All participants in the march are given an athletes’ bib that they can stick to the rear of their coats. Instead of a competitor number, however, they are asked to jot down the amount of their outstanding student loan debt. The debts advertised on people’s backs range from a few thousand euros to a whopping €67,000.

It is high tuition fees – and huge student loan debts – that the students are protesting today. “Students are getting ripped off,” says Carline van Breugel, the chair of the National Student Union (LSVb). “No, it’s not normal to have a €26,000 debt. The student loan system is not just inconsiderate. It’s downright ridiculous.”

Not a privilege

LSVb organised the demonstration in association with young members of the Socialist Party (united in ROOD), the FNV Jong trade union, secondary school pupils (united in LAKS) and students attending VET colleges (united in JOB). Following a word of welcome (“Are we all ready to speak our minds?”) and a few speeches, the demonstrators embark on a march through The Hague. They chant slogans such as ‘Education is a right, not a privilege’ and ‘What time is it? Time for greater solidarity.’ They are preceded by a few drummers.

The protesters are accompanied by a large number of police officers. Some are mounted on horses; others drive police vans or accompany the demonstrators on foot. One of the officers tells us that they were counting on a greater turnout. However, the younger members of government parties ChristenUnie and CDA are giving the demonstration a miss, having opted for attending conferences instead. “They preferred being indoors,” ROOD chair Lisa de Leeuw opines.

Supporting a good cause

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All participants wear their study debt on their back Image credit: Sabina van Gils

The great majority of the protesters are SP members. But no matter how loud their chants, they would rather not talk to the press. Anyone asking them a question is referred to De Leeuw. “Our rules aren’t really that strict,” De Leeuw seeks to explain, “but that’s simply how we agreed to go about it.”

A few other demonstrators are members of LSVb or one of the other organisations involved in the march. Only a few young people showed up who are not members of any organisation and who came to The Hague purely to support a good cause.

Parents

For instance, one of the marchers is a second-year History student (“I didn’t read about any of this until yesterday”) who hasn’t even racked up a student loan debt herself. “I was spoiled by my parents, who help me out [financially]. And I live with my parents, too.” She has joined the demonstrators to support students who are less fortunate than herself.

Such as a fourth-year Asian Studies student, whose debt, according to the bib on her back, amounts to €50,000. She is paying her entire degree herself, she tells us, because her parents do not have enough money to do so. She does have a job on the side, but even so, the costs of textbooks and housing are adding up considerably. “Even though I knew what I was getting into when I went to uni, I’m still feeling the pressure,” she says.

Frank Futselaar, an MP for SP, is attending the demonstration, as well, a €9,000 debt advertised on his jacket. Once the procession has returned to Lange Voorhout, he takes receipt of a petition drawn up by two 20-year-old Nursing students, Britte Veltman and Amelia Zuidema, which has by now been signed by more than 124,000 people. “A staggering number,” Futselaar says. The petition calls on politicians to compensate those students who were unfortunate enough to embark on their degrees after the abolition of student grants, but before the introduction of halved tuition fees for first-year students – a group that was hit particularly hard.

Bad luck

Because they have been so unfortunate, these students will be given a voucher worth two thousand euros five to ten years after graduating, to be used towards an additional degree or refresher courses (as agreed when student grants were abolished), but Veltman and Zuidema claim that those vouchers will be useless to them. “Nurses are expected to attend in-service training. Our employers pay for us to attend these courses, so what good will those vouchers be to us?”

They hope the Cabinet will agree to give the students their vouchers immediately after graduation, so that the students can use the money towards a Master’s degree. LSVb has made it its mission to try and convince the Cabinet that this is a good idea, and Veltman and Zuidema fully support the initiative.

Clear arrangements

LSVb’s proposal may be the best deal the students will be able to get, because the Minister for Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, emphasised in a TV appearance last Friday that the current student loan system will not be abolished any time soon, even though government parties CDA and ChristenUnie have expressed a wish to do so. “Everyone is allowed to dream of a distant future,” Van Engelshoven said in response to recent statements made by ChristenUnie leader Gert-Jan Segers. “We entered into very clear commitments when we signed the coalition agreement, and Mr Segers signed that agreement, too.”

But the demonstrators are refusing to lose faith. “Ingrid, you may not be here today, but we’re not going anywhere!” LSVb chair Van Breugel shouts to the crowd. “Onze schuld is jullie schuld!” (Our debts are your fault!) Her audience cheers and applauds the pun.

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Image credit: Sabina van Gils
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