Why we strike

by Nicholas Vrousalis & Enzo Rossi

Open Democracy, 13/3/2019

The Dutch education sector is in turmoil, once again. Four years after the student occupations that began in Amsterdam and swept the whole country, the totality of teachers in the Netherlands is due to strike, for the first time ever, on March 15. This sector-wide strike follows in the wake of a wave of successful teachers’ strikes in the United States. The strike will be a loud opening salvo; a powerful broadside will follow if the government doesn’t listen.

So what’s wrong with Dutch education?
The answer can be found in the policy mix pursued by successive Dutch
governments, contriving to simulate an austerity-driven market mechanism in the
public sector. Universities and schools are encouraged to compete against each other
for students and monies, under emaciated budgets, on the basis of dubious
benchmarks and targets. The policy has raised the student/staff ratio in the
Netherlands to one among the highest in the
OECD—higher than the US, Greece and Italy; the ratio is approaching 20 in the main
research universities. 

These pathologies are
consequences of diminishing funding per student (68% more university students
since 2000, and -25% in government funding per student
) creeping micromanagement of teaching and research, and growing
authoritarianism from management—all made possible, indeed foisted on university
teachers and researchers, by government policy.

We are therefore striking to
demand an end to the bossing around of our universities by politicians and
bureaucrats. We are striking to demand the cancellation of the latest
budget cuts, and the restoration of real funding levels to those of the year 2000
. We are not striking to fill
our pockets. Rather, we are striking to pay for an increase in
staff numbers that will improve the student/staff ratio; to provide better
infrastructure for our students; to reduce the workload and frequency of burnouts
among our colleagues; to improve our institutional capacities for
self-government; and to improve the quality of Dutch education.

We are also striking to
protest against the creeping mechanisms of market simulation and commercialization
in education. We are striking to contest the incessant drive to turn schools
and universities into supermarkets, with an unelected—and unaccountable—board of
directors at the top, and a hapless army of consumers at the bottom. We are
opposed to the opacity and authoritarianism at the helm of Dutch education, to
the hierarchies that the drive to privatization inevitably creates, and to the
recent cuts in the humanities that threaten to destroy institutional structures
of research and teaching it took decades to create.

Any benchmarking, targets
and managerial indices that impinge on academic development, teacher-student
relations, or inter-university relations violate the freedom and independence
of educational institutions. This does not mean that teaching and research
should not be evaluated. All it means is that, if teaching and research are to
be evaluated, then evaluation must be based on their content alone, not on spurious market-mimicking metrics. For all
its flaws, only the institution of peer-review can evaluate academic work for
what it is.

We are therefore striking
for respect: respect for the necessity
of a well-funded educational system; respect for our autonomy as institutions
of teaching and learning; respect for education as a precondition for a
democratic society. The American teachers’ strikes show that we can win.