Students Taking Action against the Boards of their Universities by Bella Felix
students' protests in Amsterdam

A few weeks ago on February 13th, a group of students occupied the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Amsterdam. They aimed to draw public attention to a problem that has been fought against for many years: the change of the university administration into an oligarchy. The University of Amsterdam (UvA) is, as many other European universities nowadays, controlled top-down. According to its students, this has negative effects on education and research. Most students and teachers have little, if any, involvement in the management of the university, which has made them raise this issue with the board for years now, but nothing seems to work. After the occupation of this faculty the UvA ignored once again their demands and went to court seeking to charge the protesters a penalty of 100.000 euro per person per each day. The judge decided this was too much and changed it into a 1000 euro fine. In an interview with the Dutch newspaper ‘Het Parool’ the students declared that it was strange that ‘the university relies on handing out fines instead of engaging in dialogue with its own students and teachers’.

On February 24th people from the faculty were evacuated, but a small group of students managed to get into the Maagdenhuis, the building where the board of the University of Amsterdam and the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences is located. This building has been occupied before in 1969 and 2005 by students and teachers protesting against higher tuition fees and less participation.

protests in Maagdenhuis at UvA 

The protesters are still occupying the building and have transformed it into a well-functioning headquarter. They have agreed with the board of both universities not to enter personal offices or damage any property. The occupiers debate in the main hall on a daily basis about their requirements and further demands of the university. They try to do this in a democratic way without a ‘leader’ in order to give an example to the university administration. The students also launched a site where they are expressing their demands and ideas with the help of articles concerning the protest and while organising several workshops throughout the week.

The clear call for actions by other universities from Europe and from the rest of the world was what happened very fast after the occupation. The problem of commercialism in universities is not just a Dutch problem. Students from Canada, Ireland, the UK, India, Spain, the USA, Mexico, Myanmar and the Philippines are creating small or bigger groups that show universities that they need a change, but are never allowed to have their say. The causes of the protests vary, but most of them have to do with the university leaders prioritising financial goals over the needs of staff and students.

One of the first universities who followed the example of the UvA was the London School of Economics and Political Science. Forty students from this university occupied a central administration room at their university on March 18th. Just as ‘The New University” (or NewUni) in the Netherlands, ‘Free University of London’ aims to “create an open, creative and liberated space, where all are free to participate in the building of a new directly democratic, non-hierarchical and universally accessible education”.

What is most disturbing about all these protests is the fact that these students need to occupy buildings in order to be heard. If universities had allowed their students to state their views in the management of the universities, things would not have to get out of hand. Universities are treating their students as products in a factory. This make-use-dispose model is based on gaining profit from students. The University of Amsterdam, for example, speculates with real estate in order to finance the faculties. In a time when the economy is fragile is this something we want universities to do?

According to the Article 165 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the Community “shall contribute to the development of quality education by encouraging cooperation between Member States”. Maybe it is time for the EU to jump in, since it is not just a nationwide problem, with a project like Education and Training 2010 . This project started in 2002 and ended in 2010, and aimed to “let the 27 member states respond coherently to common challenges whilst still remaining their sovereignty in the field of Education”. They initiated a set of 13 achievements and tried to carry out these by sharing examples of good policy practice, by taking part in Peer Learning activities, by setting benchmarks and by tracking progress against key indicators. Maybe, something similar should be done again to make sure universities have a good policy based on educating and not on financial goals.

In 1968 students in Europe wanted to get rid of the old-fashioned education system with its authoritarian professors, and while the protests were quite successful at the time, nothing seems to have changed today. Students are stuck again in the university politics, silently seeing education being molested without the ability to do something about it. Once again it is a protest organized by the young and impatient against the old and unbending. Let’s hope this time their voices will bring about lasting change.