Students stage lock-in protest at Univ. Amsterdam humanities dept.

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No image availableNL Times

With additional reporting by Karina Hof and Zack Newmark A group of students and at least one lecturer barricaded themselves inside the University of Amsterdam (UvA) humanities building, the Bungehuis, while others marched in demonstration through the city center in protest against anticipated funding and resource cuts to the university's humanities department on Friday.

The demonstration involved two separate aspects: the occupation of the Bungehuis on Spuistraat by members of the De Nieuwe Universiteit organization and a demonstration by members of the Humanities Rally, an organization which previously planned a student march and rally. A group of approximately 20 people barricaded themselves in the building beginning at 4:30 a.m., leaning out of windows, dangling banners and occasionally throwing confetti onto the masses gathered at the door. Meanwhile, the gathered crowd chanted slogans in Dutch, like "Dean you're in trouble, we're gonna get you, what are you doing to the faculty of humanities!" and, "No ifs, no buts, no education cuts."

After representatives of the organization spoke, an involved lecturer spoke to the crowd. "I am totally surprised by what you are doing here. But students should always do what they can to make changes they care about through protests and representations to councils. They should do anything they can as long as it's peaceful." The humanities lecturer, identifying herself only as Eva, has worked closely with the Humanities Rally in recent months in an effort to develop a solution to the looming crisis in the humanities department. "We occupy because we want democracy, and human appreciation within our university. We want researchers to research what they see as important, and for the board to speak to the people affected; to students and teachers, about changes they want to make," said executive member of the organization Tivadar Vervoort. According to Vervoort, the problems started with a program released for 2016 by the administrative board of the university. The plan describes merging multiple bachelor courses into a single liberal arts program. "It's an end to specialization, it's like high school again." The students contacted the board, which organized working groups where students and staff members collaborated to develop new proposals. Tension arose when the amended proposal was leaked. "We found the document in our email, and sent it out to everyone," said Vervoort. "The only conclusions they took from the working groups were those they had already agreed upon. They completely ignored our requests. They say they involve everyone but there's no real discussion." "This is not the case," replied UvA Humanities Dean Frank van Vree. "Except for one specific issue, the faculty proposes what the working groups came up with. And it was a PROPOSAL, which ha[s] been discussed with about 100 people within the faculty last [week], discussions that will indeed lead to a reformulation," he wrote in an email to the NL Times.

  Initial plans for changes are allegedly the cause of significant financial problems within the humanities department. "The university functions on a system of output finances," explained Vervoort. "Faculties get money based on the amount of diplomas they produce. So last year, the physics department got a new coffee machine, there are new buildings being constructed for the sciences, but here they're cutting whole courses. The university needs to make the right decision academically." Vervoort says better prioritization and distribution of funding is the key. "Less funding of novelties, more funding of specific education and freedom to research." He explained that insufficient funding allocation to unpopular research subjects is stopping academics from continuing their work.

"There is a difference in the system of money distribution, by the national government: medicine and sciences are getting more money [per] student; this is not university policy, but national," wrote Dean Van Vree. "In fact, the UvA follows a policy of softening this system, in favor of social sciences and humanities. Perhaps not enough, but that is a different issue." When asked about universities feeling more pressure to raise funding from outside the government, PvdA Senator Esther-Mirjam Sent said: "It may lead to all kinds of unintended consequences. I worry about the unintended consequences of the commercialization of research, such as the marginalization of the humanities." Senator Sent, who was not at the rally in Amsterdam, has voiced her concerns repeatedly in the Eerste Kamer, the upper house of Dutch parliament. "It incentivizes individual scientists to repeat safe research rather than exploring risky and new things," she said in an interview with the NL Times. At the same time, Senator Sent said, "It's not all bad to have some democratic influence. It's important to have a balance.” Students were the most vocal figures at the protest, passionately proclaiming the reasons for demonstration. "This is called the Humanities Rally: we're reacting and protesting against cuts to education in the humanities faculty," explained philosophy student Christiaan Roodenburg. "We've been in negotiations with the university administrative boards for quite some time, but now it's become more urgent, since it's become clear that good teachers are going to lose their jobs. There just isn't enough money being directed towards courses that need it, and they're forcing staff into redundancy. The lecturers that are employed now, almost all of them are on flexi-contracts; there's a constant rotation of teachers and total lack of academic immunity." Dean Van Vree called the statement that most staff work on temporary contracts ”completely nonsense” and said that the “faculty average is 20%, far less than almost everywhere else.” A banner hung from the barricaded building demonstrates the students' objections. A part of it reads "We want elected board members". Roodenburg explained the issue. "People holding positions as directors are here as managers. They're objective and unattached, it's just a job. But for us, it's our life and it's quite painful to see these people come in here and completely fuck it up." “Even more nonsense,” Dean Van Vree said in reply to this comment. “[A]ll UvA deans are scholars, doing the job for a couple of years, and returning to teaching and research after their term,” he wrote in an email to NL Times. “Even the UvA central [b]oard consists fully … of people from within the university community i.e. professors.” The organization has reportedly received varying responses from UvA staff members, according to Roodenburg. "The humanities department is always struggling financially, so they react very positively. We've had about 20 staff members become involved and provide use with information we can use. But for the administrative staff, it's just a job, like for the board. They're ex-CEOs, they don't care." "It's also their way of communication with students and teaching staff," said Roodenburg. "There's absolutely no transparency."

The students expect the funding cuts to the humanities department to result in much fewer basic programs. "Everyone will learn the same thing but nothing that they're actually interested in. Interest is considered irrelevant to the learning process," said humanities student Lianne Hooijnans. "University education has been completely devalued. Everyone wants a diploma, but no-one actually gives a shit about learning." "I need to read more about it, but I study linguistics so of course I'm concerned," said one student named Chloe. One of the planned changes to the humanities department involves cutting language courses with enrollment numbers under 50, according to a representative of the Humanities Rally. A former philosophy student named Pablo also attended the protest. "I got an email about the plan and I decided to join the demonstration. I want to promote the importance of study that doesn't seem so practical to some." "It's a shame to cancel studies," said protest attendee Lea, a current philosophy student. "I'm completely against the commercialization of studies; you can't just get rid of something because its not efficient enough." The rally ended with attendees stamping the outside of the building with painted hands. The occupiers have not revealed how long they will stay in the building.