It was the largest Groningen protest since the seventies, and it was entirely unexpected. Last Thursday, approximately one hundred students with DAG, ROOD, and DWARS occupied the main stairway at the Academy building. They were dissatisfied with how things were run at the university, and they weren’t the only ones.
Groningen and the rest of the watched student housing developments with mounting surprise and indignation. An unprecedented number of students came to Groningen to study, but hundreds of them were left without a place to live. They had to rely on either their fellow students’ charity, a very expensive hotel boat, or cold tents near the ACLO.
The RUG and the Hanze University maintained that they were doing everything reasonably possible to help them, but the academic community disagreed. And so dozens of students swarmed the Academy building on Thursday and said they wouldn’t leave until the RUG board met their demands.
Their first demand was that the university should do more for homeless students. They also wanted the RUG to speak out publicly against the current allocation model for higher education, which the students feel is a perverse incentive.
Everyone watched the goings-on inside the Academy building tensely. Would the students leave on their own, or would they be kicked out? No one had much faith that the protest would change anything. Many people have tried – and failed – to lobby against the allocation model. When it comes to housing international students, the RUG has always insisted they were doing things right.
But against all expectations, the protesters got what they wanted. The homeless students get to stay in an old school building for free until November, and the RUG board issued a public statement against the perverse incentives to attract an increasing number of students in the allocation model. What the university council couldn’t achieve, a hundred students sitting on some stairs could. How did they manage it?
On the spot
University board member Jan de Jeu was put on the spot Thursday evening. He could have had the police put an end to the protest, but that would have been a PR nightmare. His only real options were to either wait the protestors out or to engage them in conversation.
To his credit, he chose the latter. This decision lead to the final agreement. De Jeu did admit that ‘we actually had quite a lot of common ground when it came to what they wanted.’ Which raises the question: why was this protest necessary in the first place?
We’ve wondered this before. Why was it necessary for council parties to get truly angry in order to change the policy of keeping the ACLO tents closed during the day? Why was so much public indignation necessary in order to get the cost of a night in the ACLO tents lowered from 12.50 to nothing?
The board of the university gives the impression that they overestimate what they can get away with. They seem to think that students will simply accept everything that grown-up, experienced people tell them. You can’t really blame the board members: this is a strategy that has worked many times in the past.
But now at least part of the student body no longer takes everything they are told as the gospel truth. They are no longer intimidated by official jargon or complicated policies. And why should they be? They’re budding academics: they are supposed to be critical, to ask questions, and to challenge their institutions – especially if they think those institutions are cutting corners.
A university that takes educational training seriously has no choice but to be proud of students like these.