A university should not be run like a private company. That is the opinion of students and employees at the University of Amsterdam, who during spring have been occupying the university’s premises in order to protest against the board. Now they demand more democracy.
The University of Amsterdam, UvA, is the largest university of the Netherlands and located in the center of Amsterdam. In international rankings, it is considered one of Europe’s top universities. However, during a longer period of time, discontent has been spreading among students and staff members who argue that the university has started to resemble a private company.
When the Faculty of Humanities announced in February that they would cancel several of the smaller courses and programs they considered unprofitable, this decision triggered the largest student protest in the Netherlands since the 1960s.
Forty-eight students arrested
On February 13, a group of students and staff members occupied the main building of the Faculty of Humanities, Bungehuis. United under the name “De nieuwe universiteit”, which can be translated as The new university, they demanded among other things a democratic election of the university’s board and that the new plans for the humanity faculty would be cancelled.
But despite negotiations between the university’s board and the occupants, the two sides did not reach a compromise. After ten days, the police entered the Bungehuis and ended the occupation. Forty-eight students were arrested.
An organized occupation
That could have marked the end of the protest, but hardly two days after De nieuwe universiteit got thrown out, they entered Maagdenhuis, the university’s main building, which is known for being the place where long ideological occupations and protests took place in the 1960s and 1970s.
Teun is one of the students who participates in the protest movement. He is 22 years old and studies political science and history at UvA.
“We are about 80 people who organize everything. We have lectures and debates with people who are related to education. Moreover, we organize performances of famous artists. But normal classes also take place here in the building. We don’t interfere with that,” he says.
Lack of democracy
For Teun, the lack of democracy within the university is one of the most important reasons why he continues to protest.
“Some years ago, there was this idea to merge the science faculties of the two universities in Amsterdam, UvA and VU. The students and staff members had the right to be involved in the decision and they voted against it. But it was implemented anyways.”
The other big problem is, according to Teun, that the strife for efficiency has become too dominating within the academy.
“Study programs are being cancelled because they are too small. In my program, courses with few students have been cancelled because they were considered too expensive.”
No radical demands
Teun thinks that it is hard to predict what will happen in the future. The occupation of the main building was violently terminated on April 11, when the riot police entered the place and arrested nine people.
However, De nieuwe universiteit has decided not to give up and plans to continue with different kinds of protests until all demands have been met. On some matters the group has already reached success, but the higher up in the hierarchy – the harder it is to be heard. “We have really no radical demands; it’s just about democratic decision-making. What we want is actually the most normal thing in the world,” Teun says.
The protests have also been spreading outside of Amsterdam. At several other universities in the Netherlands, students have started to organize themselves under the name De nieuwe universiteit.
“We have quite good contact with groups in other cities, even if they are smaller than us. But it is not only happening in the Netherlands. University occupations are taking place many different places in the world right now, for example at the London School of Economics,” Teun says.
A bigger movement
Erin Nordal, vice chairperson of the European Student Unions, believes that these occupations are a response to the budget cuts that have been made over the last years and she thinks this might be the start of a new protest movement.
“Since the financial crisis in 2008, there has been a general trend in all countries to cut the budget of higher education and to introduce tuition fees. This is the backlash of that,” Erin Nordal says.
Just like in the case of the University of Amsterdam, she also notes a trend that universities in Europe to a growing extent are characterized by business and efficiency thinking. “A commoditization of higher education is taking place and democracy suffers under that. Fewer and fewer students are allowed to be a part of the decision-making bodies,” Erin Nordal says.She considers it self-explanatory that a university shall be governed with democratic principles.
She considers it self-explanatory that a university shall be governed with democratic principles.
“A university needs to be a democratic institution working for the common good, so that everyone who is a part of the university has the right to be represented when decisions are being made,” Erin Nordal says.