“Yeah, fuck the neoliberal narrative!”
These are the words that introduced us to Dutch student activist Judith Baten, one of the main organizers of the student movement, the Nieuwe Universiteit, at the University of Amsterdam. Regardless of the fact that she had been averaging 2 hours of sleep for the last week, Baten was full of energy and sporting the now-familiar red square during our Skype interview. The red square was popularized by the 2005 Quebec student movement and has since been adopted by various student movements including here at UBC and in Amsterdam. Oh, the sweet sight and sound of international solidarity and student resistance to shitty global systems of oppression!
Our first encounter with the Nieuwe Universiteit was through an article reporting that police had put an end to their 11-day occupation at the University of Amsterdam (more on this later). Considering our own involvement with UBC’s I Am A Student – protesting fee increases and the neoliberal-izing of our school – we were excited at this chance to learn more.
The “New University”
We asked Judith to explain what’s been happening in the past few weeks. While the whole ordeal has a long history (can we really name a specific moment when neoliberal capitalist bullshit took over?) recent events kicked off when the university started cutting a number of humanities courses. In response, a rally took place in late 2014, and the New University was born. Shortly afterwards, the students started their 11-day occupation of the Bungehuis building.
In response to the arrests and eviction from the Bungehuis, students organized a protest march the next day. Judith laughed when telling us, “they thought it was just a small group of students, and then the next day 2000 students showed up, and we marched and marched, shouting, shouting, shouting for hours.” University governors were condescending and doubting the effects the students could have. Many of the main administrators who had spoken to them after the first eviction flippantly told them “‘this can’t be here forever’. We said why not, if it’s a democratically run education system?”
The march ended outside the Maagdenhuis, the building that houses the university’s administration and management. The building has a long history of student activism, notably as the site of a student occupation in 1969. Judith places a lot of importance on the history and the role it played in their success. After waiting outside to speak with the university’s administration, around 350 students decided to re-appropriate the building.
Baten and her peers, a collective of students and university staff, want to democratize the governing structure of the university. Baten was adamant in sharing a wider critique of neoliberalism in our societies as a root cause to what brought them, and us, here: “We are protesting also against the whole neoliberal fucking structure that we’re living in. [It is] the ideology and narrative that we all believe is “true” and “normal”… but it is not, we’re all human beings and people.” She quoted Edald Engelen, a prominent geography professor and outspoken supporter of “New University” who emphasized that they must be aware of “a naturalization of neoliberal language.” That language is the rhetoric that supports ideas of ‘rugged individualism,’ if you will: the idea that one must pull up their socks, work hard enough and ‘succeed’; that the ‘market’ must be ‘free’ and untouched; that the wealthy deserve their wealth, full stop, and it is just a matter of elbow grease and not entrenched systems of privilege or oppression that determines direction. Their demands include the democratisation and decentralisation of university governance, the need for sustainable career opportunities for all staff and the end of real estate speculation with education money.
Central to their protest are concerns about academic freedom that come along with an unelected Board of Governors which allows vested interests to be represented on the decision-making board. As Baten said: “you have all these big corporations that are involved in research at the university…as soon as you have corporations involved in research papers, it’s not objective […] Financialization is a pest. Universities are acting like a bank”. She argued that having corporations direct the funding for research in universities delivers skewed results to benefit their profit margins. With universities turning towards a corporate model (that is, one based on profit, on ‘efficiency’ and numbers of degree-holders), education, pursuit of knowledge, challenges to social structures get lost.
One of the most beautiful things to see happening and to hear in the excitement of Judith’s voice is the reclamation the students are making at the same time as they put forward their demands. “This is the building only of the board, only of the managers, [but] now there are classes here, we are organizing some lectures, and working groups…now for the first time, this big beautiful, amazing, historically-loaded building is being used for the thing it is supposed to be used for. Fuck those managers, give it to the students and the teachers. Of course the teachers are behind us, they also want to have good contracts.”
“Don’t let yourself be co-opted as students who are seen as really eloquent”
In the 6 days that Judith and her comrades had been appropriating the Maagdenhuis, they found much in the way of community support for their cause. She gave us advice to shake things up at UBC, to appropriate buildings and build a headquarters, because “as soon as people see that you are doing this struggle, really into it, then they will join you.” It was clear to see from the smiles and friendly greetings of the handful of folks that passed by the screen that there was a great sense of camaraderie around. She said, of working together, that “you’re with a bunch of people and the bond between those people is getting so strong because we see each other 24 hours a day.” You could “feel the energy here. We have lots of sponsors through the city, political parties that come bring us food.” Of support systems, she mentioned that “the bookstore across the way brings us the paper every day and everyone does what little thing[s] they can do.” It is in these small acts of solidarity that such a movement finds its roots and can begin to transform. According to Judith, “if you speak just person to person, the bond becomes stronger and you can really do something.”
The movement has quickly gathered support from some big names in social justice. Noam Chomsky started a petition (which you should all sign), Slavoj Zizek was in Amsterdam on March 13th, Judith Butler has asked to give a talk via skype. Big names in the Nederlander art scene also back the movement. Artist Typhoon, who is well known in the Netherlands for his philosophical lyrics, has been in touch. They have been hosting a number of bands, Jungle by Night will be performing, also really well known (listen to their music, it’s pretty jammin’).
The movement has also had international impact with a solidarity protest in Belgium, official endorsement from students in Ireland, and students from Berlin heading home to spread the movement.
So where is the movement going?
Judith said they don’t intend on ending the reappropriation of Maagdenhuis anytime soon. They are adamant about not making any concessions, learning from the mistakes of the 1960s. It seems like the Nieuwe Universiteit is destined to grow in the upcoming months. We have already seen its capacity to gain traction with big names. Furthermore the movement has spread to other sectors of society and other countries and is gaining important media attention.
So wear your red squares, and wear them loud. Know that there are students out there who are investing in, believing in, resisting, and transforming their spaces of further learning and education. Don’t let this be the last we see of I Am A Student. Because if you are a student, you can take this up, you can continue. You must. It is up to you. This, this movement, this activism, if nothing else on the traditional, ancestral, unceded territory of the Coast Salish peoples here, and UBC’s position occupying this unceded Musqueam territory, this, if nothing else, is yours. Because “you only get these kinds of things going if you yell, really fucking loud and really fucking radical.”
UPDATE: On April 20, 2015, the University of Amsterdam’s Management Board chair Louise Gunning has resigned in response to ongoing student protests.
Special thanks to Josh and Matt for the encouragement and edits, and to all our student comrades around the world who are powerfully shaking things up.