Issue #022 Published: 01-02-2019 // Written by: Iris Kok

WOinActie: A personal account

On December 14th, I took part in my first protest and marched in The Hague with 2000 fellow academics and students, for the WOinActie (Higher Education in Action) movement, which stands up for the interests of university education which is under great pressure due to substantial, long-term cutbacks and a rapid increase in the number of students.

To give a little bit of context, however, I will now rewind to the day it all started for me: when I first walked into the University of Amsterdam in September 2014. Back then, there were already some people, mostly teachers, making mentions of budget cuts and briefly explaining why they did not have the time to respond to questions from us, or why they were late with our grades – which was not a rare occurrence. I and my classmates thought this was normal, and that the transition from high school to university was supposed to feel like this. However, in February 2015, a series of protests took place, which led to the subsequent occupation of both the Bungehuis (a location where I had most of my classes) and the Maagdenhuis, both of which belonged to the University of Amsterdam at the time. While I followed the news and updates on the topic, I did not quite understand why there was so much anger and distrust towards the board of the University. That is also why, at first, I kept my distance from the movement, since I did not quite know what was going on, except the mentioning of a series of new plans, called “Profiel 2016”, which basically signalled more budget cuts and the removal of multiple individual education programmes.

Now, four years on, I understand it a bit more. Just like many other Dutch universities, the University of Amsterdam is following the adage, “use money to make more money”, but the approach does not necessarily create more opportunities for students or higher quality education. Over the years, rules upon rules, and measures upon measures have been implemented  to increase the number of international students, yet no particular attention has been paid to improving the quality of the education that is given and received in these institute(s). This vague pressure that has surrounded the University throughout this process, has not been deconstructed yet, but it should be. Promises are made on paper and are discussed in many meetings, but real life commitments to ease the pressure on people - students, teachers, but also ‘’beleidsmedewerkers’’ - is unfortunately, severely lacking.

At this point, you may very well ask: Why?

Because in the minds of the governing bodies of these institutions, there is no time to think, create or implement measures that would take away the various pressures placed upon staff (such as more classes in less time, more students but less resources). This, in my experience, has caused a vicious cycle of acknowledging the various problems at hand, with no solution really being offered. As a result, people end up feeling depressed and overworked, experiencing burnouts and even worse, turning into cynics. Not only towards the University of Amsterdam mind you, or the system of higher education in general, but also in other areas of their lives. And the crux of this problem? Money. At a closer look, however, the main problem lies not only with the Faculty Board, which in my case, is the Humanities department of the University of Amsterdam, or the Board of the University itself, but also the government of the Netherlands. That is where our futures are decided upon, where decisions are made about education, universities, and their finances, such as the funding of research activities, as well as the ‘’studie-financiering beurs”, which is something that has transformed into a loan system over recent years. Knowing that I am set slightly apart from my younger fellow students because I was not affected by the new system of debts and loans is an uneasy feeling. Mind you, I am no stranger to the pressures of modern student life; I took various positions and tried to manage my time and effort to get by, and still I I needed to take out a loan to pay the rent of my overpriced container (special thanks to DUWO and the Gemeente Amsterdam) I cannot imagine how it must feel like to start out with no help and go into an immense amount of debt even before you have really started your studies.
But back to December 14th present day: It was a response to the culminative effect of these academic and monetary pressures I see exerted upon myself, my teachers and my fellow students. The lack of initiative by institutions and the vicious cycles that surround any and every process of remediation led me to participate in this protest, and I will participate in future ones, too...

As WOinActie, our symbol is a red square - that means we are all in debt. Not only financially, but also in debt to the future generations of students, academics, teachers, beleidsmedewerkers and other people who are, in one way or another, connected to the higher education system, which desperately needs to change. Our demands: No more inflated tuition fees, no more work pressure, or whole programmes disappearing in order for the universities to ‘function’. That is why we called on Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven on Friday to cancel the announced budget cuts. We shouted: “No ifs, no buts, no education cuts!”

For more information on WOinActie, please go to https://woinactie.blogspot.com/
There is also a petition, which can be signed here: https://actie.degoedezaak.org/petitions/stop-de-afbraak-van-het-hoger-onderwijs-2