More than half a year ago, University of Amsterdam witnessed student protests which culminated in the occupation of the main administrative center of the University – Maagdenhuis. The protests affected not only our University but also other institutions of higher learning in the Netherlands and even abroad. But despite the scale of the events, the protests seem to have gone unnoticed at the Faculty of Economics and Business. While many took the protests to the streets and marched across Amsterdam, FEB students were asking on Facebook why are there so many people outside of the Singel Library. People’s answers to this question were often unsatisfactory and revealed how little was known at the Faculty about the whole situation. Whatever the reasons behind that, this article will try to sum up the events of the last academic year and explain to FEB students what was that all about.
In recent years, the amount of students in the Netherlands has been growing while the government spending for higher education has been mostly kept on the same level. Because of that, many universities in the country faced serious budget cuts. The Faculty of Humanities at the University of Amsterdam in particular faced a dire financial situation and, as a result, in November 2014, the management of the Faculty has come up with a plan called Profiel 2016. According to the plan, the Faculty was to be reorganised with the focus on career-oriented programmes. Among other changes, modern languages programmes (e.g. Norwegian, Polish, Croatian) were to be removed or combined into more general programmes with possibility of doing a language minor (e.g. Scandinavian studies with a minor in Swedish). On top of that, there was also an idea of transforming the Faculty of Humanities into a Liberal Arts college, where students would study the same programme of liberal arts with specialisations in specific areas of humanities studies. For example, a student wishing to obtain a degree in history would actually obtain a liberal arts degree with a specialisation in history. The Faculty of Humanities’ management has argued that the plan was necessary due to the financial situation. However, Profiel 2016 came under heavy criticism from students, who claimed that the University should not be treated as factory for producing graduates and that education should not be overshadowed by money. In response to Profiel 2016, a group of students and staff of the University has created a group Humanities Rally, opposed to the budget cuts and the reorganisation. Throughout the following months, the group has organised meetings, actions, events and protests, aimed at raising awareness of the situation and rallying the students and the staff together against the management’s plans.
In February 2015, no solution that protesters would agree to was within sight, despite abandoning of Profiel 2016 in its shape from November 2014. As a result, another group of students and workers of the UvA, called De Nieuwe Universiteit (the New University), decided to occupy Bungehuis, the main building of the Faculty of Humanities. The occupation begun on the 13th of February and De Nieuwe Universiteit demanded that UvA meets their 6 demands. Among them: more democracy within the University, abolishing Profiel 2016 plan and restructuring of the current financial allocation models. The move met with a huge support within the UvA community as well as critique. Many thought that such a dramatic move was necessary for the Executive Board of the University to hear the demands. Others said that the occupation disrupted the education and research that took place at Bungehuis. After failed negotiations with the protesters, mediated by the mayor of Amsterdam Eberhard van der Laan, the Executive Board demanded that protesters leave the building, threatening to evict them, based on a lawsuit against the protesters and the subsequent court’s order for protesters to leave Bungehuis. On top of that, protesters were facing fines of €1000 per day of protesting, up to €25000. Nonetheless, on the 23rd of February De Nieuwe Universiteit declined and on the 24th of February, after 11 days of occupation, police has evicted and arrested 46 protesters remaining in Bungehuis.
Eviction and, as some claimed, its brutality has angered many students and resulted in further protests. In response, on the 25th of February protesters begun the occupation of Maagdenhuis, another one of several such occupations in the last 50 years, with the first one taking place in 1969 (check this video to see what it looked like back then). The protesters again called for the Executive Board of UvA to meet their demands. On the 10th of March, the Executive Board has sent an open letter with 10-point plan to 3 organisations involved with the occupation: De Nieuwe Universiteit, Humanities Rally and ReThink UvA (an organisation of UvA employees, demanding restructuring of education and research). However, the plan was rejected by the protesters, who said that some of the points were too ambiguous and who wanted to see all of their demands met. Throughout the month of March negotiations continued and in the beginning of April an agreement has been made between the protesters and the Executive Board that Maagdenhuis would be vacated on the 12th of April. However, on the 8th of April, during a press conference in Maagdenhuis, protesters have announced that they would in addition to not leaving the building, also increase their efforts to see their demands enforced. In response, the Executive Board has called on immediate vacation of Maagdenhuis and on the 11th of April, the police has evicted the protesters from the building, resulting in 9 people being arrested.
On the 19th of April, Louise Gunning, the president of the Executive Board of UvA has resigned from her position after strong pressure from UvA community, protesters and after the joint meeting of the Central Student Council and the Central Works Council in which both bodies voted in favour of withdrawing their support for the president. Rector Magnificus of the University of Amsterdam Dymph van den Boom has been appointed the interim president. At the same time, the dean of the Law Faculty Edgar du Perron has been appointed the vice-rector and his first task was further expansion of the 10-point plan and its execution.
Although the Maagdenhuis occupation and its outcomes were the turning point of the protests at the UvA, organisations such as De Nieuwe Universiteit, Humanities Rally and ReThink UvA continue to fight for their demands to be met. Recently, on the 29th of October, Humanities Rally has organised the second “Night of Protest”, a year after the first one. During the event, the current state of situation has been discussed, including what the protesters achieved throughout the year. On top of that, since the end of the occupations, negotiations between the Executive Board and the students and employees have continued and several agreements have been made. Among others, the reorganisation of programmes at the Faculty of Humanities has been postponed and discussions are underway as to what further steps should be taken. Additionally, students will have their representative in the Executive Board and the Student Councils are in the process of determining what will be the responsibilities of such a person. As usual, decisions at UvA take time before every interested party can agree to them. Still, the struggle continues as many continue their protest and do not plan to stop until they see their demands fully enforced. It is also worth mentioning that the protests in Amsterdam have inspired similar actions not only at other Dutch universities but also abroad, with students of the London School of Economics occupying a room in one of this British university’s buildings. Whatever one’s opinion on the topic is, several things are certain. The reorganisation of the Faculty of Humanities was a response to the worsening financial situation and without at least some changes made, the Faculty’s future is unclear. At the same time, students have shown that they will not let the management of the University to make important decisions without students’ consent. The remaining question is: what should happen next? Should students have even more say in the decision-making process, on top of already existing and considerably powerful Student Council? Or should the Executive Board introduce the reorganisation reforms, despite them being very unpopular? Only the future will tell in what direction the University of Amsterdam will go. Whether you support the protesters or not, it is students’ responsibility to take part in shaping our University.