News - September 1, 2011

In memoriam: WSO 1965-2011

WSO, the Wageningen Student Union, is history. The once so popular union can no longer find any students to keep the organization running. A sad end to a colourful student organization that once found it easy to mobilize students for occupations lasting days.

Nineteen sixty five. The Netherlands was in the grip of the Swinging Sixties. The baby boomers had passed puberty and were entering higher education en masse. There they claimed their rights. They felt the hierarchical, authoritarian educational system had had its day. Following the example of the working class they so admired, they set up a real live Student Trade Union Movement. Wageningen got its own division and the Wageningen Students Organization (WSO in Dutch) was born.
WSO was soon a success. The organization prospered thanks to its many paying members and it was able to move into the impressive townhouse, Arion. The 1971 University Governance Reform Act gave students a real say in higher education. A year later, the Progressive Students Party (PSF), powered by WSO members, was the largest party in the new Faculty Council.
Main building occupied
The real breakthrough for WSO was in 1972. The government had to make cuts and wanted to increase tuition fees from 200 to 1000 guilders (450 euros). There was huge resistance among students, who thought raising tuition fees would spell disaster for working-class students and make higher education less accessible. In August 700 students occupied the main building on the initiative of WSO. There were so many protesters that they couldn't all fit in the building, and five hundred students stayed outside. The occupation eventually lasted a couple of days. While there were few substantive gains, the protest committee's decisive action did establish the WSO's reputation.
WSO took a broad view of its role in those days, addressing not just issues such as accommodation, food and education but also environmental pollution, Suriname, Vietnam and Spain (still a dictatorship then). WSO also ran a babysitting agency and a discount shop. It was all cheerfully left-wing with a typically Wageningen practical approach; there was none of the flirtation with Lenin that was so prevalent in Amsterdam and Nijmegen.
At that time left-wing clubs were sprouting up all over Wageningen. WSO was involved in virtually every left-wing action, if only because it was the only organization with a proper duplicating machine (for younger readers: the precursor of the photocopier). At least two thirds of all students were WSO members.
The student union was also a permanent irritant for the Executive Board. One board member sighed: ‘How do you lot manage to come up with such a well-constructed response to our plans within 24 hours?'

Hot autumn
The union made major gains on the education front in the Wageningen Spring of 1980. Protesting was a serious business in those days: WSO members occupied the main building for six weeks (!) and managed to push through the introduction of ‘problem-oriented teaching'. These were years of fundamental debates. The prevailing opinion was that universities should be teaching you to be critical citizens, not just training you for a job.
The protesters were kept busy by Deetman, the Minister for Education, in the second half of the 1980s. The highlight of Wageningen's Hot Autumn was the alternative lectures at De Dreijen. WSO occupied university buildings, streets were broken up and staff were only allowed to give lectures if they took a critical approach to their subject. The halls were packed.
While the WSO fundamentalists were worried about the quality of education, the PSF realists were lobbying for students' more prosaic interests. That's also why WSO wasn't a member of the national students' union - too focused on money. They preferred to tear out the page with an ad for politically incorrect Shell with its South African operations from all copies of WUB, the forerunner of Resource.

WSO in crisis
WSO landed in a crisis in 1990. It still had a lot of members (1700) but only around twenty students actively involved in running the organization. Besides, it had become too much of a talking shop. In January some of the board members resigned because they were tired of having to check every decision for compliance with WSO's views on how to change the world.
The crisis was temporarily solved in March with an interim board, but this was followed by a succession of understaffed and overworked boards. Although student life was flourishing, there were no candidates for the board in 1995. In the end one lone student took on the task, acting for an entire year as chair, secretary and treasurer in addition to her PSF seat. There were plenty of volunteers for protests but no-one was interested in more mundane affairs such as finances and cleaning.
The following year the university allocated WSO five board grants, which led to five board members doing proper union work. WSO was saved but there was still a lack of volunteers helping the paid members. It seemed that Wageningen students preferred organizing social events to getting involved in politics. In 1996 WSO decided to join the national students' union after all for pragmatic reasons.

Move to the right
The foundation of VeSte by the KSV, Ceres and SSR student societies in 1997 was the first sign of what some have called a ‘move to the right'. Even so, there was still enough for WSO to do. They raised the alarm in 2010 when international students unexpectedly had to share a room with two or three other first-years. Then December 2010 saw the biggest demonstration in years when more than six hundred students protested in Wageningen against Zijlstra's fines for tardy students that threatened to turn the university into an educational factory. Despite this success, WSO still seemed an anachronism. Modern students were bustling around the new campus buildings with the latest Blackberry, a far cry from aging Arion.
WSO's final achievement was the 2704 signatures collected before the summer in protest against the Executive Board's cuts in culture, especially Movie W. But in general left-wing, long-haired Wageningen has evolved into a normal student town. And after nearly fifty years, WSO, too, has become a thing of the past.