Image: David Graeber speaks at the Maagdenhuis (by Malcolm Kratz).
For three weeks now, the University of Amsterdam (UvA) has been shaken by a wave of student protests against the neoliberalization of higher education and the lack of democratic accountability in internal decision-making. Last week, UvA staff joined the rebellion, declaring their solidarity with the students and threatening further actions if their demands are not met. With the university’s main administrative building — the Maagdenhuis — now occupied by students, the governing council has been forced into an awkward position: will it honor the demands of the academic community for greater democratization, or will it continue to obey the neoliberal logic of bureaucratic financialization?
While the struggle at UvA has been mostly local and national in character, the implications of the issues raised by its students and staff reach far beyond the borders of the Netherlands. Higher education is in crisis across the developed world. Structurally underfunded, severely over-financialized and profoundly undemocratic, universities everywhere are increasingly abandoning their most crucial social functions of yore — to produce high-quality research and educate the next generation of skilled, conscious citizens — and devolving ever more into quasi-private companies run by an utterly detached managerial elite.
To make matters worse, these managers — rather than focusing on improving the quality of education or streamlining internal decision-making processes to free up as much time and as many resources as possible for knowledge-transfer and research — are actually being paid six-sum figures to push around insane amounts of pointless paperwork, forcing destructive workloads and unrealistic expectations onto increasingly precarious staff, treating students like simple-minded consumers and impersonal statistics, and putting immense pressure on highly talented researchers to spew out mind-numbing amounts of nonsensical garbage just to meet rigid quantitative publication quotas that completely fail to recognize the social and qualitative dimensions of scholarly work.
The protesters at UvA thus find themselves at the front-line of what is essentially a global fightback against the commodification of higher education and the steady reduction of knowledge and learning to an increasingly unaffordable consumer good. In many countries, this neoliberal logic has resulted in dramatic tuition hikes and budget cuts, combined with the metastization of a culture of top-down managerialism, creeping bureaucratization and the systematic precarization of academic labor — with all the attendant consequences of rising student indebtedness, the proliferation of work floor bullying, and deepening anxiety, depression and burnout among university staff.
Interestingly, it has been precisely the countries where this neoliberalization of higher education has proceeded furthest that have experienced the most spectacular student protests in recent years: from the Penguin Revolution in Chile to the Red Square movement in Québec, and from the campus occupationsin California and the recent student debt strike at Everest College to the student riots in the UK. The Netherlands, still 10 years behind the curve, has long been eager to catch up with its neoliberal counterparts. Witnessing the recent student revolts in these countries, it should probably have known better not to push this logic too far. As Polanyi famously argued, there is a limit to how far you can go in commodifying the commons. At some point, the commoners will rebel.
In this sense, the counter-movement now stirring in Amsterdam may well be a harbinger of what is yet to come. Ewald Engelen, Professor of Financial Geography at UvA and a renowned critic of financialization, was only partly exaggerating when he referred to the Maagdenhuis as “the most interesting place in Western Europe right now.” After years of suffering in silence, the academic community here has finally risen up to reclaim their own university, with staff and students joining forces not only to demand a radical change in the way research, teaching and higher learning is funded and organized, but developing exciting new methods of participatory self-governance in the process.
So far, the administration has refused to take any concrete steps to meet the students’ and staff’s demands, but it is already clear that it has suffered a resounding ideological defeat. Suddenly, the critique of financialization, bureaucratization, top-down managerialism and the lack of democratic decision-making has made its way onto the eight o’clock news and onto the front-pages of all the leading newspapers — no mean feat in a country as thoroughly neoliberalized and depoliticized as the Netherlands. A handful of rebellious students have effectively jolted their teachers into action, and the academic community, once atomized and apathetic, has quickly sprung into a state of collective self-organization. Suddenly, there is resistance.
Those who make the university have reclaimed its administrative heart. A large banner calling for direct democracy now hangs in front of the rector’s office — the managerial elite is nowhere to be seen. As this budding movement grows in strength and spreads to other universities in the country, new horizons are rapidly opening up for further protests elsewhere. While the next weeks will be crucial in determining how far the movement can go, those who have been lucky enough to catch a whiff of the bottom-up changes blowing through the UvA can be forgiven for being hopeful. All these years, the neoliberal university quietly bred its own nemesis — now let’s rejoice as we join in the rebellion.