“Huge debts are absurd! Students, make yourselves heard!” The shouts of hundreds of students taking part in a protest rally could be heard loud and clear even from the deepest level of the underground car park at Malieveld. They were yelling other slogans as well, such as “What do we want? To be debt-free!” (it rhymes in Dutch) or “Debt-ridden generation? Hey, we’d like some compensation!”

Under the motto #nietmijnschuld (#notmyfault), the National Student Union (LSVb) and the FNV Young & United trade union have been campaigning against student loans for nearly two years now. On Thursday afternoon, they came to The Hague, along with hundreds of supporters, for a major nation-wide ‘student strike’.

Crush barriers

Initially, the event felt more like a festival, atmosphere-wise. It was sunny, people were putting on sunscreen, there was a major stage and there were crush barriers. Students wearing bright-coloured vests were handing out lunch boxes and making sure that everyone was properly distanced.

However, the message being conveyed was serious. The protesters demanded the opportunity to attend university without incurring huge debts and also asked that those students who were unfortunate enough to get a degree after the abolition of student grants receive full financial compensation. “Today we’re not leaving anything to chance!” LSVb chair Lyle Muns yelled from the stage. “Not my fault!” the students shouted back.

When the event began, some 1,200 students had gathered in front of the stage. However, the organisers announced from the stage that train service had been interrupted by a technical glitch, so more people were on their way. Later in the day, the police counted two thousand protesters. The students waved banners and held up signs bearing slogans such as “I’d like to be able to get a mortgage later.” And of course they shouted themselves hoarse, yelling “Not my fault” over and over again.

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Loud boos

Several MPs showed up to address the crowd very briefly. PvdA’s new spokesperson for education-related matters, Habtamu de Hoop (who is 23 and a student himself) received a lot of applause. “I’m not just listening to you. I am one of you myself!” he shouted. The Socialist Party’s Lilian Marijnissen also drew a fair bit of applause, particularly when she said that her party wanted full compensation for the generation of students that attended university during the student loan years.

However, VVD’s Hatte van der Woude, also new to the job, was treated to loud boos. Her party is the only party that still supports student loans.

Things did not improve when Van der Woude was asked if the average amount owed by Dutch students was a shock to her and she replied, “I’m shocked that students have taken to borrowing that much money…” She was not able to finish the sentence, as the boos from the crowd drowned her out. SP leader Marijnissen smelled blood. “There you have it, guys,” she shouted into the crowd. “You simply shouldn’t have borrowed all that money. So you see it is your fault!”

Love lost

However, it was very quiet on the Malieveld lawn during the spoken-word performance by 19-year-old Amara van der Elst, who also performed at this year’s Remembrance of the Dead commemoration ceremony in Amsterdam’s Dam square. And later, when a song about student grants was sung on stage (‘an ode to a love lost’), people were dancing all over the lawn. Since it was very warm, some people took off their face masks, but social distancing rules were observed at all times.

LSVb chair Muns said he was incredibly happy with the turnout. “Train service was interrupted and we’re battling a virus,” he said. “And yet there are thousands of people here, which shows you exactly how important student grants and proper education are.”

He had to close things off in a hurry, though, because there was an NS bike waiting for him. You see, the committee that organised the event had some potentially good news to impart to the protesters: they had drawn up a letter to the newly-to-be-formed government. While others were banging two enormous Japanese drums, Muns and one of his colleagues cycled across the lawn, towards the houses of parliament. The letter was in their bag, and its destination was Mariëtte Hamer, who has been charged with forming the new Dutch coalition government.