“There is a lack of political awareness and solidarity among staff and students”

Debate on how to respond to the underfunding of higher education


MAASTRICHT. Has structural underfunding brought higher education in the Netherlands to a breaking point? That was the question of the panel discussion organised by the New University Maastricht and PINE Maastricht (Pluralism in Economics) last Monday in the Statenzaal at the Faculty of Law. Looking at the small audience of twenty people who attended the debate, panel member and sociologist Wiebe Nauta suggested the answer might be no. “Otherwise, there would be more people here.” 

The lack of interest in WO in Actie – the national organisation behind the protests of the last months and the demonstration in The Hague on Friday – in Maastricht suggests the same. “It was very difficult to get people interested outside the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences”, says Renée van de Vall, coordinator of the Maastricht actions. Philosopher Sjaak Koenis, member of the University Council, tried to put the issue on the Council’s agenda, but also got very little response.

Ceren Pekdemir, PhD researcher at ICIS and representative of the VAWO Academic Union, wonders if it isn’t just a lack of time. “I know many people who feel overworked who aren’t here tonight. They have so many obligations in life.” A staff member in the audience agrees with her. “If everyone in my department who has talked to me about feeling overworked was here tonight, the room would be full.”

According to Pekdemir, another potential issue is that in the end, people love their jobs. “People need to be truly unhappy for collective action to happen. You don’t go out to protest unless you’re angry. Maybe we’re just good at suffering.” Tania Treibich, assistant professor in Economics, agrees. “We want to be there for our students; I don’t perceive it as a burden. But the distribution is quite bad. It’s always the same people who offer to teach extracurricular courses or join committees for the improvement of education. They don’t get a deduction of their teaching load for that. Which means their research always suffers, because that’s what you do when you’re done with everything else.”

From the student’s perspective, it’s definitely a lack of time, says Lydia Fink, student at FASoS. “The workload at this university is crazy. If you come down with a cold or have a family emergency, you have a huge problem. You will fail the course. Always being under this kind of pressure doesn’t allow you to sort out your thoughts and write a good paper. You can’t do your studies right this way.”

Geertje Hulzebos, former chair of the student union LSVb, thinks there is also a lack of political consciousness amongst students in addition to a lack of solidarity with the staff and an unwillingness to take serious action. “I was asked to leave the LSVb when I suggested we take it to the streets and protest more often. People don’t want to do that.”

She feels it’s important that students and staff talk with each other more. “Why not ask what’s the matter, instead of complaining when you don’t get your grade in time or don’t get an immediate reply to your e-mail?” Fink agrees. “That’s how I learned. I complained to Wiebe [Nauta] and he explained it to me.”

Sjaak Koenis wonders if it’s really the amount of work that’s making people feel stressed. “We also worked hard 30 years ago. I think the amount of administrative work we have to do makes people feel like they lack autonomy. That’s what’s stressful.”

But that’s not new either, says philosopher Tsjalling Swierstra. “We’ve had this diagnosis for ten years. Yet nobody changes the system. Somehow, we benefit from it. It’s complex. Students benefit from more transparency, from the fact that teachers can be held accountable. But that means more administrative work for us.”

Swierstra also points out that scholars lose their power when they’re unwilling to protest through actions such as only working the hours they’re contractually obliged to work and making it the university’s problem if the work isn’t done. “Why would anyone change anything?” But when asked for concrete solutions, all panel members prefer informing people and raising awareness. Only Wiebe Nauta suggests going on strike. “And then use that day productively by organising conversations between students and staff. That would give a jolt to the system.”

“There is a lack of political awareness and solidarity among staff and students”