Dutch students stage a protest

By Sebastiaan van Loosbroek

The students occupying Het Maagdenhuis hope that their rebellion will go national and have named Wednesday as a national day of action. On Sunday, they held a meeting for all sister cities. Groningen, Nijmegen and Wageningen attended, but there were very few students from Leiden.

An Amsterdam hippie, his messy hair hiding his face, lounges on the steps at the entrance to Het Maagdenhuis [the UvA’s administrative centre, tr.] smoking a joint. Last Wednesday, on the same spot, the chair of the University of Amsterdam (UvA)’s Board of Governors, Louise Gunning, addressed a throng of students.
Maarten Kavelaars (19, Political Science, UvA): “We wouldn’t be occupying anything if they had treated us normally. Go home, she said in so many words, you don’t know what you’re doing. So then we forced our way inside.” Kavelaars was irritated by the Board’s arrogance, and thinks have they absolutely no connection with the students. In addition, he feels his course lacks depth. “The courses do not encourage intellectual perception; they don’t dig deeper into the topics, which often merit far more study.”
René Witteveen (25, Master’s student, Middle Eastern Studies, Leiden) hasn’t anything good to say about his course either. He started on the research Master’s programme because he expected a more profound study of the material, but he was disappointed. “It was an assortment of subjects from different degree courses, but there was nothing on doing research and certainly no research supervision. The programme was broad rather than profound. I think the teaching is very poor.”
After switching to a regular, one-year Master’s programme, he remained unhappy. “I had to write a paper in the first semester, I reckoned it was worth no more than 7.5 out of ten, but I scored an excellent mark, a 9.” Even Witteveen could discover numerous gaps in it, but the lecturer had had enough after three comments. In Witteveen’s opinion, the lecturers’ heavy workload is to blame. They have to do research and teach, but only the first generates money for universities. “Research gets so much priority, it’s causing educational standards to drop. More time needs to be scheduled for depth – and fast.”
Shouldn’t that be on the agenda of the degree programme committee? “The students on the committee say they have little influence, as so many decisions are top-down.”
UvA lecturer Rudolf Valkhoff (61) sympathises with Witteveen. He has been teaching the General Cultural Sciences course since 1998 and he has seen standards slip. Following performance agreements between the university and the Ministry of Education, he was asked to fill in a questionnaire, after which he received teaching qualifications normally only rewarded after a two-year course. A course that formerly stood for ten points now has a value of twelve points. He is expected to do more in increasingly less time, so he can’t continue to supervise the bright students. He calls the honours classes that are supposed to accommodate them “false solutions” and “prestige projects”. “The students feel the same way: they want to take extra modules, learn more languages and do more research of their own.” But the students are afraid to do any of that because they have to accumulate regular study points in very little time due to quantity criteria enforced from above.
This “yield mindset” seems to be at the core of the students’ objections. It certainly annoys Janneke Holman (24, Master’s student, Public Administration, Campus The Hague) too. “The courses are designed so that even a student who’s always in the pub can pass without much effort. The university will see you through.”
Students are scattered throughout De Maagdenhuis: downstairs, seated on the ground or standing around a table loaded with free food and drinks. On the first floor, a dreadlocked figure with a scarf is reading a book while cubicle a little further up contains two old mattresses and some bedding. On one wall, a banner reads “All universities, unite” and a window is covered by a piece of paper with the witty message “Flexspaces for the Board”. A brief survey among the students reveals that certainly more than half of them are from UvA or HvA (Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences) while the other half are students from Wageningen, Groningen and Utrecht. Why are there so few from Leiden?
“It’s a conservative university” claims alumnus history student, Eric (52). “In times like these, it’s hard to stir Leiden.” He is only here because he sympathises with the students. “But our education has been backsliding for twenty years. Back in the eighties, I joined protests at the Binnenhof in The Hague, but we were smashed by the riot police who chased us down Spui. Even then, the protesters were mainly from Amsterdam - only a few were from Leiden.” Kavelaars agrees with him. “This is typical of Amsterdam: we always were loud-mouthed.”

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