“Is that the Malieveld?” Says a boy to a girl as she walks by the road signs that point the way to the Hague’s protest field. “Yeah, so fun to join.”
“NOT MY FAULT!” is chanted in the distance, supported by a heavy drum roll. A large digital clock counts down until 1 PM: the official start of the national student strike #NietMijnSchuld [Not My Debt/Fault], organized by the National Student Union (LSVb) and FNV Young & United. Objectives: A debt-free student loan system, compensation for the indebted generation and quality of education.
On the stage, the organisation body is ready with megaphones. “WHAT DO WE WANT?” shouts someone. “TO BE DEBT-FREE!” chant the hundreds of students present, armed with water bottles, suncream and protest signs. “This is quite cool”, a boy says to his friends. “I have never been on a national protest.”
As the Malieveld fills up, the organisation body warns that everyone must remain on a yellow dot on the grass to ensure the distance of one and a half meter is respected. “The media used to complain a lot that coronavirus infections were caused by students”, is shouted on the megaphone, “We are going to show them that we can adhere to rules!”
Leiden student Sara van Hees (22, Public Administration) explains why she came to the Malieveld: “The loan system creates a lot of inequality. I myself do not have a student debt because my parents support me financially and because I work alongside my studies. But not everyone has parents who can contribute like mine and not everyone is able to choose to study. I think that everyone should have a choice.”
Close to the stage are friends Iris Bonten (22, physiotherapy) and Fleur Smit (21, pedagogy) from the University of Amsterdam. Bonten: “It is expected of you to get a diploma, otherwise you won't find a job. But this forces us to take on huge debts.”
Bonten spent eight years in the debt system after her studies, because she followed MBO-level education. “I cannot work enough hours to cover my costs.” She already has little money for housing costs: “I live in anti-squat accommodation. There is mould everywhere, there are holes in the walls over which I hang paintings.”
Soon, she will be forced to leave, causing her to worry she might become homeless. “Where should I go? I can't afford anything.”
Her friend Smit shares Bonten's concerns. “By being here I want to show that I want to get rid of the loan system.” Bonten: “I hope that politicians realise that this is serious.”
BAD LUCK GENERATION? WE DEMAND COMPENSATION!
That it is serious, politicians seem to see it. Only the VVD is still in favour of maintaining the loan system, the other parties want to get drop it. Why is it still needed to protest then? “Soon, the government formation negotiations will begin so it explains the timing of the protest”, says LSVb Chairman Lyle Muns explains, “now is the time to cancel the loan scheme and implement free education.”
According to him, the average study debt has risen far above €30,000. “This is not a social lending system, it is an anti-social lending system.” (Former Minister Jet Bussemaker, who introduced the loan scheme, said in Mare last week that it is doing “what was expected”.)
Then, FNV Chairman Tuur Elzinga gets on the stage and tells the crowd “you have to study for 40 hours and work for another 12 hours, this is not normal!” Cheering can be heard. “In total, you have a debt of €21.6 billion, counting the students who started studying in 2015. The loan system is a nightmare!”
Many politicians have been invited to tell students what their plans are. Rob Jetten (D66), Don Ceder (CU) and Christine Teunissen (PvdD) praise the audience that they have to deal with so much. Teunissen then asks for “compensation for all', while Jetten criticises a common enemy by declaring that the VVD is still the only party that wants to maintain the loan system.
But Jetten and Cedar are quickly challenged. Teunissen interrupts her colleagues: “You can see their priorities.” Gaining some momentum she says: “We want to increase the monthly loans.” More or less than 600 euros? ask the organisers. “More!” A wave of applauses ignites the Malieveld.
Something a little bit more exciting happens in the second round, where not only Lilian Marijnissen (SP) and Farid Azarkan (Denk) arrive, but also Hatte van der Woude of the VVD. Marijnissen supports “full compensation for the debt generation”, Azarkan wants to leave the “education factory where students have to graduate as soon as possible and then work in “firm Nederland” under manager Mark Rutte”.
When VVD”s Van der Woude’s turn comes, booing increases. The organisers ask for applause, “because she did come”. Weak applauses start, although short-lived. When asked what she thinks about the average study debt of €40 000, she answers awkwardly: “I am shocked at how much they borrow. You should only borrow what you need.” Students look at each other laughing and shaking heads with disbelief. Booing ensues
Marijnissen seizes the opportunity: “Can you hear that? You shouldn’t borrow so much! Don't be fooled, that’s bullshit! This is a debt system!”
“We need to strengthen, strengthen, strengthen”, tries Van der Woude in a comeback. “Not leave the debt system.”
Humanities student Jesse Kos (24, Utrecht) is not convinced of that story. “You start your life with a disadvantage and I think that’s wrong. I don't want that for myself, not for my friends and not for the students who come after me.”
Abdelaziez Pol (MBO Hotel Management in Groningen) also struggles with student debt: he works alongside his studies, but also has to take care of his brother. “I would like to go to the HBO level, but my family does not have enough money to pay.” With this protest, he hopes to get the monthly loans back. “Free education, like in Scandinavian countries. We need to reduce students’ stress so that we can enjoy our studies”
“WHAT DO WE WANT?” shouts an organiser on the megaphone. Students know the answer.
In collaboration with Adriana Fernandes