Netherlands: Student protests win concession from government

Education a right, not a privilege

On Wednesday, 29 April, around 1,000 students from across the Netherlands travelled to The Hague to protest against the Dutch government’s attacks on education and for the democratic right of student representation at the universities. In many cases, the demonstration was even supported by university authorities. During the protest, some students tried to get into Parliament but were stopped by police and security.

The conservative Balkenende government planned to put up tuition fees to €4,500 per term for students who had not finished their studies after five and a half years.

Many students were understandably outraged by the proposal of Secretary of State Rutte. The new fees would mean discriminating against students from poorer backgrounds that have to work and study, at the same time. It would also discriminate against those students who get involved in student associations and, therefore, need longer to finish their studies.

The turnout of 1,000 protesters was smaller than many students had hoped for but there were still enough to shout angry protests at Secretary Rutte when he came to defend his proposals.

The student union invited a speaker from every party to explain their point of view, even a representative of the right wing populist List Pim Fortuyn. But he didn’t get a warm welcome either from the students and was almost shouted down when he was speaking.

While every party representative was given a platform, the student union did not have a main speaker who could have outlined the students’ demands and the next steps for the struggle.

Student protesters scored a success in their campaign, when Rutte and the government were forced to backtrack on their initial demands. Now they will allow students six years instead of five and a half, before they have to pay € 3,000 instead of €4,500.

But students need to be aware that the government may come back with new attacks. The students’ union needs to clearly campaign for free and quality education, for all. Students in the Netherlands, as in many other countries, have to pay tuition fees, and it should be one of the priorities of the student union to explain that education is a right and not a privilege.

Offensief, the Dutch affiliate of the CWI, was the only political organisation which distributed a leaflet on the issue of education. We got a very good response from students when we discussed the need for a different society, ending the profit-ridden socialist for a socialist society. Quite a few people who are members or sympathisers of the Socialist Party (SP) in the Netherlands, which has MPs and scores of councillors across the country, expressed their worries about the reformist SP leadership wanting and hoping to be part of the next national government.

Students also expressed their shock and anger at all the increasing social cuts. Like Germany, the Netherlands was famous for its welfare state and high standard of social security. But, according to the Dutch government, this must come to an end.

However, people in the Netherlands are not just accepting this. In October last year, 300,000 demonstrated against the attacks. And with the concessions won – even if they are small – it became clear that it is always worthwhile struggling. But to defend our living standards and education for good, we need to fight for a socialist society.

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April 2005