A banner fifty metres long presenting an overview of all the education budget cuts of the past 35 years was created to draw the attention of the political parties that are trying to form a Cabinet. “Cutting the education budget is the stupidest thing you could possibly do.”
“We wish to give the politicians some historical awareness,” says Jarmo Berkhout, Chair of the Dutch Student Union (LSVb). He is standing right next to the banner and is highly satisfied with this “Museum of Education Budget Cuts”.
The banner is hanging from the trees lining the banks of the Hofvijver Pond in The Hague, which is bathed in sunlight. Politicians may be forming a new Cabinet on the other side of the pond as we speak. The protest could not have come at a better time. Rumour has it that the negotiators are discussing the education portfolio today.
Student grants should be reintroduced
The protest has not just attracted LSVb members, but also members of the Interstedelijk Studenten Overleg (ISO), two local student unions (ASVA and VSSD) and the Socialist Party. They are wearing orange suits or clothes bearing the SP logo. One girl is wearing a colander on her head.
Berkhout addresses the protesters through a megaphone. “Cutting the education budget is the stupidest thing you could possibly do!” he shouts. He feels that tuition fees should be reduced, the amount of the supplementary grant should be raised, and housing benefits for students must stay. And come to think of it, student grants should be reintroduced, too. The students cheer.
Karl Dittrich, Chair of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), gets to say something, as well. “Normally, it is a great pleasure to attend the opening of a museum. But looking at this banner, I’m not presented with a pretty view.” He is applauded when he discusses the yields of the student loan system, saying that politicians “should keep their dirty hands off them”.
There is less applause when Dittrich advocates greater confidence in politicians and summarises his view in the following slogan: “Believe in the power of our governance model.” His listeners are students who remember the occupation of the University of Amsterdam’s Maagdenhuis all too well.
The gathering has drawn politicians representing SP, D66 and GroenLinks, as well. They are handed a poster presenting the students’ wishes and have their pictures taken with it, but they stop short of making any actual guarantees.
SP MP Frank Futselaar is the only politician who can speak freely on this occasion, since his party is not one of the parties that are currently negotiating. He feels that students’ financial situation must be improved urgently. Until a brief while ago, he was a lecturer at a university of applied sciences, and he could tell that financial trouble was weighing on his students. Those who were having difficulty passing their exams were increasingly likely to ponder the wisdom of getting a degree.
Country of opportunities
Paul van Meenen (D66) and Zihni Özdil (GroenLinks) are keeping their cards close to their chests. “I could make all sorts of promises on this occasion,” says Van Meenen, “but I’m not going to.” He emphasises that students in the Netherlands are quite privileged, and as far as he is concerned, they will remain privileged. The only thing he is prepared to say about the ongoing negotiations is, “We will see how far we can get.”
Özdil, too, would like to focus on the plus sides of the Netherlands, rather than on the series of budget cuts listed on the banner next to him. His parents were born in severe poverty, while he himself was allowed to attend a university and become an MP. “This proves that the Netherlands is a country of opportunities,” he says emphatically.