A new wave of student movements and occupations of university buildings is taking place around Europe. In Amsterdam, on March 25, 2015, the movement Nieuwe Universiteit (New University) marked the first month of occupation of the Maagdenhuis, an administrative building of the University of Amsterdam (UvA) located in Spui at the very center of the city.
Until April 11, when they were evicted by riot police, a group of students occupied the building, organising a range of activities such as lectures, workshops and presentations and supported by local and international intellectuals. The students demanded direct democracy, participation in the university’s management processes, and the halting of financial cuts and the progressive corporatization of the university.
University student movements rising up around Europe are proof of one of the biggest crisis of our time: the crisis of knowledge. It is when knowledge has become unchallengeable and indisputable that people feel disconnected from the world in which they live, and from the contribution they themselves are aiming to make to society.
Education for a human being is a window to the world. It should trigger curiosity and offer the keys for people to dream and to be creative and inspired in envisioning the world they desire to live in. However, when universities appear condemned to reflect the structures of the current economic and highly bureaucratic financial system, there is little room for honest dialogue and critical confrontation, and for the wise exploration of challenging narratives and alternatives within this current phase of human history. In the context of this gloomy scenario, groups of students disillusioned by the perspectives of the present and inspired by fresh ideals have chosen to react by occupying university buildings.
On February 13, academics and students of the Nieuwe Universiteit occupied the Bungehuis building in response to reforms announced by the UvA. After negotiations with the Board of Directors failed, the occupiers, who refused to leave the building, were evicted by the police. That same night, a group of students forced the door of the Maagdenhuis, the UvA's main administrative building, and began the occupation that continued until April 11.
The movement’s goals are pursued through a process of direct democracy and self organisation. In a pamphlet entitled “Antithese”, students and academics behind the Nieuwe Universiteit movement affirm that they “were finally ridding ourselves of a sort of postmodern cynicism”. The action of occupation, in other words, is for them a reaction to the growing apathy of the younger generations who have internalised a feeling of powerlessness. “The logic of the system is to produce people who are unable and feel that they are unable and that agree that they are unable,” said Jacques Rancière, a French philosopher who spoke at the Maagdenhuis during the occupation.
In this first month of activities at the Maagdenhuis, the movement hosted workshops, feature films and documentaries screenings, music concerts and daily lectures with professors and intellectuals such as American activist David Graeber, a leading figure in the Occupy movement.
During these weeks, the word “occupation” was often replaced with the word “liberation”. In the pamphlet “Onruststoker”, a member of the movement acknowledged the lack of a concrete plan for the future. “The negation of what is by no means a final stage,” the member wrote, can be pursued through creative freedom that “animates our ideals, rough, subjective and diverse as they may still be, into experiments.”
“We are not only occupying this space,” said Michiel, a student who joined the movement after the occupation of the Maagdenhuis had begun. “We have started feeling part of a big family, as new occupations are happening elsewhere.”
The news of the occupation of an administrative building at the London School of Economics (LSE) in London on March 18 brought new confidence to the students in Amsterdam. As a representative of the LSE occupation said: “the power of occupations is that they create a domino effect: this is only the beginning.”
A few weeks earlier in Canada, students had started strikes at York University and the University of Toronto, lamenting the insufficient and unequal allocation of resources to course instructors and teaching assistants.
At the time of the occupation, the students in Amsterdam were confident that their demands would be heard. “One of the demands is the stopping of real estate speculation with money that is supposed to be for research and teaching,” said Joyce Pijnenburg, a former UvA student who renounced a career in academia on account of the dysfunction that she was now denouncing.
“In 1969, the government listened to the students and changed the governance of the university by means of law,” recalled Michele Mugia, a UvA philosophy student and activist. Mugia was a leading organizer of events and meetings during the month of occupation and he was proud to report that “everyone here believes they have written history and future at the same time.”
Bertie Kaal, a teacher at the UvA who supports the struggle of the Nieuwe Universiteit, recalled that “the achievement of the occupation of the 1969 were lost in the following decades, as the top-down system gradually became dominant”. Kaal said that most teachers were now afraid to protest, fearing that they would lose their jobs. “I am happy that the students are protesting also because the professors aren’t doing it,” Kaal said.
The students behind the Nieuwe Universiteit united and claim to be fearless. “Other movements and political parties have gotten inspiration from us,” said Michiel, “and the sense of what is possible if you start acting and creating what you believe you stand for. That’s what we’re seeing happening here.”