Saving the university

If anything can save the university, it is De Nieuwe Universiteit

In his column, David Hollanders elaborates on the future of the university. He states that a university that no longer reflects on its own aims does not deserve to be called a university

On February 25th students occupied the Maagdenhuis, the seat of the board -aka  College van Bestuur (CvB)- of the University of Amsterdam. Out of this occupation (or re-appropriation) has grown a movement that calls itself De Nieuwe Universiteit (DNU), which by now has co-movements in other university cities, including Tilburg.

For an assessment of this movement, it is necessary to look beyond side-issues. One could disapprove of occupying, but at the same time endorse the goal it is meant to further (or vice versa). One could feel that the life-style of the occupiers –who could be described as engaged intellectuals or spoiled hippies, depending on your perspective- but nonetheless embrace the program (or vice versa). And one could object against the CvB letting loose the police against its own students, while rejecting the program all the same (or vice versa). These are all sideshows in the final analysis. The heart of the matter is the program, which I endorse in my role as lecturer and which is –I feel- worth considering by students –even if one rejects it, which one could.

The last decades students have been hit hard on all fronts. Students do not receive much –if any- public financial support anymore, leading to a situation where one has to work (and de facto study part-time), load up with debt or be blessed with rich parents. Adding insult to injury, students are increasingly monitored on how fast they finish courses.

This is justified on three grounds:
First, taking on debt is framed as an investment in human capital, with a high return in working-life. This is problematic if not false. The job-market has been dire for years now and a master-degree is no longer a sufficient condition for a (well-paying) job. It is a necessary condition however, so one cannot refrain from it. Furthermore, education should –or so DNU argues- be more than trying to get in pole position for the labour market. It is also about Bildung, social cohesion and political participation.
A second motivation for increasing the financial burden for students is that education has increased in quality –justifying higher prices. This is again problematic –if not false. The number of students per lecturer has increased dramatically. This has not only increased the work-load of staff –already pressured by job insecurity- but has inevitably taken its toll on quality: larger classes, standard multiple-choice exams, teacher-rotations and light-touch thesis supervision.
A third motivation is that austerity is inevitable, and therefore students and universities cannot be spared. Even if one accepts the austerity argument –which many economists, including Krugman, Stiglitz, Jacobs and de Grauwe do not-, there is still the question whether one cannot do better with the money available.

Do we want a government that spends scarce resources on research that caters to business interests? Do want universities to spend money on advertisement and public relations instead of research and education?

Furthermore, do we want students that have learnt to conform as quickly as possible to whatever the educational system asks of them? Or do we want students who contemplate whether the expectations and demands of university and indeed of society more general make sense?

If one feels these are important questions, one should embrace DNU, even if their answers are not always clear. For the DNU is pretty much the only movement that is at least asking the right questions. And a university that no longer reflects on its own aims does not deserve to be called a university.