Months of occupations, massive demonstrations and fighting with the police: many Dutch activists look with some jealousy at the student protests of the sixties and seventies. Today, protests seem to go no further than peaceful demonstrations or occupations of just a few hours. Have students lost their fighting spirit and if so, why have they lost it?
When you think of student struggles of the last century, you think of major occupations and extensive protests. Certainly in Nijmegen: the first occupation of a university building in the Netherlands took place at Radboud University (RU), then still the Catholic University of Nijmegen. This occupation even led to the dismissal of the Rector Magnificus. The student struggle grew into a movement in which student unions managed to mobilize huge numbers of students. This led to large-scale demonstrations and months of occupation of university buildings in the Netherlands. Violence was not shunned. Protests were regularly brutally crushed and often resulted in violent confrontations with the police. The actions that take place today are a lot quieter than a few decades ago. The Compensation Protest organized by the National Student Union (LSVb) last February, for example, consisted of a peaceful march through Amsterdam.
The current lack of fire begs the question of why students have seemingly lost their militancy over the years. After all, with a housing crisis, climate crisis, the introduction of the loan system, disappointing compensation for the ‘unlucky generation’ and an alarming number of students with mental problems, students have no less to complain about. Time for a dive into the past, looking for the place where the student-like hatchet is buried.
The turbulent sixties and seventies
In 1968, the student world exploded. Dissatisfied with the lack of equal participation in university decision-making, students occupied several university buildings in Nijmegen, Amsterdam and Tilburg. In the months that followed, several successful campaigns were conducted: in no time at all, the students were able to enforce equal say in the university board. This was unique according to Janos Betkó, former director of student union AKKU and the LSVb. ‘That level of participation went further than in almost any other European country.’ After long occupations, many students decided to resume their studies, although not everyone was satisfied. ‘What remained was a radical core that thought they should have had a lot more say,’ says Betkó. According to him, the hardening was also visible in the actions that were conducted in the following years. In the 1970s, for example, the mathematics faculty in Nijmegen was occupied for months to force the arrival of socialist teachers. Large-scale protests also broke out in 1988 against the education plans of CDA minister Wim Deetman, in which as many as 35,000 students took part. The student movement quickly radicalized.
The increased accessibility of studying in the 1960s played an important role in the success of the student movement, according to Betkó. ‘While studying used to be mainly an elite affair, after the Second World War the Dutch government started a special scholarship system that also gave children from the lower and middle classes the opportunity to go to university,’ he says. In the 1960s, this led to an unprecedented growth in student numbers. Unlike what we are used to today, there was only a limited number of associations and organizations that students could join. ‘Imagine that the entire campus can only choose between Carolus Magnus, AKKU, Navigators and Kunde, then you get a completely different dynamic,’ explains Betkó. ‘That would ensure thousands of members at AKKU, making it much easier for students to mobilize,’ he continues.
In addition to the enormous influx of new students, the zeitgeist of the 1960s also played a role in the popularization of the student movement. Subcultures emerged that increasingly rebelled against the established order. ‘Many young people thought Dutch society was authoritarian and unequally divided,’ says Carla Hoetink, assistant professor of Political History at the RU. ‘In an attempt to rebel against the established order, left-wing protest movements arose, such as the anarchist Provos, who tried to put themes such as emancipation, free love, the environment and democracy on the map with disruptive actions,’ continues Hoetink. She thinks it is therefore not surprising that students made themselves heard at this time in particular: ‘The Marxist students regarded the universities as bastions of conservatism. The RU in particular, which as a Catholic university had a clear social vision, was attacked particularly hard.’
The curbed nineties
From the mid-1990s to the early 1900s, the amount of student protests declined and mellowed out. ‘Students and lecturers tried to organize demonstrations against the Bachelor’s-Master’s structure that was being introduced,’ says Betkó. ‘Only a few hundred people showed up at the time, which really wasn’t much,’ he explains. Hoetink also sees a rift starting in the 1990s: ‘Demonstrations generally took on a much less radical cross-border character.’ According to Betkó, the idea was that the student struggle could be over. ‘Within the student movement it was thought that times had changed and that mobilization was therefore no longer possible.’
The stipulated participation and consultation structure as a result of the major protests of the 1960s and 1970s increasingly made protesting superfluous. ‘Since then a lot of progress has been made when it comes to student participation and rights,’ says Hoetink. ‘If advocacy is properly arranged, the need to demonstrate becomes less and less’, says Jacquelien van Stekelenburg, professor of Social Change and Conflict at VU University Amsterdam. Students and their representatives were better heard and student unions such as the LSVb increasingly sat around the table with universities and politicians. This is in stark contrast to the unwilling and conservative ears of the authorities in the 1960s and 1970s. Joram van Velzen, chairman of the LSVb, agrees: ‘When we were just founded in 1983, we were busy with protest actions. As we were seen more and more as a constructive discussion partner, that started to diminish.’
In addition, the student struggle in this period lost its radical character in part because the personal consequences of protesting became increasingly greater for students. ‘Studying became more expensive, the scholarships became lower and more efficiency measures were added to the system, such as the binding study advice,’ says Betkó. ‘Previously you could occupy a building for a few months and then continue with your studies, but now you suddenly had to redo your entire academic year if you did that’, he explains.
Furthermore, the zeitgeist changed from the early 1900s, resulting in less social support for radical protest actions. ‘The attack on the Twin Towers, the murder of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh meant that legislation was tightened up and there was more support for repression,’ says Betkó. “At that time, for example, the authorities were allowed to detain someone who had been arrested for ten days if they did not give their name, where previously it was eight hours. So you had to make a potentially greater sacrifice than before,’ he continues. ‘The reason had to be a lot more compelling to take that risk,’ concludes Betkó. However, student protests did not last long. ‘The moment students think they won’t be able to find a solution by talking, they just keep taking to the streets,’ says Van Stekelenburg.
After the first decade of this century, the student struggle has shifted to a tipping point. ‘There are more and more small-scale protests in many different places,’ says Van Stekelenburg. These types of protests, which originated from small networks, have become more common since the 1910s. ‘I am reminded of the pajama protests at Femke Halsema’s doorstep. Then students protested against the lack of housing in Amsterdam.’
This is partly due to the advent of social media. ‘This makes protests accessible and easy to organise,’ explains Van Stekelenburg. René Danen, climate and human rights activist and chairman of the LSVb from 1991 to 1992, agrees. “You can do more things faster, but social media also makes it much more volatile because there is such a wide range of messages and opinions,” he says. ‘As a result, there is less cohesiveness within a movement. In the past, for example, you had an association magazine, which automatically made you feel part of a club, which is much less the case with social media,’ Danen adds. This makes it more difficult than before to consistently organize large protests for a single theme.
Another explanation for the fact that there have been more, but smaller, protests is that the themes of the protests are no longer mainly in the field of education. As a result, student struggles fragment into various themes, such as climate or racism. Because of this fragmentation, many different demonstrations take place, but it is difficult to get many students to support the same theme at the same time. According to Hoetink, this thematic broadening is part of a general wave of broadening and narrowing that can be seen in student struggles. ‘The battle often starts on themes that only affect universities or education,’ she says. ‘Then that momentum is used to address broader themes and it will also focus on the government or on inequality,’ Hoetink adds. ‘Students are activists in a much broader field than they were ten years ago,’ says Danen. ‘They are now much more concerned with anti-racism, climate and the environment, for example,’ he explains. According to Van Velzen, the LSVb is also going along with this expansion. ‘We represent students, but they also consist of a certain generation. That generation is now very concerned about climate, racism and housing, for example,’ he says. ‘To be there for them, it is important that we do not focus on a single theme and that we commit ourselves broadly.’
Nevertheless, it is conceivable that students will again take action en masse for a single theme in the near future. ‘The tipping point has been reached, I have the feeling that students are fed up with it now. There are so many crises that could potentially lead to major protests,’ says Van Velzen. That is what he calls the corona crisis, the housing crisis, the labor crisis and the climate crisis. Moreover, there is also the feeling that the voice of students is being listened to less than before by the government. ‘There is contact and it is also friendly, but it does not achieve much,’ says Danen. According to him, themes such as energy poverty are pre-eminently subjects on which students can unite again if the government does not intervene. He concludes: ‘There haven’t been any major demonstrations lately, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be one tomorrow.’
This article appears in ANS newspaper 4.