On March 15th, a national education strike will be held in Malieveld, The Hague. Among those striking are university students and professors, organised by WOinActie, who demand an abolishment of recent budget cuts to higher education and a return to funding levels of 2000.

With government funding per student steadily decreasing, universities across the Netherlands are taking in more and more students in order to bring in adequate funding. Professor Francesco Ragazzi, an Assistant Professor at Leiden University, says there are many real consequences to this. At an informal Q&A session organised by students, he shares on how it was once possible to have workgroups for all Political Science bachelor students in large lectures.

In the Dutch-language bachelors programme in Leiden, he explains, there is a bachelor’s thesis seminar, where professors supervise ten to fifteen students for their bachelor’s thesis.

Then, addressing the students in the English-language International Relations, he asks, “When it’s 400 of you, how are we going to do that?”

Professors at the Education Strike Q&A. From left to right: Claire Vergerio, Francesco Ragazzi, Frank de Zwart, Nicolas Blarel

Dr Claire Vergerio, Assistant Professor of International Relations at Leiden University, expresses her strong feelings on the issue of government funding. “It’s not just that the government is not increasing its spending on education. What’s happening is that this spending has been getting cut quite consistently.”

“This is something that I feel very strongly about because part of why I became an academic is because I love to teach, and I want to have enough time to deliver well thought-out courses, to give extensive feedback to students, and to offer assignments that do justice to their intellect.”

These consequences include multiple choice exams increasingly being used in assessments, limited in-depth feedback between teachers and students, and insufficient facilities and support services. In a conversation with Entrepot, Professor Petr Kopecký ponders whether having exams held in Operazaal—what is clearly a wedding venue on the other side of The Hague—is a sign of the university having expanded more quickly than it should have.

Dr Kopecký, who has been a professor of political science at Leiden University for nearly two decades, fondly remembers a time when it was possible for faculties to organise Friday drinks for students and professors. He describes having long debates over essays that his students had written not for assignments but out of pure interest in what they were learning.

With a first year cohort of over 400 for the bachelor’s programme he teaches—International Relations and Organisations—Kopecký feels these types of connections are no longer achievable.  “To me the biggest loss is really that you can’t build relationships with your students based on a little bit more than just seeing them very quickly after the lecture.’’

From public service to business

These very tangible symptoms are all, in one way or another, rooted in the slow process of marketisation of education that has been taking place over the last two decades. Professor Kopecký explains that the past few decades have seen a growing mistrust of state institutions: “… they [institutions] are seen as wasteful and spending too much money on things that could be provided by markets.”

There is also an issue in the Dutch ‘competitive’ funding system for universities. The way that funds for different universities are distributed is, in part, based on the number of students they attract. To put it simply: if University A enrolls more students than University B, the government will give A a larger slice of the education budget pie that year. Naturally, University B will do everything they can to overtake University A the following year.  The result is a vicious cycle of over-enrollment.

Students at the Q&A voicing their concerns

Professor Vergerio describes this change:

“The shift that you see now is the idea that universities are basically going to be run more like businesses, where they’re increasingly meant to just make their own money. And this means that you need to take more and more students in, because students pay fees, and that is going to be your number one source of revenue within this new business model.

Herein lies the origin of ‘mass courses’, with hundreds and hundreds of students in each cohort. Students only hold value for universities when they come in hordes, and their numbers increase so exponentially that the funds available are never enough to ensure the appropriate amount of teaching staff and facilities.

Professor Ragazzi is frustrated, “We are hiring more colleagues, but it never adds up. We have more actual students to teach!”

Ingrid van Engelshoven, the Dutch Minister of Education, is sympathetic in her response to concerns on funding at an event organised by WOinActie on March 14th. She points out that the government is investing more money into education, but believes that we need to consider whether the money is being used as efficiently as it could be before considering further budget increases.

At this same event, members of WOinActie argue that significant improvement to the quality of education is not possible without more money. They emphasise that even though the budget for education has increased over the years, the amount of money per student has decreased.

The competition extends even to research. Where once universities had the autonomy to allocate funding to projects how they saw fit, the government has now placed funds for academic research within specialised agencies. Professors go through lengthy application processes, and even then competition is so cut-throat that the chances of actually receiving a grant are extremely low.

The process can be so time-consuming that professors cannot dedicate the necessary time to their teaching and research without working overtime. Those who do receive grants often stop teaching altogether, which disconnects students from the scholars within their institute who are conducting cutting-edge research in their field.

Professor Kopecký feels that this gradual undermining of public institutions has led to a consumer-client mentality. “You cannot do anything informal anymore with students, because it’s all: where is the accountability? Where is the transparency? How does it fulfill the course objectives?’’

Worse still, he says:

“We now finance this massive bureaucracy that has to keep afloat this machinery of control, instead of hiring two extra teachers to actually lower the number of students in working groups.”

When concern sparks a movement

Rens Bod, Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Amsterdam, is one of the minds behind WOinActie, a group campaigning for better funding of higher education. He explains to Entrepot how his movement grew over time.

“Only now we are striking for a day. I understood quickly that in the Netherlands, you have to build these things up gradually. I wanted to go strike right away, but my colleagues advised me otherwise.”

“So we built it up slowly. First a petition. Then an ultimatum.”

WOinActie has three demands for how the government should change education funding.

“Then, when the ultimatum expired, we organized open air lectures to raise awareness of our cause. That was when we started seeing that more people and universities were getting involved. Then, after careful consideration, we decided to organise a demonstration—still not a strike—on December 14th in which more than 2000 academics participated.”

This process of growth has not been an easy one. The demonstration on December 14th failed even to make it into the evening news. However, as negotiations between the universities, unions and the Dutch government fail to reach a consensus, more are considering radical action.

A March for Education was organised by students last September in solidarity with WOinActie in The Hague. Students of the University of Amsterdam organised a sit-in of a campus building, drawing the attention of their University, the Mayor and the police before their subsequent arrest. Several universities organised a ‘moment of noise’ on March 11th, screaming their frustrations as civil defense sirens rang across the country.

Professor Rens Bod says now, “Realizing we had grown into a large movement, we felt that we could take the next step. So now, a year and a half later, together with all other education branches, we are striking on March 15th.”

On March 15th, a national education strike will be held in Malieveld, The Hague: Where will you be?

Written by Teo Kai Xiang and Marjolijn van Raaij, Photography by Laine Cho