By Lucc Brans (Staff Writer)
In recent months students in the Netherlands, the UK, Canada and elsewhere have demonstrated and occupied university buildings, protesting against what they decry as neoliberal university policies. The students’ demands cover both the immediate issue of budget cuts, as well as more wide-ranging matters which connect local struggles to wider concerns over neoliberalism in general. In this post I will examine the different student protests in the UK and the Netherlands, and ask whether they form part of a new truly global student movement with concerns transcending the level of university parochialism, or whether they are just isolated incidents.
A surge of protests began at the University of Amsterdam in February 2015, when students occupied the main building of the humanities faculty. After being evicted by the authorities, students followed up with another six-week occupation of the University Board’s building. The protests' main target was proposed budget cuts to cover a budget deficit, which they argued was the result of an increased ‘financialisation’ of the university, reflected in the institutions financial policies - like speculation with real estate property and financial instruments. Engelen et al. (2014) describe this as “financialisation, triggering changes in organizational culture and a power shift from teaching and research professionals to accountants, real-estate developers, financiers and their ilk” . In any event, this financial speculation led to budget deficits, and the University’s Faculty of Humanities were the victim of extensive budget cuts of up to €13 million (£9.6 million) . Students did not feel sufficiently consulted about the cuts which, in turn, led to the protests. Hence protesters demanded the democratization of university policy, less managerialism and full oversight of the university’s finances, in an effort to turn the university from a ‘profit-driven’ institution back into a public institution .
The methods student protesters used reflect their views on the changes in the university, and what they believe a university should be. The students transformed the occupied buildings into ‘free’ public spaces where they hosted academic lectures, workshops and activities, most of which took place in English to include a wider audience. The protests sparked conflict with university management, which responded with legal action - they demanded direct eviction and asked to the court to impose a fine of 100.000 Euro on each protester for each day the buildings remained occupied, a request which was deemed a little excessive . In turn, the legal action and subsequent eviction of the students seems to have galvanized and strengthened the movement in Amsterdam . Many of similar patterns can be seen elsewhere.
In London, student protests took place at various universities, such as King’s College, the London School of Economics (LSE)  and the University of Arts London (UAL) . UAL students occupied the reception area of their main building, protesting budget cuts to foundation courses, which would cut between 600 and 800 places for new students . Students at UAL demanded a halt to these cuts, more transparency and more democracy at their university . Meanwhile, at the LSE forty students occupied a room in the Old Building for six weeks, protesting the move towards bureaucratic, profit-driven, neoliberal models of higher education, echoing the demands of the Amsterdam protesters . The LSE students transformed the occupied space into an “open, creative and liberated space, where all (were) free to participate in the imagining of a new directly democratic, non-hierarchical and universally accessible education” . The LSE students connected their occupy movement to wider-ranging issues, from an end to zero-hour contracts, the removal of barriers and turnstiles in the university, to the divestment from fossil fuels and companies that operate in the Israel-occupied West Bank . Both LSE and UAL students were similarly met with threats of legal action .
The two protest waves appear strikingly similar in rhetoric, choice of strategy and their conflicts with university leadership. We see the rhetoric of 'free and open' education enacted in transformed buildings, contrasted with images of undemocratic, less transparent, and more financially and profit-oriented management of universities . Protesters from Amsterdam visited the London occupations and the students often made statements online in support of each other’s movements . The movements even adopted the very same symbols, like the ‘red square’. With these traits in common it seems that the activities of different student bodies are merging into a common global struggle against the neoliberalisation of higher education in particular, and perhaps neoliberal politics in general.
Or are they? While the similarities between their ideological stances seem striking, it is also easy to see, within the protests themselves, how fragmented and divided opinion can be about connecting the local dots into a global picture. Observing friends, and others, at protests in Amsterdam I began to query whether the students involved were equally willing to see their protests as a local part of a wider global struggle against neoliberalism. Perhaps there is just a hard-core of protesters who see it that way?
When the University of Amsterdam's Board evicted the first occupation with the help of riot police, sympathy for the protesters among the student population surged. The same happened in Canada when student activists in Montreal and Quebec clashed with riot police . I experienced the heat of protest as I watched Dutch friends, who you would hardly call hardened political activists, angrily protest their University Board and face off oncoming riot police. With sympathy came new recruits and an increase in participating protesters brought with it the espousal of different views. As the occupation of the Board’s building extended into weeks, some students slowly lost their fire and sympathy for the movement. The growing presence of banners and non-student protesters in the occupied buildings which had nothing to do with the University of Amsterdam, made some feel uneasy and alienated. Most students were against the budget cuts and resentful about the University’s attitude to its protesting students but not all were equally eager to link their protests to student protests in London and Montreal, the Euro-crisis in Greece, climate change, or the Israel-Palestine conflict. Support seem to wane, and it was only after another brutal police eviction that widespread support surged again and massive student protests successfully called for the resignation of the University’s director.
The student protest in Amsterdam seemed only able to gain widespread support when it functioned as a local movement concerned with very university-specific issues. Yet, this surge in support showed the difference in opinions among the protesters as new elements were brought in. We see in the demands of the movements connections from a local to global struggle. In their development over time we see a fragmentation that suggests that these student protests both connect to local issues and to global issues in an uncertain mix. For those of us who take an interest in these matters, it remains to be seen whether the student movements in London and Amsterdam are indeed able to gain traction as a truly global protest movement. These protests may remain isolated movements reacting to more local issues, without globally connecting the dots.
1: Engelen, E; Fernandez, R. & Hendrikse, R. (2014) ‘How Finance Penetrates its Other: A Cautionary Tale on the Financialization of a Dutch University’ Antipode 46 (4) pp 1072 – 1091
2: Guardian (2015) ‘Dutch Students protest ignite movement against management of universities’, March 17th URL: http://bit.ly/1CpWK5v
3: University of Amsterdam (2015) ‘Samenvatting op Ontwerp hoofdlijnen Profiel 2016’, Faculteit der Geesteswetenschappen, February 2nd [in Dutch] URL: http://bit.ly/1OUrzqu
4: Eisen/Demands’: Demands of the Amsterdam student movement New University: [in English and Dutch] URL: http://bit.ly/1QfyYxO
5: Humanities Rally (2015) ‘Humanities, Rally! A charge against the austerity measures facing the Humanities’ Manifesto with demands by Amsterdam student movement Humanities Rally [in English] URL: http://bit.ly/1KHcLpk
6: More information about Humanities Rally. URL: http://humanitiesrally.com/about/ [In English]
7: NL Times (2015) ‘Judge Rules Univ. Amsterdam Protesters Must Pack Up, Leave Bungehuis’, February 19th by Zack Newmark URL: http://bit.ly/1ERZ5Hl
8: As demonstrated in this open letter from academics to the University of Amsterdam, February 19th, 2015. URL: http://bit.ly/1LHnhhd
9: Guardian (2015) ‘LSE students stage occupation in protest at ‘profit-driven education’’ March 18th by Nadia Khomami. URL: http://bit.ly/1BQE1y7
10: Times Higher Education (2015) ‘Students occupy buildings at London universities’ March 26th by Jack Grove. URL: http://bit.ly/1IzKKPo
11: Guardian (2015) ‘Virgin voters: why we’ll fight for a fairer education system’ March 26th, by Natalie Gil and Abby Young-Powell URL: http://bit.ly/1EYVtBP
12: Times Higher Education (2015) ‘Students occupy art school over cuts plan’ March 23rd by Jack Grove URL:http://bit.ly/1DS2oPx
13: The demands of the Occupy UAL movement can be found on their Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/occupyual/posts/1570703629836023
14: Guardian (2015) ‘Students occupy Central St. Martins in protest against cuts’ March 24th, by Abby Young-Powell and Natalie Gil URL: http://bit.ly/19OM712
15: Guardian (2015) ‘LSE students stage occupation in protest at ‘profit-driven education’’ March 18th by Nadia Khomami. URL: http://bit.ly/1BQE1y7
16: Guardian (2015) ‘LSE students stage occupation in protest at ‘profit-driven education’’ March 18th by Nadia Khomami. URL: http://bit.ly/1BQE1y7
17: The demands of the Occupy LSE movement can be found here on their Tumblr-page: http://occupylse.tumblr.com/demands
18: Beaver Online (2015) ‘LSE threatens legal action against occupiers’, March 29th. URL: http://bit.ly/1QfD88T
19: Times Higher Education (2015) ‘UAL takes legal action against student occupiers’, April 11th by Jack Grove. URL: http://bit.ly/1QfDigs
20: Beaver Online (2015) ‘LSE occupation: Vera la revolution’, May 3rd. URL: http://bit.ly/1QfD4G1
21: Amsterdam student movement New University put out this letter of support for student activists in Montréal, Québec: http://bit.ly/1QfDxrK
22: Another gesture to foreign student movements by the Amsterdam student movement can be found here: http://bit.ly/1QfDPyQ
23: For more on the symbol of the red square, see this page: http://www.redsquareeverywhere.com/
24: Russia Today (2015) ‘Violent Crackdown at Quebec student rally ‘only serves to galvanize protests’, April 10th. URL: http://bit.ly/1QfE7Gc
25: The Star Canada (2015) ‘Protests at Montreal University breathe new life into student movement’ April 9th by Allan Woods. URL: http://on.thestar.com/1QfEn7W