The University of Amsterdam chancellery building, the Maagdenhuis, has been occupied since 24 February, when students broke down the door and took over the ground floor. Since then, there has been a constant stream of teach-in discussions and organising activity.
The occupation followed a demonstration of more than 1,000 students and some staff. They were protesting the arrest of 39 students who had been occupying the Bungehuis building in protest at its impending sale to private interests. The sale of university property has become symbolic of what is seen as the trend to subordinate education to commerce, abandoning a commitment to the university as a place for critical education.
Discontent over university policy has been brewing for at least two years. A group called Humanities Rally was formed by students after a university plan, Profiel 2016, projected deep cuts to the humanities.
Apart from the increasing use of contract staff, the preparation of the Profiel 2016 and other changes have taken place with only pretend consultation with university employees.
Democratisation of the university – wresting power away from a managerial caste carrying out a neoliberal agenda, and shifting decision-making to the university community – has become a key plank of both the student protests, which are organised as New University, and the academic movement ReThink UvA.
These protests differ significantly from student protests in other countries in that they are joint student-staff actions demanding a total restructuring of higher education. They are calling for the self-organisation of universities, with the aim of fulfilling educational, not financial, goals.
While there was a national day of action on 4 March, the primary focus of the two groups over the last several days has been the communication of their demands to the university’s board. A letter has gone to the university with two sets of demands.
The first set calls for an immediate moratorium on restructuring processes and sale of UvA property, the issuing of a detailed proposal on democratisation and an inquiry by an independent committee into the university’s finances. The students and academics are demanding agreement to these demands by 9 March; otherwise protest actions will escalate.
The second set of demands relates to further democratisation and a major shift away from quantitative output-oriented management of education toward policies based on genuine educational goals. There are also demands for more secure employment for staff.
So far, management has been stalling. It is essentially operating within the neoliberal policy framework supported by the government, which is an alliance of the right wing People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy and the Labor Party.
Members of parliament from the left social democratic Socialist Party, the country’s largest opposition party, have spoken at the protests. So have members from the smaller, more middle class Groene Links and even from Young Labor. The minister of education overseeing the restructuring process is from the Labor Party.
While the focus has been on communications with university management, organising activity has continued. New University protest groups have now emerged at five other major Dutch campuses. Teach-in activities by staff and students are planned for the corridors of the Amsterdam campus starting this week. The aim is to expand student involvement beyond those who have come out of Humanities Rally and the immediate occupation actions.
The Netherlands Trade Union Federation (FNV) branches at the university and other campuses have voted to support the student occupations and the demands for reform. The Health Workers Union has also sent solidarity. Apart from further student mobilisations, staff have started discussing the necessity of strike or other industrial action. The FNV is still dominated by the Labor Party, but there are more and more Socialist Party members in the unions, including among organisers.