Race, Identity and the Defence of Public Education
Dramatic events in Amsterdam have highlighted the way that creeping neoliberalism is converting Universities into degree factories. Jack Ferguson reports for Bella.
Recent months have seen a massive protest movement kick off at the University of Amsterdam (UvA), which has forced management to retreat from controversial changes, and the head of the Executive Board to resign.
The initial spark was the announcement last year of brutal cuts and bureaucratic re-organisation for the Faculty of Humanities. However, many felt the reasoning behind this was the commercialisation of higher education. Under this model, the only subjects worth investing in are those that can provide obvious profitable outcomes – which can be difficult for a historian or literary critic, whose work is virtually impossible to assess in financial terms. Academics and students both felt increasingly that the University was being managed by a distant bureaucratic elite, who cared little for what they thought.
“A different kind of logic began to operate in the University, one in which it began to be run according to ideas of efficiency” says Julie McBrien, an anthropology professor at UvA. “In Dutch they call it “rendements denken” – efficiency thinking. How do we get students through as fast as possible? Rather than, how do we educate students as best we can, and what is a good way of doing that? Or how do we research in a way that is productive and creative, rather than just get more money to do research? Right now research tends to be funded because it brings money, rather than it brings creativity, or innovation in thinking or new critical approaches. So you had policies that were oriented towards making money and getting people through as fast as possible, rather than the basic ideas of a University, which are of course education and research.”
This drive for speed and efficiency is demonstrated by UvA management’s self-expressed desire to attract “excellent” students. As another senior professor pointed out during a protest meeting, this is code for those students with minimal life commitments, such as work or a family, outside of study, who are best equipped to focus solely on learning, and will complete their programmes in the allotted time while needing minimal additional support. In other words, elite students, those from backgrounds that prime them for taking part in higher education, mostly likely white, male and non working class. Staff have condemned the effect this has on access to their teaching, saying it contradicts their mission of spreading knowledge throughout society.
Another flashpoint was the University’s management of its extensive property portfolio. After UvA gained control over many buildings in the centre of one of Europe’s most valuable city centres, it began engaging in complex financial deals and credit swaps, similar to the type of financial instruments that helped cause the 2008 financial crisis. Many were outraged at the creeping financialisation of an educational institution, and the movement of campus locations to allow profitable sales of the former, much-loved locations.
One of these was the Spinhuis, a small social space and café in central Amsterdam that allowed teachers and students in the social sciences to interact as equals and discuss issues informally. When this was closed with a view to selling it off, students occupied, back at the start of the academic year last September. It was turned into a space of alternative education, with free talks, film showings and political discussions, and acted as an independent social centre until the occupiers left voluntarily at Christmas. It was to be the first of three buildings that have been occupied throughout the year.
In the New Year, activists moved on to a larger building, in order to escalate pressure on the University Board. Close to the palace of the Dutch Royal family at Dam Square, the Bungehuis was a symbolic location, home to the Humanities Faculty that was so threatened. Here, the ending was less consensual, as the Board pressured local authorities to deploy the police to evict occupiers, and demanded that the protesters pay €100,000 per day.
These tactics backfired badly, drawing many more people into the protest who were outraged at the heavy handed response. Protester and second year student Frake explains:
“I was there at the eviction. I saw that the board sent the police to kick the occupiers out, both teachers and students. It just seemed so bizarre to me, because the complaints and demands of the occupiers seemed, to me, so logical and fair. Then later I read in the news that if they would not leave the Bungehuis the occupiers would get a fine of €100,000 per day. This showed two things. Firstly, they totally do not understand or listen to what the protest has said. Second of all it proved that in their daily lives, the University Board have only been busy with such absurdly high numbers, that they can make a demand for €100,000 a day from a student. It just showed they had totally lost contact with the actual scientific community.”
For Frake, Julie and many others, this was the key turning point. The eviction was followed by a huge protest march in the centre of Amsterdam, at which those taking part took the opportunity to seize the University Senate building (known as the Maagdenhuis). With the third occupation of the year in place, occupiers branded themselves De Nieuwe Universiteit (the New University, DNU), and began a major campaign that was to grab worldwide attention.
“I was kind of thrilled by the idea, thrilled by the space that it opened up. A space for criticism, for debates for critical movements,” says Prof. McBrien. “We saw that one of the ways that they were occupying the building was by holding teach-ins, getting lecturers to come in and teach to keep the space being used. So a colleague and I thought, ‘OK, we’ll lecture,’ and we lectured on the first night. What we tried to do was set the students’ frustration and the students’ occupation into a bigger context in terms of changes that have been going on for a long time at the University. Changes toward neoliberal policies.”
“We tried to show the students that the teachers also had a lot of concerns, and that the concerns that the teachers and the students had were interwoven and came from the same place, even if they weren’t always identical issues. That was the moment when I and other colleagues tried to show the students, ‘You occupied, but really this protest is all of ours’.”
The Board was clearly taken aback by this escalation. Following the start of the new occupation, they decided to change tack somewhat. Issuing a conciliatory statement that expressed some understanding for protesters concerns, they promised to make changes through a process of negotiation and dialogue. This in turn led to extensive talks between the Board, the officially elected student’s and employee’s councils of UvA, and the protest movement, which was made up of an alliance of the critical staff organisation (ReThink UvA), the student protesters (De Nieuwe Universiteit), the Humanities Rally against cuts to their faculty, and the campus trade unions. Prof. McBrien explains:
“ReThink, DNU and the Humanities Rally are three independent groups, but we often work together, and we come out sometimes with a joint statement or a joint voice. We have managed to formulate and write joint demands, so all of our demands have been joint with the three groups up until now.
“We haven’t reached all of our goals yet, but we have won two important things. We won two committees that would basically investigate two main issues – one is the finance, and the other is what we’ve called democracy and transparency issues. But we, those three protest groups, decided that the committees should be set up also in conversation with the two officially elected bodies, and the unions. So those six parties already are meeting on a regular basis, in fact I just came from the meeting now, to decide things like, what is the mandate of the finance committee? What are they going to be doing research about? When they’re finished what’s done with it, what’s happening with that information? And the same thing with the democratisation committee – who’s going to be on the committee? What is their mandate? What are their tasks? How are their findings discussed and presented to the academic community?”
“And then what happens with that advice? We, those six parties together, were able to establish that we would make these committees, that they would be in constant conversation with the academic community, and that the advice would be binding. It’s not something that you give to the Board, who then says Yes or No. As far as we can see, that’s still happening, we’re going forward with the committees, to plan them, to create them. So we’ve won that.”
“Decentralisation and democratisation are the biggest demands we are making. It needs to change, there needs to be an accountability shift at the Board,” argues Frake. “There needs to be decentralisation, there needs to be more power in the faculties. Anthropology is so different from biology, you cannot have one system for all. There needs to be a bigger say in things like selling buildings, what the buildings should look like, because this is really stressing out everybody involved, except for the Board and higher bureaucratic layers.”
One very important aspect of the diversity of the movement at UvA has been the efforts of the University of Colour, a group which aims to highlight the issues of racism, exclusion from the academic community and the continued colonial ties of higher educational institutions. They supported the protests, but brought further demands to the table to highlight these issues, and strived to put them at the centre of the debates and discussions taking place at the Maagdenhuis and across the campus. Key among their goals are a widening of the curriculum to make the authors and works studied more than the current overwhelmingly white canon; the introduction of critical studies departments such as Postcolonial Studies, Women’s Studies, but also ones more focused on the particularities of race and empire in a Dutch context, such as Dutch black writers; disinvestment in the arms trade, fossil fuels and Israeli apartheid; and “radically transparent hiring practices”, affirmative action to create a more diverse teaching body, and free education for all regardless of immigration status.
After the occupation of the Maagdenhuis, the University Board put in a complaint to the police demanding action, which contained lines that were soon to become infamous. They said that “two young boys, presumably Moroccan, and clearly too young to be students of the University of Amsterdam, were in the Maagdenhuis.
“ Clearly, in the view of the Board, a Dutch University is no place for young men who are “presumably Moroccan” to be. Moroccan is often used as a catch all term in the Netherlands for Arabs or Muslims, and the phrasing is heavy with racist implications.
This sparked a new campaign, Wij Zijn de UvA (We are the UvA), in which staff and students have their photo put online holding a sign in which they describe how they would commonly be stereotyped based on their appearance. Examples so far include “Presumably an Immigrant” and “Presumably Arab”. In their statement, the campaign wrote:
“The stereotypical image of UvA students that the Board holds is outdated and condemnable. Is being young, Moroccan and male incompatible with studying at the University of Amsterdam? Is looking like a Moroccan boy in itself a reason for exclusion? Are young people with a “presumably Moroccan background” automatically considered a threat to order and safety?
These comments must be seen in the context of a polarized public debate in which negative stereotypes of Dutch citizens of Moroccan origin are key. By their choice of words the Board has revealed its uncritical stance toward the stereotyping and criminalization of a group of citizens. Indeed, by making use of this stereotype the Board actually supports and strengthens it. This form of institutionalized racism is absolutely unacceptable.”
After the progress made in the negotiations, the protesters agreed to leave the Maagdenhuis on Monday April 13th, after a final event, a Festival of Science and Humanities, followed by a large voluntary clean up to leave the building in a fit state. In a move that seems baffling in its tactical ineptitude, the Board declared that this was not fast enough for them, and chose to evict the protesters on the Saturday who planned to leave on the Monday anyway. Nine were arrested, and when some refused to give their names were held in detention normally reserved for foreigners for around two weeks. When video emerged of the police violence on the day, the mood at UvA radicalised again, and when Monday came it saw a march of over 1000 people demanding the Board’s resignation.
“It rejuvenated the movement,” says Prof. McBrien. “It sparked a lot of action, immediately afterwards. It was I think, tactically, incredibly foolish of the Board. If they wanted to keep their power the best thing they could have done is come to the festival and participated, or at least allowed it to go on. I am still in disbelief that they made this decision. But they did, and it led to the resignation of Louise Gunning [President of the Board]. It galvanised a lot of people who were previously more moderates.”
In the week following the eviction, pressure on the Board continued to build, and when the officially elected representative bodies of the University, along with hundreds of teaching staff, publicly voiced their lack of confidence in their continued leadership, the President, Louise Gunning, stepped down. In her statement, she called for a new leadership to be appointed that could move forward on the negotiated process of reform and discussion with the confidence of staff and students. For now, it seems the process continues, and people are optimistic about the prospects for real change.
“Now we are back on track,” says Frake. It was a large misstep by the Board, calling the Police to violently evict. But now they are backtracking again, and we can get to work again on this process of democratisation. There’s two commissions that are going to come into existence and they are going to lead the process towards these fundamental changes.”
“I am optimistic. But at the same time, I think the rest of the Board should also step down, because I still do not have any trust in them. But I do think that change is inevitable. If there was even any kind of minor thing that happened now, people would be in the streets again. Any little thing that can go wrong in the coming weeks will immediately go public, and everybody is tensed. A lot of people expect change, so I’m positive. It’s inevitable.”
His reactions point to the uncertainty and cautious optimism of many here. Although there is an agreed process for bringing change to the University structure, it’s clear more action and vigilance from the various groups will be necessary to deliver it. For their part, DNU’s next planned move is to hold an impressive academic festival7 in a (temporary) venue next weekend. But they also recognise that to progress even further it may be necessary to tackle Dutch national, and indeed international politics. In light of this, it is especially encouraging for them to hear of other Nieuwe Universiteit groups being formed at institutions across the country, as the example set here shows what is possible.
The dramatic events in Amsterdam have highlighted the way that creeping neoliberalism is converting Universities into degree factories inaccessible to many, and indeed constraining the process of generating knowledge itself. In the process, the progress made by protesters has provided much needed inspiration to the international student movement, which has also seen renewed waves of occupations in England, and the ongoing massive struggle over higher education in Canada.
“What we hope is that we’ve started an actual process of reform and change in the University, and if that’s true that’s an incredibly inspiring thing for other people,” says Julie McBrien. “Their way to that will not be easy. But if you see that somewhere else it happens then you’re more inclined to try it.”
“If we can actually have some serious transformation of the structure of our University, the way we think about ourselves as a University, then that will also mean that we will have a different voice in the Dutch public, so that we can say to The Hague, ‘No, we don’t agree with the way that you are spending money in education, we don’t agree that all the money should go to an external body that we then need to fight over for funding, or that certain kinds of research are valued over others.’ We can then fight against The Hague to try and get them to make better policies. If you get enough countries doing that it begins to change the international environment. That’s a big thing – it’s fighting against broad trends of neoliberalism. But it has to start somewhere.”