asking for a free society. Because a free University in a capitalist society is like a lecture hall in prison