Occupations mark the beginning of a new wave of Dutch student struggle

The student struggle has flared up in Amsterdam. In a period of a few weeks, two university buildings have been occupied. At the moment of writing, the building of the executive board of the University of Amsterdam (UvA), the famous Maagdenhuis, is being occupied by students. Their struggle is against the "efficiency-oriented" top-down management, for which the profit motive is more important than the interests of students and lecturers.

The movement is based around a manifesto called the New University. This manifesto demands an end to the current top-down model of university management, in which the members of the executive boards are appointed by so-called supervisory boards, in turn composed of people appointed by the Ministry of Education. Many members of the executive boards in effect had no relationship with academia and come from business management positions, where they have learned to think in terms of "efficiency" - in other words: “how can we maximise profits”. The New University wants to replace this model with a democratic model, where students and professors elect the university board.

The manifesto doesn't stop here. It also calls for an end to the current model for allocating funds, and for an end to temporary contracts for university staff (around half of university staff are on “flexible” contracts). In practice, the current efficiency-based allocation model means that only those studies that benefit "the market" merit funds from the university. The effects of this can be seen in the latest plans of the UvA, according to which the humanities faculty will be downsized and several "unprofitable" language studies will be discontinued. At the same time, other faculties have been given so much money that they don't know what to do with it, spending it on marketing in order to compete with other universities. So much for efficiency! In late 2014 these developments led to the Humanities Rally movement, which mobilised the humanities students and lecturers through demonstrations and general assemblies. 

This problem is not limited to the UvA. In the Erasmus University of Rotterdam, there have been plans to shut down the faculty of philosophy. Indeed, the university named after the humanist philosopher Erasmus will have no philosophy faculty if the plans continue. One wonders what the author of “The Praise of Folly” would say if he were alive today!

Occupation of the Bungehuis

The occupation of the Bungehuis on 13th February was an important step forward. There have been other short occupations of university buildings over the years as well, but this was the first to present a manifesto which clearly expressed the students’ and lecturers’ demands. The occupation was popular among the students, and within a few days more than 100 university professors had declared their support. The occupied building was used for all kinds of workshops and discussion groups with students and professors, while decisions were made democratically through general assemblies.

It is no accident that the occupation took place at the Bungehuis. The management is planning to sell this old university building to a real estate company, Aedes Real Estate, who will wish to turn it into a "Soho House": an extremely expensive club and hotel which would attract the "creative class" to Amsterdam - in reality, the international super-rich. Amsterdam has become increasingly expensive in the last years, especially the city centre, and the university's management is contributing to this trend through real estate speculation.

The reaction of the executive board only inflamed the situation. They were only willing to "engage in dialogue" on condition that the students immediately leave the building. They were even threatening the occupiers with fines of €100,000 per day! Their excuse was that the students were obstructing the university staff on their way to work. In reality, the researchers could reach their rooms without trouble; in fact, many of them supported the students’ demands. When the local broadcaster AT5 was willing to give a platform for dialogue between the executive board and the students, the executive board refused. They went to court and on February 19th the judge ruled in a summary procedure that the occupiers had to leave, or would be fined €1,000 per day. The fines for the first days were paid by donations from sympathising organisations.

This conduct led to a hatred of the executive board, especially its chairman Louise Gunning, who has become a symbol of the arrogant, neoliberal and authoritarian way that the university is being managed. Incidentally she is also on the company board of Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, where the same management tactics and flexible contracts are used to exploit the workforce. The arrogance of Gunning and the board have even led many bourgeois commentators to criticise the way the conflict was handled, as the sympathy for the occupation was only growing. Support was given by  the Socialist Party, trade unions representing the staff of various universities, the general education union and the main union federation FNV, as well as many student groups and professors. Solidarity also came from the airport workers of Schiphol Airport, who have also experienced Gunning’s methods. Solidarity extended internationally as well, with the famous left-wing professors Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler declaring their support, as well as student organisations in other countries, and even the Turkish metalworkers’ union Birlesik Metal-Is.

The mayor of Amsterdam tried to mediate, but as the talks failed the building was evicted on February 24th by the police, with a crowd outside in solidarity blocking the road to delay the police reinforcements. In total, 47 students were arrested, and were cheered as heroes as they were put into police vans. The Bungehuis was evicted, but the movement was far from finished.

Occupation of the Maagdenhuis

The eviction of the Bungehuis did not administratively "solve" the problem for the UvA executive board. On the contrary, it only reinforced the image of an undemocratic, outdated executive board, which does not care about its students. The next day, a solidarity demonstration was called, with about a thousand students and sympathisers attending. The demonstration through the centre of Amsterdam ended in front of the Maagdenhuis, the building where the UvA executive board is located. This is a historical location. In 1969 it was occupied for four days by the student movement, which in fact also demanded more democratisation and participation of the students in the executive board. Since then this building has been occupied shortly for a few times, in order to protest against policies from the executive board or the national government.

As the demonstration reached the Maagdenhuis, and nobody from the executive board was even willing to show their faces, there came increasing calls from the crowd to occupy the Maagdenhuis. The mood was really in favour. At every student demonstration that ends in front of the building, or passes along it, one usually finds a small group of radicals that try to persuade others to occupy the building. These attempts normally fail, as these small groups do not connect to the mood. However, this time the mood was different. At a certain moment people started to climb the steps of the building and shouting slogans, which was well received by the rest. The security guards tried to block it, but were forced to let more and more people on the stairs. After a while, the crowd forced their way in and the guards were powerless. The police outside could not intervene as well, so they had to accept it. The local broadcaster AT5 went along inside, and the first general assembly of the occupying students could be followed through alive online stream.

The Maagdenhuis was visited soon by Louise Gunning. Her message was that dialogue was possible, but only if the students immediately leave "her building". This tactic was used before with regard to the Bungehuis and immediately was rejected. Of course the students were in for dialogue with the executive board, but only in the Maagdenhuis itself. She also said that the students should go to the ministry of education in The Hague, as it was them who were behind all the problems. While it is certainly true that the national government is responsible for the framework in which all these problems arise and the battle is a national one, it was the UvA executive itself which was responsible for most of the worst policies. When a student asked Gunning if they could count on her support if they went to The Hague, she refused to answer that question and it was clear that she was playing games with the students. After the rejection by the students of her plans, the UvA executive sued the students again. 

Meanwhile the Maagdenhuis is run like the Bungehuis before, with many discussions, workshops, film screenings, and talks with public figures who sympathise with the students. The comedian Freek de Jonge, who was present at the original occupation in 1969, visited the building, and also Emile Roemer, leader of the Socialist Party in the parliament. This all makes it harder to portray the students as a small group of violent radicals who use force to push their will on the majority. In fact, the opposite is the case and the occupation has been peaceful. For example, at the general assembly it was decided that the security guards were permitted to stay in the building, that they were free to take whatever they wanted from the food and drink donations, and that they even could participate in the assembly if they wanted.

The latest developments are that the university executive has offered the students a concession, in the form of one student representative at the board. This was rightly rejected, as the representative would only have a minimal amount of decision power as a minority, and the executive would try to frame him or her as a “partner” in the decision-making process.

Instead of giving in, the right step has been taken to extend this struggle to the national plane. On Sunday 1st March, the Maagdenhuis has been visited by representatives and groups from other universities, to hold a national assembly about extending the movement nationwide. As it is unsure how long the building will be occupied, this was the right step to make.

The struggle has only just begun

The occupations in Amsterdam have put the problems of the students in the spotlights. It's now time to bring this movement on a national level. An initiative similar to the Humanities Rally has been started in Rotterdam, and New University branches have been set up at the VU University (the other university in Amsterdam) and the university of Groningen (RUG). The conference on 1st March has been a big step forward as well, as it was attended by students from Groningen, Nijmegen, Leiden, Rotterdam, Maastricht, Wageningen, Utrecht and Delft who share the positions of the New University. Further branches have been set up now in Leiden and Maastricht. Professors from the two universities in Amsterdam will meet with trade union representatives this coming Thursday, to discuss strike actions against the flexible contracts.

It is clear from all this that the struggle has only just begun. The consciousness of an important layer of students and professors has leaped forward. The demands of the movement are on a high level. Its orientation towards a collaboration with the labour movement is very positive. In fact these student struggles could have an electrifying effect on the broader labour movement itself too, as the trade union leadership in the last months has carefully expressed that it would be necessary to have a more confrontational approach towards the bosses and the government, after years of holding back the movement according to a "social agreement" with the bosses.

The official student unions have played a shameful role, tail-ending the movement. In recent years, the national student union LSVB has played the role of a consultative partner of the government and the political parties, always trying to seek allies in certain political parties, MPs or senate members in order to make backroom deals or block proposals, instead of mobilising the students and seeking allies in the labour movement. In 2011, when students mobilised against a plan to give €3,000 penalties for students that studied "too long", the student union gave students the illusion that liberal party D66 was their ally, while the party only wanted to reject this plan in order to implement other cuts in student funding. When this austerity plan finally was abolished as result of a deal between the government and centre-left opposition parties, it was only the case in order to pass a different "reform" in which the student grants would be replaced by loans. The "friends of the students", D66, GreenLeft and the Labour Party, all agreed with this. The LSVB mobilised the students only in late 2014, after the proposal had passed parliament, through a top-down last-minute call to action without mobilisations from below. Instead of the union raising the level of the students, the students had to find out themselves the hard way how they were being betrayed by their "friends". The bottom-up mobilisations of the Humanities Rally and New University are a big step forward in comparison with how the national demonstrations against cuts in higher education from the government have been mobilised. It is now necessary to bring these methods of mobilisation to a national level.

Perspectives

The increasing encroachment of capitalist management techniques into higher education is no accident. Neither is it simply the result of neoliberal ideology being dominant. These management techniques represent an increased effort to adapt as many students possible to the whims of the "free market". The current crisis of Dutch capitalism has meant that the government and big business have been seeking to adjust the "output" of universities to the demands of the labour market. Although youth unemployment is about 15% now, some high tech industries are short of personnel. The result is that universities and government allocate more money for certain "profitable" studies, while the "unprofitable" ones need to fuse in order to survive. Meanwhile, through the replacement of the student grants by a national loan system, the government seeks to discourage young people from picking studies with less job opportunities, an austerity measure that especially hits the working class and lower middle class students. This shows that the efficiency-based management techniques and the national austerity measures are two sides of the same coin. While the New University focuses on democratic control and the fight against capitalist management, there should be discussions about broadening the movement by including demands like the abolishment of tuition fees and the loan system.

What we are witnessing is a reawakening of the student movement. The calls to end capitalist management and install democratic control are important demands. The solidarity from the university personnel and the orientation towards seeking an alliance with the labour movement, are important steps forward. In fact, this is quite different from 1969, when there was a mood of hostility towards the professors, who were generally conservative and would never view themselves as part of the labour movement. Now it is clear, with all the flexible contracts, that they are part of the working class and suffering from the same exploitation as other workers. If they go on strike, this could be the beginning of a new wave of labour struggles as well.

It's time to continue the struggle by linking it with general student issues like the abolishment of tuition fees and the loan system. As Socialist Party leader Emile Roemer correctly said, this struggle for more democratic control should not be limited to the universities, but should take place at all layers of society. However, real democratic control is not simply a matter of electoral mechanisms. It can only be genuinely possible when the capitalist class loses its control over the economy and the state. In that sense, the struggle for a democratic university can only be part of a broader struggle, the struggle for a democratic socialist society.

  • For democratic university boards elected by students and university personnel, and subject to recall
  • Stop the capitalist management techniques at the universities
  • Big business out of the university
  • End casualisation: all personnel on “flexible” contracts to be hired on permanent contracts
  • For a free and public education: end cuts in higher education, abolish tuition fees
  • Spread the movement to all universities and schools: for a national democratic coordinating committee of delegates (subject to recall) elected from schools and faculties assemblies
  • No to fines and victimisation
  • Students and workers unite!