‘What do we want? Housing! When do we want it? Now!’ So chant dozens of students sitting on the main stairs at the Academy building. The chants are interspersed with yelling, applause, and short speeches. Whenever someone needs to go down the stairs, whether it be a group of professors leaving a PhD ceremony or a new graduate, the students make way for them.
The protest was organised by student party DAG and ROOD, the Socialist Party’s (SP) youth division. They want to raise awareness of the dire circumstances in the student housing market, which affect international students in particular.
Several hundreds of international students do not currently have a place to live. The protest organisers feel that the RUG and the Hanze University of Applied Sciences should take more responsibility for this crisis.
‘They just want to take our money’
The protest had been announced. However, it was supposed to have taken place at the Ossenmarkt. That is in fact where everyone gathered this afternoon at 3:30 PM. The group consists of Dutch and international people, members of ROOD, DWARS, DAG, or nothing at all, men and women. Most of them are students, but some of them are older.
Some take turns on the large concrete blocks in the middle of the square to share their personal experiences, such as first-year student Ozzy, who talks about what it’s like to be homeless. Others use the platform to criticise the universities’ policy. ‘They don’t see us as human beings; they just want to take our money and boost their statistics’, says DAG member Bart Hekkema. ‘But’, another student clarifies, ‘we still respect the university as an institute. It’s the policy we’re protesting, not the academic community.’
The speeches take place in the centre of the gathering where people are listing and applauding. At the edges, however, small groups are leaving. The event seems to have ended before it got a chance to start. But appearances are deceiving.
‘There are currently seventy people in the Academy building’, says DAG member Teun Schoutens, one of the last people to head for the university. ‘They went in small groups, to avoid being detected. They’ll be given the signal in a bit.’
When Schoutens has entered the building, the real protest goes down. ‘We’re starting!’, a voice booms from a megaphone. ‘This is the signal! We’re starting!’ The protesters swarm the stairs. From below the doormen, cafeteria staff, and a PhD student’s small children look on in amazement.
This is the start of the real protest. Or, as ROOD and DAG have dubbed it, the ‘sleep-in’. This is also when they announce their demands. There are four of them in total. Schoutens loudly announces them while the people on the stairs listen.
The demands are as follows: All emergency housing should be free of charge as of immediately. The university has to promise to not attract even more students next year. The university should initiate talks with the municipality about turning vacant office buildings into student housing. And the university should speak out against the funding model in higher education that’s focused on quantity over quality.
The protesters announce that they will not leave the Academy building until the RUG board meets these demands. Even if it takes all night.
‘It’s just wrong’
‘I’m fine staying here all night’, says student Tomas from the bottom step. ‘Although I really have to go back to Amsterdam in the morning, because my cats need feeding.’ Next to him student Amelie is just getting comfortable. ‘But I’m sure I won’t stay this comfortable as the night wears on.’
Amelie learned about the protest through Facebook. She invited Tomas to go with her. ‘I was a first-year student myself last year’, she says. ‘It was practically impossible to find a room. There were all these people who paid a lot of money to sleep at a campsite, and now first-years have to sleep in tents again. It’s just wrong.’
RUG not meeting demands
It doesn’t look as though the university is meeting the protesting students’ demands. Board vice-president Jan de Jeu briefly spoke to Schoutens, and the university has released a written response to the demands, but is not currently meeting them.
A DAG member says the students will deliberate on what to do next. They certainly don’t plan on leaving.
UPDATE 19.00 – Things get real after closing
Teun Schoutens says that the protesters have talked to the RUG and the police. The students can stay until the Academy building closes at 10 PM.
What happens after that depends on the university. They could decide to use municipal regulations to force the students to leave the building.
There will be another meeting with the police at 9 PM.
UPDATE 20.55 – No one is allowed in
The Academy building’s doors have been closed and locked with a padlock. Groningen alderman Roeland van der Schaaf has been let in, people can leave, but no new students are allowed to enter the building.
The protesting students have asked the board of directors for an explanation, a spokesperson says, but they have yet to receive an answer. Student party DAG, one of the occupation’s initiators, has taken to social media to spur on students to come to the square in front of the Academy building. A group has gathered outside, while inside the protesters are chanting to ‘Let them in’.
Daan Brandenburg with the SP writes on Twitter: ‘The university has lured students to Groningen but has failed to take responsibility for housing them. And when the students want answers? They just close down a public building.’
UPDATE 21:30 – Police and Bella Ciao
Police officers are now inside the Academy Building to deliberate. A member of DAG reports they’re also doing a headcount.
According to university spokesperson Jorien Bakker, the doors have been locked in order to keep a clear overview of how many people are currently inside. Outside, a handful of people keeps waiting to be let in, but they are consistently refused.
Inside, the overall atmosphere seems cheerful. Speeches are being held from time to time, students play games, someone has a guitar and the crowd sings the Italian partisan song Bella Ciao.
UPDATE 23:20 – The occupation has ended
The students are ending their occupation. After much talking, they’ve decided the RUG has sufficiently met their demands. The students currently living in the tents near the ACLO will be given a different place to live free of charge.
The municipality will also sign a covenant concerning housing with the relevant parties (housing corporations, investors, and institutes). The RUG also wants to abolish the current allocation model and will let the education minister know.
Watch the video, in which the protesters triumphantly leave the Academy building.