A study commissioned by the Ministry of Education found that higher education experiences a budget deficit of €1.1 billion every year. “The financing that Dutch universities currently receive is inadequate to provide good education,” agrees Alessandra Arcuri, professor of Inclusive Global Law and Governance at the Erasmus School of Law (ESL), while the wind blows her academic cap off her head. “You do not expect to encounter this in a rich country like the Netherlands.”

Only a structural approach will make a difference, agree the four academics. That is necessary because a range of problems is associated with a budget that is too small. One of them is the large number of temporary contracts. “Personally, as a professor, my job is secure,” says Sanne Taekema, professor of Law at the ESL, while hail strikes her in the face. “But I see that underfunding is creating problems all around me. I have to send people home after two years because their contract has ended. Even though they were doing their job perfectly.”

Alarm Day protest in The Hague: Higher education demands 1.1 billion euros Source:

Giulia Evolvi, lecturer at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication, experienced the pressure herself. “I have a temporary contract. I am expected to deliver quality work but I have to apply for a new position alongside my daily tasks. That does not benefit the quality of my work.”

The high work pressure and lack of job security also lead to a more fundamental problem according to the academics. “Critical thinking is being affected,” says Karin Astrid Siegmann, assistant professor at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). “Even though universities are really concerned with critical thinking.”

No off-the-shelf solutions

That €1.1 billion could be put to good use, it seems clear. The activists have plenty of ideas for improving higher education. “There must definitely be fewer temporary contracts,” says Evolvi. And more room for research and collaboration. “This also ensures a great experience again for the students at the university.”

Arcuri can imagine other ways to address the problems with work pressure.“At the universities, and also in Rotterdam, the directors of the university and the other professors and academics must communicate better with each other about the existing problems,” says Arcuri. “The directors must stand with them in solidarity.”

In addition, society must become more aware of the importance of higher education. “Protesting is one way of drawing attention to the problem,” says Taekema. But all of society should be concerned with the importance of higher education. The unions must be involved, and the companies that benefit from new knowledge.”

It’s worth fighting for

In any case, it’s worth fighting for the quality of higher education. “As a society, we expect the universities to contribute ideas to solve problems, like the economic damage due to the crisis or pandemic,” explains Siegman. “But to do this, we need to make structural changes. We need people who are not going to be sent away after their temporary contract expires.”

The protest is a step in the right direction, believes Arcuri. “It’s a pity, though, that not more directors of the universities attended, like members of our Executive Board.” Arcuri hopes that this situation will change in the future. “They can follow the example of Pieter Duisenberg (chair of the VSNU, ed.), who jumped into the water fully clothed in his suit during our protest.”