In 1975, students protested against the demolition of the Catholic church on Broerstraat. Today, the UB stands there. Photo by Elmer Spaargaren

A history of occupations in Groningen

The old machine returns every time

In 1975, students protested against the demolition of the Catholic church on Broerstraat. Today, the UB stands there. Photo by Elmer Spaargaren
University historian Klaas van Berkel has seen student protests come and go since he started studying history in Groningen in 1971. And so he’s sceptical of the long-lasting impact of the current protests at UG. ‘Change takes a lot of time. And students don’t have that.’
By Veronika Bajnokova & Christien Boomsma
22 May om 12:14 uur.
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‘I can find the spot where I was sleeping those nights at the Academy building’, says Klaas van Berkel. ‘I wasn’t present all the time, but when I stayed over, I rolled out my sleeping bag in the hallway on the first floor.’

The historian who wrote many books on the university of Groningen, including a comprehensive three-part history of the period from 1614 to 2021, still recalls the days that he himself participated in the occupation of the Academy building in 1972, as part of the democratisation movement that started in the late 1960s and lasted well into the 1970s.

‘Demonstrations and occupations were really mass events and happening at different buildings across the city’, he remembers. ‘I was just a first-year student in 1971 and I have seen several protests in my student days.’


During these times, Van Berkel was part of the movement that worked towards university reforms. He participated in multiple occupations with the goal to amplify student voices in the university system. ‘I was very optimistic when I was starting my studies at Groningen’, he says, but looking back on the legacy of the past, Van Berkel is sceptical about their long-term impact. ‘But perhaps you are overconfident at that age.’

Students are here only for a couple of years and that doesn’t work

Students, he says, are impatient. ‘They want to have direct results.’ But to have real success, continuous work is necessary, over a longer period of time. ‘And students are here only for a couple of years. That doesn’t work.’

Van Berkel saw it when he returned to Groningen in 1988, having left after his graduation. Not much remained of what they had achieved in the 1970s: ‘I was very sad to see the failure become evident.’ 

Students had some successes, for instance Van Berkel himself became a member of the governing body of the history department of the UG. But those wins were temporary: ‘The democratic involvement of students had faded out and the old machine returned in a different form.’ 

Deepest wish

The end of the democratisation came in 1997, with the introduction of a new governance structure with far less involvement of students. ‘And that’s why every now and then, protest movements try to recapture some of these democratic influences of the students.’

Ever since the 1950s, participation in decision making has been ‘the deepest wish of students’, Van Berkel says. However, in recent years things have changed. The internationalisation of the university has brought racism and social safety to the top of the agenda of student protesters. 

‘There is more frustration about the way the university handles these issues than we can see.’ Since 2015 there have been smaller protests for such causes, yet Van Berkel thinks those faded out quickly too. ‘But I cannot close my eyes and shut my ears for the stories others tell me’, he says.

International students

Just last year, many students and staff protested against the firing of social safety expert Susanne Täuber. Van Berkel says he has seen similar cases where professors involved chose not to put up a fight with the university to save the trouble of finding other sources of income: ‘Täuber’s career in Groningen ended abruptly, and that is happening with more people than most of us realise.’

I don’t think Jouke de Vries will recognise any of the students at the encampment

One of the reasons for the protests not resonating as much with Dutch society these days, is that many international students are involved and slogans are often in English. ‘That’s something that makes the protests isolated’, Van Berkel thinks. That also goes for the current demonstrations in solidarity with Palestine.

Another reason is the pro-Israel sentiment in Dutch society. ‘The largest party at this moment is fully behind Israel and doesn’t even want to know about Palestine as a people, or a nation.’ And then there is the rising hostility towards internationals in Dutch politics that doesn’t help the student efforts.

No personal connection

Compared to the past, the communication between protesters and the university government is also hampered. ‘There was certainly more openness in the conversation’, Van Berkel remembers.

That, however, disappeared in the 1990s already. ‘I don’t think Jouke de Vries will recognise any of the students at the encampment. There’s no personal connection between the students and the governing body anymore.’

In order to achieve structural changes within the university, a student protest alone is not enough. It needs the combined effort of students and professors, Van Berkel argues. And even though ninety staff members are officially supporting the current encampment, he thinks in comparison to the staff body as a whole, the number is still too low to make any real difference.

And even when the students win and the university meets their demands to break ties with Israel, it won’t address the real issue: the war against the Palestinians: ‘Change takes a lot of time. And students don’t have that time.’

Timeline student protest