By Donya Alinejad This Friday, May 21st, at 13.00, a demonstration against the financial cut-backs on Dutch education will be held in Amsterdam. Demonstrators will start gathering at 13.00 on Damplein and will lead a procession march to Museumplein, where speeches, concerts, and rallies will commence from 14.00 onward. The aim is to fill the Museumplein in defense of higher education and against the planned 20% cutbacks, thus sending a clear political message to leaders in the Hague: no more cutbacks on education. The initiators of the protests are the student groups, LSVb, ISO, JOB, LKvV, and Comite SOS. They are sponsored by radio station Wild FM and have the support of other student and grassroots organizations.
As an insider-outsider to Dutch society I’ve been humbly following the debates lately, and I find myself confronted with some “crazy ideas.” Since February this year, students at the VU and around the country have been organizing various protest actions against the budget cuts on higher education. The frustration of some leading student organizers is that funding for education has consistently been rolled back over the past two decades. They claim that enough is enough. In line with this, the “Commissie Veerman” (the commission initiated by Dutch Minister of Education, Roland Plasterk, to evaluate the state of Dutch education) calls for investment in higher education rather than cutbacks. This was concluded based on the need to build a Dutch “Knowledge Economy” and to put the Netherlands among the world’s top 5 countries in education. Even our own Rene Smit of the “College van Bestuur” (or “College of Deans”) of the VU recently agreed that investment is the best option for education.
Investment! That’s just what the students are asking for, too! Consensus, right? Wrong.
The students are demonstrating against the elimination of the “basisbeurs” (meaning they no longer receive the standard allowance offered by the Dutch government), the elimination of the “OV kaart” in its current form (meaning students must pay more than before to travel to and from classes), the additional tuition increase for pursuing a second masters degree, and tuition increases in general. Policy makers are attacking the current model that directly funds students through student loans and allowances. They want to redistribute money away from students and towards the institutions, with the promise of future investment and overall benefit. This is an approach that one student organizer referred to as “offering students a cigar from their own box” (article in Dutch).
So, why funnel this money upward? Perhaps the problem is not altogether that changes are being made to the Dutch educational system. The problem is that improving the system is being conflated with, and made virtually indistinguishable from, executing cutbacks in an atmosphere of economic crisis – an atmosphere in which regular people are told they must start paying up for the greater good and without question. Call me crazy, but i don’t see how investment in quality and accessibility of higher education goes peacefully hand in hand with cutting higher education budgets.
The strongest consensus is around increasing competition all round; more competition between faculties of Dutch universities, profiling universities on the basis of disciplinary strengths, and introducing higher rewards for individual performance. See a pattern? No more “traditional” Dutch system of being (too) inclusive and egalitarian. While it’s clear how these measures promote “excellence,” we have yet to see the policy proposals that preserve accessibility for those with lower socio-economic status (predominantly ethnic and racial minorities) and first-generation university students.
Not only is egalitarianism “out” according to this model, it’s also fundamentally at odds with “excellence.” The opposition between accessibility and excellence seems to be the only way we can talk about changing education these days, since it has unequivocal support at the top. The protesting students are keenly aware of the fact that a vast majority of political parties is supporting the elimination of the “basisbeurs.” Given this lack of parliamentary opposition, the fear is that students will suffer no matter who comes to power after the upcoming June 9th parliamentary elections, and no matter which coalitions are formed. This is not to say that it doesn’t matter who you vote for if you care about education (after all, Wilder’s election program on education is exceptionally scary!), but it does mean the students and their supporters are voicing an important position that can’t be expressed by checking a box on the ballot paper.
Student organizers are busy mobilizing and making arrangements for the demonstrations. In their efforts toward being heard they must contend with the “youth”-label which allows their demands to be brushed over and depoliticized by inaccurate media coverage and the pop/entertainment categories that youth interests are often put into (and let themselves be put into). Aside from this, Dutch students in particular face the common stereotype, in the general public and academic circles alike, that the average student is lazy and will do anything just to get by, a notion extended to their student “culture” in the term “zesjes cultuur” – a culture of being satisfied with no more than a passing grade.
Whether this is the case or not, increasing tuition and lowering student aid can’t possibly help raise the grades of the steadily increasing number of students who work on the side to pay for their studies. This group will now only have to work longer hours to follow the same overcrowded courses. So far they’re the one who will be forced to “invest” more in the country’s future. So here’s a crazy idea: how about showing some solidarity with concerned teachers, students, and parents by joining the demonstration on Friday?
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.