On Spuistraat in Amsterdam, next to some canals and trees and things, there will be a couple of young people painting red squares in the cobblestones in front of a building owned by the University of Amsterdam. At the moment, this particular building is occupied by a group of humanities students and faculty that call themselves the New University.
This takeover is in response to a plan proposed by University administration in early 2014 called “Profiel 2016” or “Profile 2016,” for those of you who don’t want to guess what the basic dutch words say. According to the University of Amsterdam’s website, the plan offers a “new perspective” on the humanities program at UvA, and this program includes radical changes to the current programs offered within the bachelor’s degree and restructuring the Master’s degree program. Published on November 14, 2014, this information about Profile 2016 is the only available information that isn’t restricted access. The actual proposal for these radical changes is restricted to student and faculty access, which perhaps makes sense since they are directly affected by these changes. However, this lack of access then prohibits people interested in becoming students and faculty at this time to understand what’s fully at stake.
The public announcement of the proposal suggested a vague “restructuring” of these humanities programs in response to budget cuts. What actually happened was like a high school musical, “kill the arts” storyline. Profile 2016 essentially slashed several humanities curriculum offered, such as modern language programs. There were even talks of consolidating the remaining programs, which at this point was English Literature, History, Philosophy, and Dutch Literature into one Liberal Arts degree. To recap, this proposal intended to take four remaining programs and make them one program at the University of Amsterdam. So, your bachelors, masters, and ph.D wouldn’t say “English” or “Philosophy” or even some of the cooler ones like “Psychology”—because psychology is, not a science, but a liberal art. Your degree at any level would say “Liberal Arts.” As in, you went to school for years to become certified not for a specific thing, but for “Liberal Arts.”
In addition to cutting the programs offered, the amount of masters and ph.D student funding was also cut. The proposal allowed for 20 masters candidates and, get this, three ph.D candidates to study and earn a higher degree in “Liberal Arts.” You might think is prestige when this is actually bulls***. The number of candidates for programs correlates to the number of existing programs. By consolidating the programs into one program, the number of paid teaching positions decreases as well as already paid faculty positions. According to the Dutch news site HetParool, 98 faculty positions are expected to be cut. In response to these cuts, a group of humanities students and faculty called The New University occupied the Bungehuis, which is the humanities building on the University of Amsterdam campus. The occupiers made a series of demands, which were fairly tame. They ultimately wanted to talk to the UvA’s administrative board overseeing the passing of Profile 2016 and have an open discussion about the provisions made, but the board refused. Instead, they called the cops on the occupiers and on February 24th of this year, and 46 students were arrested. Since then, The New University has occupied another campus building called Maagdenhuis, which is the main administrative building of UvA and the protesters continue to occupy this building, in which the occupiers host different programs and events that range from faculty lectures to film screenings.
And here, friends, is the interesting part. Because this, believe or not, affects you. I know, you perhaps don’t go to the University of Amsterdam. Perhaps you don’t even know where Amsterdam is, or you can’t be bothered to figure out where it is. The point is that the University of Amsterdam is one of hundreds of universities in which students are fighting for a more democratic and autonomous university system. The “Free London University” movement just ended last week, and that movement was not only in response to a more student-involved university like the protests in Amsterdam but also in response to cutting art and design programs. In addition to several protests happening in the countries on New University’s radar, there are protests at the University of Minnesota and other American universities against similar budget cuts. These protesters have similar demands to their European counterparts: an autonomous, more student-involved campus. Meaning, students would be as involved in decisions like program cuts and university spending.
It’s safe to say that cutting programs so that both current and incoming students, faculty positions, and even the certification of students are affected drastically is wrong. I’m not saying this as a biased humanities student. I’m saying this for the sake of practicality. What good does it do to get rid of classes that teach you how to think critically and communicate effectively? A UK study found five important benefits gained from studying the humanities, such as “assist the formation of critical minds to bear on a wide range of crucial issues, resulting in a flourishing public culture, committed to respect for knowledge and intelligent debate.” Not only that, it generally costs less to have multiple humanities programs (we’re talking without excessive budget slashing) than their “hard” scientific counterpart programs, and humanities students usually have an acceptable return investment on their degree from their future careers, although it’s hard to immediately measure unlike in sciences where return is expected.
To recap, then: students internationally are protesting the slashing of humanities programs and the general neglect of student consent in doing so, but schools remain adamant in minimizing or getting rid of these programs altogether even though humanities cost less and provide a return investment for students in the future while cultivating critical, well-rounded, democratic and engaging people.
Maybe the solution is to have a more student-involved campus, so that university administration internationally can truly reflect and understand student’s response to their decisions, because humanities students around the world are clearly discontent.