Universiteit

RUG at WOinActie, if possible

All words and no action

Open air class at the Grote Markt to protest the work pressure in higher education, last September
An increasing number of Dutch universities will support the WOinActie demonstration on 14 December. And not just with words; some have given staff and students the day off and even arranged for buses to take them to the Malieveld in The Hague. But critics say the RUG is all talk and no action.
By Rob Siebelink

WOinActie

WOinActie is a national platform consisting of staff and students trying to fight the cutbacks in higher education, which has led to high work pressure and too-small lecture halls. ‘The university is bursting at the seams’, says WOinActie.

In September, lecturers and professors at the universities of Amsterdam, Utrecht, Nijmegen, Leiden, Wageningen, Maastricht, and Groningen protested by teaching their classes outside. WOinActie wants the government to invest another 1.15 billion euros in academic education.

In September, professor Barend van Heusden and his students held class in the Grote Markt in the shadow of the Martinitoren, to protest cutbacks, work pressure, and too-small lecture halls in universities. He’d also like be there on Friday 14 December when WOinActie protests at the Malieveld. But he’s not sure he’ll be able to manage it.

Whether or not people will be able to attend the demonstration depends on their class schedules. The board of directors at the RUG supports WOinActie and will allow students and staff to attend the demonstration, but only if they can reschedule classes or provide an alternative.

During the last university council meeting, president Jouke de Vries said: ‘Employees who want to attend the demonstration will have to arrange that themselves. Education has to be the priority.’

Highest priority

The ‘priority’ remark is what stings, says Barend van Heusden. ‘I teach a class from 9 to 11 am, so I’ll have to move that. The board could have responded differently and allowed lecturers to cancel their classes – just this once.’

‘The board’s support is all words and no action’, says Bart Beijer with the university council’s personnel faction. ‘Employees have to take the day off and pay for their own transport. It’s disappointing.’

Employees have to take the day off and pay for their own transport. It’s disappointing

During an earlier council meeting, fellow faction member Dirk-Jan Scheffers remarked that the RUG board’s definition of ‘support’ for WOinActie is cloudy at best. ‘If I have to teach, that means I can’t go. And I’d have to take the day off. So what do they mean when they say we have the opportunity to go? How are supporting us? It’s not like I don’t appreciate the public support, but I’m not sure we agree on the definition of support.’

Koen Marée with student movement DAG says the RUG isn’t supporting anyone. According to him, they are ‘blocking people’s attempts to attend the demonstration’. ‘The university board should support WOinActie both with actions and with words.’

‘Not demonstrating ourselves’

The RUG board argues that it does so. They have allocated five million euros a year to try and lower the work pressure. The faculties can divide the funds among themselves. ‘Those are actions.’ When it comes to the demonstration, the RUG is doing the same thing most other universities are doing. During the council meeting, president De Vries said: ‘Most of the VSNU presidents are doing the same thing we’re doing: supporting the protest, but not demonstrating at the Malieveld ourselves.’

Are the other universities doing the same? A quick check with Dutch universities shows that responses actually vary. Some universities are doing roughly the same thing the RUG is doing. However, the universities of Leiden, Rotterdam, Tilburg, Utrecht, Amsterdam, and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam are doing more to support WOinActie. They will give staff and students the day off whether they’re supposed to teach or take classes or not, and help pay for the bus transport to The Hague.

‘Some issues’

The Radboud University in Nijmegen says that ‘all students and staff who want to attend the demonstration will be allowed to do so.’ There might be ‘some issues’ such as cancelled classes due to protesting lecturers, or students missing from mandatory classes or exams. ‘But we’re not blocking anyone from going’, the Nijmegen university says.

The University of Amsterdam also has no issues with lecturers or students going to The Hague. On top of that, the institute is paying for bus transport, and UvA president Geert ten Dam is attending the event himself. ‘I think it only makes sense for me to join students and staff’, she is quoted as saying in Folia, the magazine for the Amsterdam university.

We’re not blocking anyone from going

Radboud University

VU managers Mirjam van Praag and Marjolein Jansen, will also make an appearance at the Malieveld. They won’t be carrying a banner, the VU jokes, but ‘they’re attending to show their support for staff and students’. The VU, as well as the universities of Leiden and Tilburg, will also be paying for the bus transport to The Hague.

Earlier, the University of Utrecht said attending the demonstration will have no consequences for students or staff. Instead, any students who miss classes or exams to attend the demonstration can claim that the absence was a case of force majeure. ‘Like an Act of God’, the UU said.

‘Not getting involved’

‘We are publicly declaring our support for WOinActie. That’s already a lot’, the board said during the last council meeting. ‘We don’t want to be part of the organisation during this phase. It’s also to do with our role towards The Hague at this stage. I’m not saying we’ll never get involved, but we’re not getting involved right now’, said board member Jan de Jeu.

Critics says the university is being too timid. ‘The university board could have made buses available to the lecturers and students. They could have joined them’, says Van Heusden.

DAG agrees with him. ‘Contributing to the cost of one or several buses to The Hague and banners is the least they could do. They don’t even have to organise anything themselves; WOinActie has a team for that.’

Set an example

Bart Beijer says the Faculty of Arts sent a staff-wide email: staff will not have to take the day off and mandatory attendance for students is cancelled that day. ‘If we set an example, maybe someone will follow it’, says Beijer.

This is part of my job, not a vacation

Assistant professor of history and Asian studies Anjana Singh participated in the open air classes for WOinActie in September. Unfortunately, she will not be attending the demonstration at the Malieveld on Friday. Not because of ‘the lack of support’ from the RUG, but because she has work appointments in Amsterdam and in Leiden. They just happen to fall on that day, and they are a priority. ‘I made these appointments a long time ago and they can’t be rescheduled.’

She would have loved to attend the demonstration and is also disappointed at the careful course the RUG is steering. ‘Actions speak louder than words.’

Professor Barend van Heusden will not be taking the day off. ‘Not because I don’t have any days off left – we all have oodles of days off we never actually take – but because I feel this is part of my job, not a vacation.’

He has another problem on 14 December. On that day, the University College, where he serves as director for the Humanities, has a large meeting planned about the RUG-wide survey about the high work pressure, involving the entire staff. ‘Isn’t that ironic?’

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