Striking for a transformative university by Karin Astrid Siegmann and Amod Shah

Budget cuts in higher education limit universities’ transformative potential. A big strike is therefore planned in the Netherlands for all sectors of education on 15 March 2019. This strike follows demonstrations amongst others by university staff and students in The Hague in December 2018. This post is a conversation between ISS PhD researcher Amod Shah and senior lecturer Karin Astrid Siegmann about what motivates them to participate in the protests.

Karin: So many people came for the demonstration in The Hague—many more than I had expected! There were 1,000, some say even 2,000 people. What motivated you to join, Amod?

Amod: I was very impressed at the size of the demonstration, too. Being part of an educational institution, an element of solidarity motivated me to join. And there are very real impacts of these proposed cuts on us as PhD researchers. We are already in a situation where there is limited capacity for PhD supervision and training because academic and administrative staff are stretched and need to balance research and teaching responsibilities. The budget cuts aggravate that. There’s also a broader discussion to be had: these cuts are huge and structural. What does that mean for the university?

Karin: I see people without permanent contracts and tenure often don’t dare to speak up, criticise, or do anything that would distract their attention from getting those publication points necessary to get tenure. Overall, I see a move towards the neoliberalisation of universities: universities are more and more managed like ‘knowledge factories’. There’s more attention to quantifiable outputs than to the contents of your research, the meaning of what you teach, and of your research for society. To me, a public university should be a space where people manage to think out of the box, creatively for a better, more just society.

In my research and teaching, I use Polanyi’s work quite a bit. He looked at European societies from the perspective of efforts to commodify everything in society, driven by business interests and also pushed by governments. I see similar dynamics in the neoliberalisation of universities. Yet they are a space that should not be commodified in a healthy society. The effort will backfire, I think. But Polanyi also perceived simultaneous counter-movements by ordinary people, by social movements. I see the protests as such a form of resistance.

Amod: Very real conflicts of interest are created when, instead of government funding, you rely on a private organisation, foundation, or company to provide funds for research.

Karin: ‘Conflict of interests’ puts it very politely. I see an increasing influence of corporate interests that want to uphold the status quo. For instance, I see many more calls for research on climate change adaptation rather than what can be done to prevent climate change. That allows us to not question a westernised consumerist way of life, a dogma of economic growth.

For the ‘knowledge factory’, a similar model is being implemented not only in universities but also other sectors, such as in healthcare or in government offices where you should care about the public good rather than higher productivity. This model works through individualisation and competition. It provides disincentives for people to collaborate, but also encourages them to recycle their own work in order to make a career.

Such an individualistic model also makes it easier within institutions to divide and rule and silence critical voices. Michael Burawoy has written a really interesting class analysis of how a university manages to silence protest against new public management restructuring by dividing academic staff from admin staff, through the provision of some privileges to academic staff.

Amod: This is a very good point! As a former MA student and now as a PhD researcher, I see that playing out at ISS, too. By creating such differences—that as a PhD student you are not a student but you are not a staff member either—you intentionally or unintentionally harm the ability for people to collaborate.

We are of course aware that there are funding pressures, but it’s important not to let go of the ethos of a university that contributes to social change. There should be space for collaboration, to think more broadly, not to be oriented solely towards the next publication, or finishing your PhD or getting a job. There are universities and spaces where people are trying to get away from this rat-race kind of orientation The University of Gent is one example: their new system for faculty evaluation de-emphasises quantitative metrics and focuses on what faculty members are proud of[1]. There are real examples out there about how things can be better—these are not ideas which are just up in the air.

Karin: Yes, I was really touched by that example. Another example I have heard about is the planned cooperative university in Manchester. Because of the increasing privatisation in universities, students don’t have the funds to study. That way, universities becomes a more and more exclusive space. With a cooperative university, they want to develop an alternative model with students and staff as the main stakeholders.

Amod: For me, what’s happening in the Netherlands is symptomatic of a more global phenomenon, of the state withdrawing from higher education. What do you think?

Karin: I just referred to Burawoy’s class analysis of neoliberalised universities. I heard him speak about that two years back in Lahore, Pakistan, at a private university. I found it so interesting that somebody coming from a public university in the US presented an analysis that spoke both to the situation of students at a private, elite university in Pakistan and somebody like me who is teaching at a public university in the Netherlands. Very different contexts, but his observations rang a bell for so many people in the audience.

Amod: I would add to this the idea of the university as an egalitarian space, where people from very different backgrounds are able to come and study together. I think that’s a hallmark of public education across the world. This egalitarian space is one of the first casualties of the privatisation and neoliberalisation of higher education. I see that a lot in India now, with the mushrooming of expensive private universities.

Karin: I think even in the publicly funded universities in countries that claim to be very egalitarian like the Netherlands, you very often see the reproduction of class, racial, and gender hierarchies. I don’t pretend that right now public universities are egalitarian spaces. But in private universities, it is very clear that the customer-pays principle rules. Whereas in public universities you can contest that, and there’s space to demand more inclusiveness.

Amod: I agree. I think that’s what these protests are about—maintaining a space for contestation in the public higher education system.

Karin: So, we will take to the streets again on 15 March?

Amod: Yes!

The 15 March demonstration at Malieveld, The Hague will start at 12:00 (noon) and will continue until approximately 13:30.

[1] We would like to thank Zuleika Sheik for sharing this information.

Image Credit: Alice Pasqual on Unsplash

About the authors:

csm_5abd70057687ec5e3741252630d8cc66-karin-siegmann_60d4db99baKarin Astrid Siegmann is a senior lecturer in gender & labour economics at ISS.




amod-photoAmod Shah is a PhD candidate at the ISS.


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