An Insiders View of the Amsterdam Student Protests


For the last couple of weeks the University of Amsterdam (UvA) has been taken over by its students. Demanding a more democratic university they have been occupying two buildings in the centre, causing a tug of war between the management, the staff, and the students.


As a former student of the Faculty of Humanities I was glued to the live stream of the local Amsterdam news channel, when another student protest escalated into the squatting of the Maagdenhuis on last Wednesday night. The Maagdenhuis is the managerial centre of the UvA and infamous for being occupied by students since the sixties.

To get an inside view of what is going on I got in touch with my favourite teacher Dan Hassler-Forest for an interview. Dan has been teaching at the UvA for ten years now and is one of the more prominent teachers in his department, since he specialises in superheroes, zombies and hobbits. Or as one would say in an academic environment: the subversive potential of fantasy, Debord’s theory of the spectacle and Tolkien.

Getting Involved

Hi Dan how is it going? Exciting times I can imagine!

Yes, very much! I wasn’t part of it in the beginning, though I was always sympathetic towards direct radical action for a better management of the UvA. It was only after the occupation of the Bungehuis last week, that I became a full supporter of the movement. I have my office in that building and went in to see what was going on. I talked to some students and was very impressed by their clear goals and by how they handle the pressure and the press.

Later they asked me and other teachers to give guest lectures. So I returned, which is a mild form of disobedience since the dean stretched, that teachers shouldn’t enter the building during the occupation.

Did you feel a discontent in the departments and amongst the students before the protests broke out?

At first, only from the staff members. In the Faculty of Humanities, especially in the departments under direct threat of the Profiel 2016 [a series of changes of the Faculty of Humanities to become ‘financially sustainable’], it was complained about on a daily basis.

For most departments in Humanities it is hard to fit into the new commercial model that the university is developing. Where other fields of study might receive research funds from companies, the introduction of a commercial environment was no success here. As a result the management introduced big cuts, without consulting with the staff.

Was there a noticeable tipping point?

There were people from the staff of different departments, who were already voicing their criticism, but a tipping point occurred when the management announced irrational cuts. Cuts hitting the smaller departments that sometimes made no sense.

For example: the management decided that MA programs that attract less than 20 students weren’t profitable. This means that the University’s Master programme of Italian language will be cut. Yet it’s the biggest Italian MA in the whole of the Netherlands. This kind of top down thinking leaves very little room for debate.

While teachers aren’t allowed to strike, the students manage to voice their demands loud and clear. I believe that we’re currently witnessing a paradigm change, where discussions are not enough anymore.

The Bigger Picture

Have you been aware of similar protests recently?

Not so much in the Netherlands, but I know that the UK and US are much further down the road of privatizing their universities. I remember one similar protest at the Warwick University last year, which lead to the introduction of new draconian laws, criminalizing any form of protest or occupation on campus.

I’ve been with the UvA for ten years and have not experienced anything similar in the past. There was the occasional protest in the form of debates, letter writing campaigns, and pamphlets, but they were quickly exhausted and didn’t achieve anything. I don’t know why it’s different now, but I believe that the environment of capitalist realism -where students are treated like products- has thickened to the extent that it created a climate of resistance.

So, what’s your involvement now?

During the occupation of the Bungehuis, with the help of some colleagues and students, I mounted a petition for the protest.

So far, we received an overwhelming amount of support and many moving comments. This makes me believe in the legitimacy of this form of protest. And hopefully, it will stop a second violent eviction by the the special police (ME). I admire the students for their continuous non-violent resistance.

What do you think would be a realistic reaction of the management?

As one of my colleagues suggested…Since it’s not words, but decisions that change things, we should elect student members and a member of staff to be included in the management of the university. This would be a start.

The Executive Board’s to every campaign has been the offer of non-binding further debates, without any real commitment to change. But there has been enough talk. The only thing that will satisfy the protesters, and the only thing that might install some trust in the Board, is a substantial change to the current organizational structure or policy.

We need actions