Friday 21 January was a historic day which saw 1050 Dutch professors demonstrating in The Hague. With one accord the universities backed the view that cuts in higher education and research are jeopardizing the future of the Dutch knowledge-based economy.
When they reached their destination, the opening speech was given by Martin Kropff, rector magnificus of Wageningen University and chairman of the national rectors' board. His observation that one third of all professors were present at the demonstration was greeted with thunderous applause. There was then derisive laughter when he reminded the audience of the current Dutch cabinet's ambition to get the Netherlands into the top five knowledge-based economies.
Other speakers were the chair of research organization Jos Engelen, the chair of the board of applied sciences universities Guusje van Horst, the chair of the universities association VSNU Sijbold Noorda and mayor of Nijmegen Tom de Graaf. They all stood for the same message: investment in knowledge and education is investment in the future.
Brains and trade
Utrecht student chair Fay van Zeijl got a lot of support for her analogy with a game of Monopoly in which the rules of the game were being changed along the way. She appealed to the government: 'Invest in our generation and give us a chance to push the Netherlands back up the ladder. Measure success in quality, not in time'.
The Netherlands' capital is in its people's brains and entrepreneurial spirit, both of which should be supported, said ex-minister of agriculture and CDA member Cees Veerman. In 2010 a commission led by Veerman presented a highly acclaimed vision of the future of higher education. 'We are prepared to carry out quality improvements and increase diversity in education. But we must have the support and acknowledgment of the government. No demotivating interruptions to educational courses and no far-reaching financial penalties.' Veerman accused the cabinet of a lack of vision. 'It is true that pruning promotes growth. But you prune dead wood and not the fresh green shoots.'
The Wageningen professors were impressed by the meeting. 'What has been said today should really be said on television and in the papers', said Huub Rijnaarts, professor of Environment and Water Technology. Rijnaarts is involved in Wetsus, the top institute for water technology that is funded from FES funds and by local government and the business world. 'Many PhD researchers are focussing on innovations and applications for business and they supervise final-year students. We have made the link between questions raised in the business world and research and education. The Netherlands is one of the few countries where this happens.'
Technological top institute should therefore be cherished, says Rijnaarts. He is also annoyed by the image of students that is projected. 'The creativity and drive of these people is often enormous. I take it almost as a personal insult when students are described as lazy and antisocial. It is precisely the active students, such as those who spend a year on the management of student organizations, who take longer over their degrees. The government is getting it 100 percent wrong.'
The last time that professor of Experimental Zoology went on a march was in the late nineteen seventies, when he joined a demonstration against the centrifuge for radio-active material at Dodewaard. 'I was a student then and a made a banner at the WSO.' He sees his participation in this demonstration as an expression of concern and anger. 'The danger is that higher education may suffer tremendous damage. And some of it may be irreversible. It is a misunderstanding that this is a matter of left versus right. This is about the opportunities you should provide young people with so they can develop their potential properly.'
There is a film of the professors' march made by the VSNU on You Tube, and Resource took photos.