Angry academics: “Minister, resign!”
Monday’s opening of the academic year was marked by two events: as well as the official ceremony in the Pieterskerk, there was a protest demonstration on the square of Het Gerecht.
Thursday 5 September 2019
Foto Marc de Haan

“Welcome to the Real Opening on Het Gerecht, the place were criminals were once executed, and where we are now going to make short work of the government’s failing policy”, says Remco Breuker, Professor of Korea Studies and spokesman for the WOinActie movement, at the alternative opening of the academic year. The spot is overshadowed by the Pieterskerk, the venue of the official opening ceremony featuring Minister Van Engelshoven (D66) - WOinActie’s arch enemy – as the main speaker.

The Pieterskerk is an oasis of calm. The attendees, about a thousand in number, sing the classic student song “Io vivat” as the organ plays. Some of them are wearing a red square badge to show their support for the protesters. Although the crowd outside, which is growing more and more angry, cannot be heard, Rector Carel Stolker reminds his audience that his colleagues are out there. Someone has placed WOinActie flyers on the chairs, and in his welcome speech the rector, who calls Breuker the “ad hoc rector”, live-streams the demonstrators.

In the meantime, from his platform, the ad hoc rector can see that the square is teeming with some 750 protesting professors, lecturers and students. One of the protesters holds up a picture of a scientist whose bloody head has been scalped by a cheese parer.

“It’s strange that some departments of the university are allowed to burn off for the benefit of other parts”, says Lies Wesseling, Professor of Gender Studies at Maastricht University, who came to Leiden in her academic gown. “That puts us in a stranglehold. It would be more honest to admit that we don’t have any cash left in the Netherlands for social sciences and humanities.”

Back at the Pieterskerk, Van Engelshoven says “Of course, I understand the anger about the financial rearrangements, but you must understand that I can’t say anything before Prinsjesdag (Dutch Budget Day). And please don’t believe everything you read in the papers.”

She also stressed that in international circles, Dutch education has a very good reputation. But... “The system has reached its limits. Keeping our place among the world’s best education demands more and more of us.”

“Something must be done”, she continued. “So many companies crying out for staff with technical skills. If our young people all choose to do science programmes, we’d never be able to admit them all. It calls for an ‘emergency operation’: a tree on the track, a hole in the road, that’s how we should consider it. As we all know, emergency operations, in a system that needs an urgent overhaul, are not often a pretty sight. We need it, and the technical programmes have worked hard for it.”

"Academics are like sheep, but I think we ought to go on strike"

But it is evident, on Het Gerecht, that not all exact scientists agree with her. “It’s blood money, I say”, remarks Arne Smeets, a mathematician at Radboud University and one of the people who set up the exact scientists’ petition against the new policy. “It’s funds that are being grabbed – cynically – from other sectors. We don’t want a part of it.”

“I expected a small square with a few people in gowns in the rain”, says Giselinde Kuipers, Professor of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam in her speech. “But so many of you came, we nearly reach Rapenburg. It just goes to show that more and more people are aware of the damage to our universities. Only success rates count. Knowledge is being heedlessly destroyed.” The audience start to cheer. “Wow, being an academic, I’m not used to this”, Kuipers responds. “I think I like it.”

Meanwhile, the voices of the students’ choir fill the Pieterskerk. Outside, the crowd is getting louder: “Act now! Act now! Act now!” And: “University, solidarity.” Breuker fuels the fire: “Just now, in the church, the minister said she believes strongly in university education.”

“Boooooo!”, comes the immediate, angry response of the academics and students.

Rens Bod, Professor of Computational and Digital Humanities at the University of Amsterdam and one of the driving forces behind WOinActie, takes the mic. “Can you hear us, Minister Van Engelshoven? Here we are: scientists, governors and students. We don’t want a minister who’s destroying academic education: Resign!”

“Oh, resign”, Petra Sijpesteijn, Professor of Arabic, says afterwards: “I’m not sure that’s necessary... but something really needs to change. We’re spending more and more time on the wrong things.” “There are more and more rules and management”, adds Kitty Zijlmans, Professor of Art History. “I really like the solidarity between lecturers and students, they support each other”, Sijpesteijn continues. “The reality is that you’re still thinking about it while you’re supposed to be preparing your lecture and writing an article. You feel the pressure.”

“Just protesting is not enough”, Lies Wesseling claims. “Academics are like sheep. Anybody can push them around, there’s more and more overtime, and then some. I think we ought to go on strike.”

By now, Rector Stolker has reached the end of his speech: “Why are our colleagues on Het Gerecht? If I can be brief, I think the Netherlands is doing alright, and Dutch academic research is too, but that doesn’t apply to the people doing the research and providing the education.”

He turns to the minister. “The lists you mentioned are fantastic and we’re doing well. Impressive, but those lists are just one side of the story and the people – the educators, the researchers and the support staff – are the other. How are they faring?”

“Added to which”, he goes on, “there is too little appreciation for the people in humanities and social sciences. In the past, it was the other way round, that’s how we thought about technology. We’re past that stage, but now these two major fields of knowledge are forced to stand up for themselves. Now, one paper after the other is published in which these academic disciplines try to defend themselves.”

He sometimes has the impression that the humanities and social sciences are merely auxiliary sciences to help the exact sciences. “That would be a very bad thing. They are scientific disciplines in their own right. Not just because engineers need them.”

By Vincent Bongers and Anoushka Kloosterman