Cuts to Education: Impressions from the national student demonstration

Photos by Coen van der Steen and Markus Balkenhol

In the Netherlands, the cutbacks to higher education have become a controversial issue. They are part of wider austerity measures taken by the Dutch government in the wake of the global financial crisis. In this context, education reform has become a focus of discussion inside and outside universities. This series, “Cuts to Education,” includes pieces from various vantage points in the education cutbacks debate.

By Donya Alinejad The student demonstration in The Hague last Friday was referred to as one of the largest in the country since 1988. In a historical first, approximately 1000 Professors – that’s one third of all the professors at Dutch universities – marched in full academic garb as a statement of solidarity with the protesting students. The reason: Opposition to the cabinet’s drastic education cutbacks. Since then, Prime Minister Mark Rutte has announced during a routine press conference that the plans for cut backs will simply continue. So what was the effect of the student demonstration?

The demo, organized by the student organs LSVb and ISO, included time in the program for representatives from all the leading coalition parties to give speeches and participate in debate with opposition representatives on the issue of higher education. In the meantime the DJ of the day filled the moments between (party) political oration with catchy dance beats and pop music. The atmosphere was light and entertaining; the youthful audience listened, chanted, booed, danced, and applauded to the sounds of the Beastie Boys‘ ‘Right to Party’. But what did they think when it was all over? For many, talking instead of rallying and partying instead of protesting didn’t sit right. While the State Secretary of Education, Halbe Zijlstra (VVD), was on the mic, students threw and yelled things towards the stage in response. At one point a silent mass of snapping hands rose above the crowd as the annoyed demonstrators both respected the moderator’s request that speakers be heard out (not booed out), while at the same time cheekily mocking the CDA speaker’s words as empty political rhetoric. In the biting cold of the open field, complaints circulated about the event being too much of a pop festival; an opportunity for electioneering; an untimely platform for adding nuance to the issue. The dissatisfaction finally displayed itself as the participants began leaving the Malieveld at the end of the day’s program; thousands of frustrated students spontaneously decided to march peacefully on three different government buildings, including the Ministry of Education. Once there, the students were met with a few hard lessons.

Charged at by riot police and physically and verbally discouraged from protest by the demonstration organizers (via the student “ordedienst” who then promptly withdrew and returned to the Malieveld), those who marched were left with no coordination, no leadership, and no protection. Beaten from one side and abandoned from the other, the students who marched that day learned the hard way where the cleavage lay between their demands and the interest of the large, established student organizations (since then the student union LSVb has slightly changed its tune). They also learned how their peaceful protest could be forcefully silenced and dispersed by Mayor van Aartsen’s police. While the police violence wasn’t made an issue in the mainstream press coverage, it didn’t escape the attention of Joris Wijsmuller, chairperson of the Haagse Stadspartij. He wrote a letter to Mayor van Aartsen in the days following the protest. It cited multiple online sources of video footage shot by demonstrators and others present that day. Wijsmuller emphasized the visibly peaceful nature of the protest and demanded justification for the riot police’s infringement on the students’ freedom of demonstration, as well as the outright dangerous behavior displayed by the police.

In the face of being cracked down upon by police, dismissed by PM Rutte, and patronized (verging on insult) by the Mayor of The Hague -who posted a most unfortunate Twitter message addressed to the protesters after the demo – many students began to see themselves without any natural partners in this cause. Some have turned to historical counterparts as one of their few allies. Organizers of the upcoming national week of student action are speaking of university occupations with the historical Maagdenhuis occupiers of ’68 as their role models, fashioning their ideas with reference to a time when student protest was an internationally powerful force. While drawing on inspiring moments of the past, student activists and organizers in the Netherlands today have plenty of reference points around them. The protests against arts and culture spending cuts are still fresh in many people’s minds, as are the powerful stories and pictures of the student demonstrations staged recently in a slew of other cities – most notably in London. But they’re also watching images of far-away uprisings that nonetheless demonstrate the power of regular people in protest; one of the striking banners at the demonstration read “Hey Rutte, Tunisia is everywhere.”

As this generation of young people put their creativity and intellect to use through action, students who have never before been a part of such large demonstrations are quickly learning what it means to build a united public voice. For many, it’s the sense of being part of the beginnings of something bigger, and this feeling, if nothing else, is an effect of the events of last Friday. As one demonstrator told me after participating and being beaten by police, “Last Friday has done something to me; I don’t know yet what, but something’s going on.”

Donya Alinejad is a PhD student at the department of Social and Cultural Anthropology (VU University). For Standplaats Wereld, she co-authored another article (in Dutch) about the educational reforms in the Netherlands. She also wrote about the media coverage of the Haiti earthquake and the Iranian elections of 2009, including the protests that followed.

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