Usually, students in Amsterdam can be found in the warm comfort of lecture theatres or seminar rooms, looking at a projector or a whiteboard, assembled behind laptops and writing blocks. This week, they were instead huddled on the steps along the Nieuwe Achtergracht, in the Oosterpark or even on the train between Amsterdam and The Hague. The University of Amsterdam and the Vrije Universiteit held over fifty lectures outdoors in protest against a €12 million budget cut for the next year, while similar actions took place in four other universities across the Netherlands.
The goal of the action was to show the government what their universities may look like if the budget cuts are continued, as Professor Marieke de Goede from the University of Amsterdam told her students during an outdoor seminar on European politics. The cuts are part of a bigger programme aiming to make universities more efficient by cutting a total of €183 million from educational funding. In a context where government spending per student has decreased by 25% since 2000, despite ever-increasing student numbers, students and staff alike are expressing their discontentment at these developments. The Netherlands now only spends 0.55% of its GDP on university education, compared to around 1% for most of northwestern Europe. These cutbacks cannot be blamed on insufficient funds either; in 2017, the Dutch government recorded a budget surplus for the second year in a row, amounting to 1.1% of GDP.
Regardless, universities have to deal with depleted funding, leading to bigger classes and a lower quality in education, according to junior staff members who detailed their experiences at some of the outdoor lectures. They described how they increasingly have to take over administrative work that their superiors no longer have the time for, leading to a lower quality of teaching. Instead of personalised teaching where professors can assist students, more and more classes have to be taught in big lectures with little personal contact between teachers and students, the lecturers argue. Additionally, the quality of research drops as professors are forced to teach a higher number of classes and thus spend more time preparing for said classes. This means that the education students receive may no longer be as state-of-the-art as it is right now, as professors also use their insights from current research to teach their students.
Professors used their outdoor lectures not only to send a sign to The Hague, but also to raise awareness of the issues impacting students and to discuss the further consequences of the budget cuts on education. The demand for higher efficiency creates incentives to finish studies as quickly as possible, leading to higher pressure among students, more stress and, as a consequence, a higher risk of failing classes. A system aimed at pushing students through university in four years leaves no time for students to explore experiences including internships or to chose a new academic path mid-way through one’s studies.
However, some professors are sceptical about the protests. Willem Schinkel, professor for Social Theory at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam, published an open letter in the weekly magazine De Groene Amsterdammer in which he criticised the protests and claimed that lack of funding was not the problem. Instead, Schinkel’s letter claims that the pressure on university staff came from the institutions and even the professors themselves. He said how “there has been no minister who has asked for resumes with endless lists of English articles, or for infinite increases of international student numbers”. According to Schinkel, the structure of universities itself has to change, and more money would just mean more of the same.
Nevertheless, even he seems to agree that the status quo is severely flawed. Students and universities alike demand a slower-paced system, aimed at learning rather than at finishing a degree. Schinkel claims this needs a change in culture and structure among university staff, while WOinActie sees the solution in more money and demands a return to the €20,000 public investment per student that were the norm in the year 2000. Either way, the goal should be high-quality education, proper room for students to learn from their mistakes and, most importantly, ensure that outside lectures remain a protest form and do not become a new norm.