On the evening of 25 February 2015, a group of two to three hundred protesters invaded the iconic administrative building of the University of Amsterdam (UvA). ‘Greater participation, more democracy’, the banners read. The protesters also demanded increased funding for smaller study programmes and less emphasis on ‘profitability’.
It turned out to be the longest Maagdenhuis occupation ever. A group of approximately thirty protesters stayed in the offices and meeting rooms on mats for over six weeks. Lectures and debates were organised, the mayor came to visit and the Amsterdam student union ASVA delivered vegetarian couscous to the protesters. UvA chair Louise Gunning resigned — to the great delight of the occupiers — and after the evacuation, the university was charged for over half a million euros in damages.
The question remains: what has become of the demands of the occupiers five years later, not just in Amsterdam, but throughout the landscape of higher education. Has it led to something?
Even though the atmosphere in the Maagdenhuis had been convivial, the debates in the House of Representatives after the evacuation were heated. A right-wing majority were outraged by the actions of the occupiers and wanted to recover the damages from them. Then minister Bussemaker feared that this solution would lead to ‘unrest’ and preferred the insurance company dealing with the costs.
Some months after the occupation, she presented the Enhanced Governance Powers (Educational Institutions) Act. This had little to do with the Maagdenhuis occupation. The act was a response to the administrative mismanagement in senior secondary vocational education. Student and staff representatives were allowed to provide input on the appointment of administrators from then on. Bussemaker was against the right of consent with regards to the contents of the educational programmes.
Student organisations did not hide their disappointment. “Minister not listening to #maagdenhuis and making hardly any changes”, the ASVA Student Union tweeted. The Dutch Student Union (LSVb) and the Intercity Student Consultation (ISO) were looking for more consent rights and felt that the act was a ‘missed opportunity’.
Lecturers and students had received the right of consent with regards to the broad outlines of the yearly budget that same year. But that was already part of the deal concerning the abolition of the basic government grant for students in 2014. It had nothing to do with the occupation of the Maagdenhuis.
Leiden education and policy historian Pieter Slaman also finds it hard to believe that the occupation of the Maagdenhuis has anything to do with the improvement of staff and student participation. “Participation councils are still only ever allowed to have their say on the policies developed by the Executive Board after the fact.”
That’s also why Slaman is not terribly interested in a meeting between the participation council and EB. “The preliminary discussions always happen behind closed doors; at the moment that the decisions are made, a lot of issues have already been discussed.
“Since 2015, institutions have been pretending that students and staff have more of a say, but actually that’s not the case”, says activist and former LSVb chair Geertje Hulzebos. “Participation is mainly used to legitimise the policy of the administration. All the advice given can simply be ignored.”
As a student, Hulzebos — who herself used to be chair of her faculty council — is disappointed by the increased willingness of the ‘suit mob’ to play along. “Educational establishments have become diploma factories, and having spent a year in a participation council just looks good on a person’s CV. But are those the people who deserve your vote?” She believes that the Maagdenhuis occupiers preferred direct democracy, in which anyone willing can influence the decision-making.
At the end of the nineties, new rules were implemented in the Netherlands to make universities more akin to businesses. This led to increased pressure on universities: in order to increase profitability, students needed to complete their study programmes more quickly. The workload grew and small study programmes came under threat.
It was precisely that corporate culture that led to great anger in 2015. “On the one hand there were lecturers who were extremely passionate about science and students who were standing up for the significance of their specific study programme”, says historian Slaman. “And on the other, you had an administration that was putting on the pressure to increase profitability.”
Five years have passed. Have things really changed? Slaman feels they haven’t. “And it wasn’t even ever really on the table. Scholars will always remain trade addicts obsessing over their specific field, while students are looking out for themselves and the administration needs to run the university as efficiently as possible. Never the three shall meet. But that’s all right, as it’s actually the ensuing friction that can sometimes lead to progress being made.”
Even at the UvA, the democratisation plans of the Maagdenhuis occupiers led to nothing much, despite the new administration’s spirited efforts. An experiment that started in 2018 concerning a ‘university forum’ consisting of over seventy UvA students and staff members — who were largely appointed through a draw — was of little added value.
The Executive Board of the UvA was also expanded with a student member after the occupation. But a vacancy for that position this year led to zero applications.
Despite all cries for participation, the average turnout for student and staff representation elections is only ever decreasing; it’s currently below 30 percent. Sometimes elections are even called off completely because of a lack of candidates.
“If the participation council had more influence, those turnout percentages would definitely be higher”, believes GroenLinks parliamentarian Lisa Westerveld, former chair of the LSVb. “Why would anyone vote if it doesn’t make a difference anyway? It’s time that the institutions take their students and staff members seriously and give them a proper say.”
Minister Bussemaker: ‘I haven’t changed anything as a result of the protests’
Interview with minister Jet Bussemaker of Education.
To celebrate the fifth anniversary, a group of former Maagdenhuis occupiers wants to meet on 28 February to look back as well as ahead. No better place than the hallway of the Maagdenhuis, so they thought. But the UvA won’t make the location available.
Geertje Hulzebos is the initiator of the event and is hugely disappointed by it all. “It bears witness to the distrust between the parties. I have been organising the event for weeks and e-mailed and spoke to countless people. We have politely forwarded our programme and even explicitly stated that we won’t occupy the building; it’s going to be a positive event.”
It was to no avail, even though the administration had promised in 2015 that the hallway of the Maagdenhuis would be available for debates. Hulzebos says that the administration doesn’t want to be there for the reunion. “It only goes to show that the Maagdenhuis is still being occupied by administrators and managers. If you’re a student, you can’t even go to the toilet there.”
Was it all for nothing? Definitely not. Since the Maagdenhuis occupation, there is a lot more attention for the complains of the academic and support staff. About the large number of temporary contracts, the heavy workload and imbalance in the funding of science, for instance.
Things really started moving when UvA Professor of Digital Humanities Rens Bod started an online petition in 2017. The gist was that the whole of higher education was bursting at the seams and more instead of less funding was needed, for instance for the social sciences and humanities.
The petition garnered over five thousand signatures and led to the anchoring of the hashtag #WOinActie (literally: ‘Higher education in action’). In 2018, over a thousand lecturers, researchers and students descended on The Hague to protest the ‘breakdown’ of higher education and research. Last year, hundreds of scholars and students travelled to Leiden for the same reason.
WOinActie has grown to be a national protest movement that can no longer be dismissed. “That particular movement is an example of a significant change that has occurred in the wake of the Maagdenhuis occupation”, says Slaman. “You could definitely call it a culture change that has finally seen university staff pointing out what’s going wrong. It’s no longer possible for a university to respectably say: ‘I’m going to employ a graduate student for half the pay. That kind of behaviour would directly be called out on twitter.”
Parliamentarian Westerveld can confirm the fact that staff members are much more vocal from her own experience. “When I was the LSVb chair ten years ago, as board members we would only meet with the Association of Universities, VSNU, and the Association of Universities of Applied Sciences. It was quite hard for us to contend with them; it felt like a fight with your big brother. At that time, I quite often thought: where are the lecturers? But now the minister can no longer ignore the staff.”
Hulzebos also feels that WOinActie is a “great bunch”. She is fearful, however, that administrators might use the protest group to take the wind out of the sails of their opponents. “It’s repressive tolerance”, she warns. “Many administrations are now saying: ‘See, we’re completely on your side, because we were also in support of WOinActie.’ That can completely kill the momentum of your protest.”
The protest movement is also receiving a lot of political support. Even minister Van Engelshoven acknowledges that there are issues in higher education and that more funding is needed. She would prefer there to be less competition and more collaboration; she supports the idea that scholars are assessed on more than their research performance alone.
A positive development, Westerveld believes. “There’s still a long way to go, but I’m happy that the minister realises that we need to remove the focus on profitability from higher education. She has even mentioned on multiple occasions that she is looking to get a billion euros. That is quite the claim. Whether she will manage it is not certain, but at least the urgency is being felt.”
An urgency that started in the Maagdenhuis. Even if that’s not achieved, more new student protests will arise, says Westerveld. “Students are making themselves heard every few years, but that’s the underdog’s destiny. You need to fight to ensure that your rights are not taken away.
Reap the benefits
Historian Slaman has a bleaker outlook. “The minister says that she wants to save smaller study programmes, but at the same time I see her taking money from the liberal and behavioural programmes to boost the scientific and/or technical programmes.
Slaman does believe that it’s a step in the right direction that Van Engelshoven wants to make higher education less dependent on student numbers. “Thanks to the culture change that started in 2015, serious attention is finally being paid to the funding model.”
“That has been the powerful effect of the Maagdenhuis occupation”, concludes activist Hulzebos. “The fundamental questioning of the current educational system. Whether you were a professor, student or student advisor; you were allowed to be there, and your opinion mattered. We are now starting to reap the benefits. I am sure that we’ll still be talking about it in twenty years.”
From determination to codetermination
Five years ago wasn’t the first time that students demanded more of a say. At the end of the 1960s, many students were also campaigning to this end. On 16 May 1969, this led to the first occupation of the Maagdenhuis, which was harshly ended by the police.
The protest wasn’t in vain: a year later, the right of students and staff members to have a say was officially included in the University Administration (Reform) Act (commonly known as the ‘WUB’ in Dutch). University councils became administrative bodies and were allowed to officially influence decision-making on anything relating to the university.
This method was democratic, but not terribly efficient. After all, now an Executive Board required approval from the university council for nearly any plan. In 1997, the majority of the attained powers were rescinded through the Modernising University Act (abbreviated to ‘MUB’ in Dutch). The councils of universities and universities of applied sciences became participation councils: they were no longer allowed to co-administer; they only had the right of consultation or consent.