A lack of student leaders is not the problem

“Where is the inspiring student leader?” was the less than inspiring question posed to the DUB-panel this week.

This has been a relevant question for a number of months, with New University Utrecht pushing forward student activism at the UU for the first time in years. Side by side with the Utrecht contingent of WOinActie (the national protest group of university staff), the students of New University Utrecht are fighting for the financial independence and academic freedom of the scientific community.

What does that mean in concrete terms? We demand the reintroduction of the basisbeurs (the basic study grant abolished in 2015), a reinvestment in higher education to the level of 1980, rolling back the influence multinationals exert over the content of our curricula and research priorities, and more decision-making power for teachers and students as it concerns the investments made by the faculties and university as a whole.

We are also fighting for a responsible internationalization policy, whereby the university takes concrete actions to tackle the increasing shortage of affordable student housing. Another crucial element of our program is seeing to it that teachers are granted more permanent contracts so that they can build an organic and meaningful relationship with the institution and its students over time.

The DUB-panel suggests, correctly so, that while the present policies affect students’ learning conditions as much as teacher’s working conditions, there seems to be little enthusiasm for protest amongst the student body.

That is something that some panel members make well intentioned overtures towards, even if they are not particularly well informed. One of the students interviewed placed emphasis on the importance of “actions with a low barrier to participation and better provision of information” and suggested passing out more red squares. University teacher Annemieke Hoogenboom seconded this, but would also like to see some more good-old lobbying and the emergence of an ‘inspirational protest leader.’ She further suggested that an occupation resulting in a police eviction and a few arrests would grab people’s attention.

New University Utrecht is already quite well aware of these different avenues of protest. The raising of the student body’s consciousness concerning the problems we are facing is high on our list of priorities, having spent quite some time spreading the message (and the now ubiquitous red squares) among students at the different campuses.

The need for an ‘inspirational protest leader’ and the call to occupy university properties are interesting suggestions to say the least. That said, those making such suggestions do not seem to have been organizing themselves, nor have they joined up with New University Utrecht. The issue is not a lack of leaders, but rather a dearth of students to lead. Considering the current level of consciousness and preparedness among students in Utrecht, it is unlikely than an occupation would be successful at this point in time. That said, New University Utrecht certainly does not rule out the possibility of occupation when the time is right.

While some of the above mentioned contributions to the DUB-panel are constructive, the same cannot be said regarding the comments of panel member and management secretary of the Faculty of Social Sciences Henk van Rinsum. In his view, resistance is futile given that our society is not “legitimately interested in reflection.” “Valorization, utility, efficiency, black-white, that is what this society wants” and academics have to accomodate to that mentality.

These sort of pessimistic comments made by van Rinsum remind one of the moral superiority professed by Erasmus University Rotterdam professor Willem Schinkel in the Dutch news magazine De Groene Amsterdammer (read also the reply of Utrecht professors and WOinActie leaders Ingrid Robeyns and Ido de Haan). Not only are van Rinsum’s comments not constructive, they are also plainly false. While it is often cliché to suggest that Utrecht is not ‘revolutionary enough’ and that students here do not dare to engage in direct action like their compatriots in Amsterdam, it is exactly that: a cliché. Van Rinsum could do well to climb down out of his ivory tower to better understand what the society actually desires.

Nearly every student we’ve spoken to in the humanities and social sciences faculties was angry about the abolition of the basic study grant, overworked teachers, and the complete degradation of the quality of education as a result of austerity policies and a culture of efficiency.

While our movement has only existed for two months, we’ve garnered hundreds of likes on Facebook, dozens of subscriptions to our WhatsApp groups and e-mail list, and a number of people who have joined in on our meetings and events.

The only reason that ‘the society’ would only be interested in valorization, utility, and efficiency, is because people like Henk van Rinsum do not suggest any alternatives but prefer to offer critique from the sidelines. In short, a lack of leaders is not the problem. The problem is the attitude reflected in the comments by van Rinsum.  

The alternatives exist and so does the frustration regarding the status quo, so what are we waiting for?

New University Utrecht holds open meetings every Tuesday evening at 19:30. For the exact location and more, stay up to date via facebook.com/DeNieuweUniversiteitUtrecht/ and nieuweuu.nl.