30 September 2021 comments 2

VU executive board, you are accountable for the homeless students


'The point of the protest #NoRoomForUs was to say clear and loud to the VU executive board: you are responsible, you have to find a solution for the homeless students. Now!' finds professor Paola Gori-Giorgi.

The student union SRVU organized the protest #NoRoomForUs at the VU campus square, to ask the VU executive board to take responsibility for the homeless international students and find a solution for them.

As VU contact point for WOinActie I joined the protest, together with some colleagues, to bring the support and solidarity of the VU academic staff. I was very appalled and shocked by the stories of the students. This is a tragedy that has of course many different root causes. I would like to mention here four of them, and the last one is what I believe the protest was about: asking for accountability and taking responsibility.

I was very appalled and shocked by the stories of the students

Root cause number 1 is of course the housing crisis in the Netherlands. On September 12 in Amsterdam 15000 people joined the first of a series of protests, called in Dutch “woonprotest”. People asking the government to set rules and bounds for ruthless real estate investors. Housing is a human right. The beauty of the woonprotest is that very diverse people are truly united: young and old, Dutch and foreign, refugees and even people who own the house they live in. No divisive propaganda could stop them. I did see this beautiful unity again at the #NoRoomForUs protest: Dutch students helping internationals. And I invite everybody to join the next “woonprotest”, 17 october in Rotterdam.

Root cause number 2: Dutch Universities are severely underfunded. WOinActie together with the unions and the students, and sometimes with the support of university executive boards, organized several protests in the past 3 years. The first victory has been that the underfunding is now officially acknowledged also by the government, who tried to deny it for years. It is now recognized that the Dutch higher education is short in funding by 1.1 billion per year. Who are the victims of this underfunding? The overworked academic staff and the students who get less supervision and overcrowded classrooms. We need now to continue the protest to get this missing funding.

Root cause number 3 is the perverse way in which this too scarce funding is distributed between the Dutch universities. Each university gets funding proportional to their share of the total “market” of students (yes, in the sick, failed, neoliberal ideology, students are a “market”). The consequence is that universities compete in getting as many students as they can, in an insane rat race, without even thinking what they are doing, but just living in the perennial fear that others can get a higher student growth and then… their slice of the cake will be smaller.

Root cause number 4: Dutch universities are governed in an extreme top-down manner. The university executive boards are appointed in non-transparent ways (by an obscure “raad van toezicht”),  without really involving the staff and the students The executive board, in turn, nominates the deans of the faculties, which, in turn, nominate the heads of departments. It is a pyramidal structure in which each layer is accountable to the layer above, never to the people below. The only democratically elected bodies in the whole Dutch academia are the works and students councils. But they do not have any real power, and the executive board or the deans can easily dismiss them. Setting limits to student growth or have reasonable plans about them was one of the points raised by the works and students council. Dismissed by the university board, which again and again ignores their concerns, as in the recent IT disaster.

With WOinActie we strive for a more democratic governance of our universities, with elected boards, who are accountable to the people below them, not just to the ones above. University administrators must become elective roles, chosen by the people who live in and make the university work: the staff and the students. This is such a radical idea that is the accepted norm, for example in Belgium.

Another dramatic consequence of the top-down university is the raising of temporary contracts for lecturers, underpaid, with overwork. Again, the victims are the students, who miss continuity in education, the increasingly casualized staff, and also the permanent staff whose workload increases by having to instruct new colleagues over and over. Notice that most of the times the choice of not offering permanent contracts is purely ideological and not budget dictated, because temporary staff is constantly hired for structural work. Two new movements, Casual Leiden and zeropointseven, were born recently to fight against the casualization of academic jobs, making executive boards accountable. We, the permanent staff, must  join forces with them, to strive together for a more democratic university, a university from below, who really cares about its students and its staff.

The protest #NoRoomForUs addressed one crucial aspect of root cause number 4: the lack of accountability of this top-down governance of our universities. The point of the protest was to say clear and loud to the VU executive board: you are accountable to these homeless students, to each one of them. You are ultimately responsible for having accepted at the VU a huge number of internationals without warning them enough on the housing problems and without arranging anything for them. Executive board, you are accountable, you are responsible, you have to find a solution. Now.

Marcel Nollen from the VU executive board listened to the speeches at the protest and decided to speak at the end, saying that the VU is taking care of the problem in many ways. Something that would be funny if it weren’t tragic is that he concluded his speech by saying to a bunch of homeless students “just go home”.

Paola Gori-Giorgi is Professor of Theoretical and Mathematical Chemistry 

{ Read the 2  comments}

Door Dimitris Pavlopoulos op 30 September 2021
Excellent article going to the heart of the problems. Well if the position of the Executive Board is to say 'go home' to homeless international students, then we are really in trouble. Let's sum things up: IT processes at the VU are just not working (although lots of money are spend on these new systems), people get hired and cannot even get a pass to enter the closed spaces (that the Executive board created a few years ago because they thought it's a good idea), lecturers are overworked trying to give hybrid education after providing online education, support staff is overworked because some high-paid managers messed up in the planning and implementation of the new IT systems, large numbers of students are homeless, many more had trouble in getting VUnet id's etc for the same IT systems failure.
Door Concerned VU e… op 01 October 2021
Dimitris Pavlopoulos is absolutely right. It's a mess. And let's not forget the academic harassments issues - swept under the rug. The EB is very good at sweeping everything from their plate, as they say in Dutch. Accepting responsibility? "The buck stops here" - well not at the VU.


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