Is Leiden the ‘Neoliberal University’?

Written by Federico Arcuri

As a third year BA International Studies student, I find it interesting to look back at who I was when I started this bachelor. I like comparing my expectations about university with the reality of actually studying here. While I definitely enjoyed studying here in many ways, I want to address my expectations that weren’t fully met. I expected the university to be a place where students are first required to learn about life, and then, through this process, are motivated to question the paradigms they took for granted. I expected a place where students, then, put these hypotheses and thought experiments in practice, owning the university democratically, sharing its material and immaterial resources equally among each other, with the staff and with the rest of the community. My negative feelings about the university were, for instance, reflected by those same issues denounced by Casual Leiden, or by the costs of the canteen and its perceived elitism, the securitization of the campuses, the cracking down on internal dissent and student activism, a general attitude of managerialism and depoliticization that I perceived within student associations. 

In short, my perception was that the university did not really belong to its students, professors and researchers, and that this non-democratic character had many side-effects on the life of many students. Why did I perceive this? Am I overly pessimistic?

My negative perceptions were confirmed as legitimate by (1) the similar concerns of my fellow students, who denounce the same things, and (2) by the emerging literature about how neoliberal ideology is affecting higher education. Since the 1980s, the dominant ideas and assumptions that regulate our life have increasingly been those that see humans as self-centered, profit-maximizing and economically rational individuals. Constructed ideas about the superiority of corporations over cooperatives, about the importance of GDP growth for our societies, and the assumption that humans are selfish in a condition of anarchy are taken as unquestionable. Capitalism itself is the only possible reality and questioning it, now more than ever, is mere science-fiction. This, crucially, leads to depoliticisation – how can we have meaningful, democratic, civic engagement to improve society, if politics is reduced to the mere application of those market values and economic rationality to all spheres of life? And, exacerbating this structural process of depoliticisation, how can we have democracy if the 1% yields enormous proportions of power, compared to the 99%? 

This set of prescriptive values and assumptions about human nature, usually referred to as ‘Neoliberalism’, increasingly pervades higher education. Henry Giroux observes that neoliberal “corporate culture” is being appropriated by universities. He defines corporate culture as an “ensemble of ideological and institutional forces that functions politically and pedagogically both to govern organizational life through senior managerial control and to fashion compliant workers, depoliticized consumers, and passive citizens”. This deeply undermines the idea that democracy is both a political and educational task: “Fundamental to the rise of a vibrant democratic culture is the recognition that education must be treated as a public good — as a crucial site where students gain a public voice and come to grips with their own power as individual and social agents. Public and higher education cannot be viewed merely as sites for commercial investment or for affirming a notion of the private good based exclusively on the fulfillment of individual needs. Reducing higher education to the handmaiden of corporate culture works against the critical social imperative of educating citizens who can sustain and develop inclusive democratic public spheres.” 

This neoliberal ethos reduces the democratic organization of a faculty to hierarchical and managerial models of decision-making, with a shift from democratic planning to business planning, and a focus on the importance of individual achievements and careers over collective responsibility and public policy. The university ceases to be a place where young minds learn to benefit the public good, becoming one in which individuals consume education in order to build their own career, fulfill their life as a project of growth and accumulation. According to Giroux, a side-effect of this dynamic is that “knowledge with a high exchange value in the market is what counts, while those fields such as the liberal arts and humanities that cannot be quantified in such terms will either be underfunded or allowed to become largely irrelevant in the hierarchy of academic knowledge”. As a result, according to David Graeber, higher education is also affected by a process of ‘bulshittization’, as professors and tutors spend more and more time on pointless administrative tasks, rather than teaching and researching, and the managerial administrative staff of the university increases in number. 

Is Leiden one of these ‘neoliberal universities’? To what extent, and how, is Leiden affected by neoliberal ideology? I do not have the means to address such huge questions with the necessary academic rigor, so I will limit myself to suggest a few examples of how Leiden shares similarities with what Giroux calls ‘The Neoliberal University’.

The movement Casual Leiden denounces one symptom of this. This group of staff members criticizes the university’s dependence on flexible and short-term contracts and “seeks to mobilize staff and students around issues of casualization and structural overwork and to initiate collective action in the struggle for a more open, more critical, more accessible university – a university based on solidarity, not competition”. They also criticize the lack of transparency of the administration’s decision-making processes when it comes to workload calculation, contractual agreements and staffing plans.

Casualization of contracts and precarity are just one face of the neoliberal university. Giroux also mentions that privatization and commercialization have restructured those spaces outside of classrooms where students spend time, privatizing services that the university used to handle autonomously. As a consequence, “student union buildings and cafeterias took on the appearance as shopping malls or food courts, as vendors competed to place university logos on caps, mugs, and credit cards,” what he calls the Disneyfication of college life – an impulse toward entertainment, where “learning is ‘fun’, the staff ‘perky’, where consumer considerations dictate the curriculum, where presentation takes precedence over substance, and where students become consumers”.

Whereas this is not as evident here as in the U.S., I would argue that the way Wijnhaven itself is structured shares similarities with these considerations. For instance, the cafeteria is seen by many students as ‘too fancy’ and overpriced, and resembles more a food court rather than a more accessible and popular university canteen. Here, students are literally seen as consumers, as exemplified by the advertising of the canteen itself: “What makes Pure so pure? Our aim is to ensure that you will return as a satisfied customer”. This resonates with Giroux, who says that “customer satisfaction is offered as a surrogate for learning, and to be a citizen is to be a consumer, and nothing more. Freedom means freedom to purchase.  A more dramatic example of how a neoliberal university canteen works is represented by the food court at the University of Amsterdam. In reaction, UvA students organized different confrontational actions to ask the university to democratize its services, including food provision. I describe this in more detail in a previous Sphaera article you can find here.

According to Giroux, this corporate mentality pervades other spheres of students’ life outside of the classroom. Student associations in Wijnhaven strike me as the epitome of this. The student association of International Studies (BASIS), for instance, increasingly resembles a corporate workplace. In order to be part of it, you need to submit a motivation letter and a CV, and go through a round of interviews, which arguably helps students to internalize the modalities and the sort of discipline that they will need to find a job in the future. Many students – me included – increasingly see these experiences as instrumental to enriching their CV and their Linkedin. The student body, through this student association, is encouraged to form a community and organize events that give them the opportunity to expand the scope of classroom learning. However, this is typically tolerated as long as they  don’t challenge the existing structures of the university itself. It seems to me that student associations function, in this way, as a sort of ‘sedative’. By giving students the impression to be free to organize themselves, the institutionalization of student associations by the university eventually prevents the emerging of grass-roots student movements that question the university and expand its democratic character. 

Students are clearly not free to organize themselves if it comes to questioning who ‘owns’ the university. BASIS itself needs to ask the university permission to book rooms, and justify why. If a topic is deemed too sensitive or political, the university will prevent BASIS from booking a room. For this reason, BASIS itself internalized these depoliticizing logics. Now, in order to invite an external professor for a panel discussion, any student committee needs to ask the BASIS board for approval. Try to book a room and to spontaneously start an activity which is slightly seen as political by the administration – you will not be allowed if you are not part of a student association. The university does not even need to censor students: students can do it for themselves! One year ago, the screening of the classic Soviet film “Potemkin Battleship” was canceled because it was considered too political and sensitive by the BASIS board, after receiving complaints by other students. This decision was influenced by a wave of Russophobia which equated the study of Russian culture and history with propaganda from Putin’s regime. This happened again this year, as the screening of a Russian animated movie organized by the Russia and Eurasia committee of BASIS was again censored by the BASIS board for being too sensitive. 

Under this depoliticized climate – which strikes me as both ironic and absurd in a place where people study politics – Wijnhaven becomes a sterile place, where little change can take place. This suggests that the security, and the administration in general, has a managerial outlook of the university – they are its owners, not the students and the staff. They know best how to run the university, behind a democratic facade virtue-signaled by the elections of student advisory boards and by a framing of campus life as fun and jolly. 

As a result, student activism is often not perceived positively by the university administration. Students who ask for more democracy within the university are inevitably, structurally, seen as a threat. This is exemplified by the oppression that students within groups that criticize the university, such as Students for Palestine and EndFossil, face on a daily basis. These groups have to struggle to book a room to organize their activities, and their events are seen as threats, with the heavy presence of members of the security. One year ago a panel discussion organized by Students for Palestine was censored by the university because the moderator, a respected Dutch-Palestinian professor, was deemed inadequate to moderate the discussion – too political. One year later, the university administration allowed the organization of a lecture by an Israeli activist, set up by an educational NGO which is seen as close to the Israeli government. Instead of opening spaces for students and staff to talk about the university’s ties with regimes that infringe human rights, the university administration prefers preserving their power by silencing these students. 

Dramatically, this implies a complete disregard of the rights of these students to commemorate Nakba day, which is an official UN-recognized occasion to mourn those who are affected by the Israeli occupation of Palestine. When these students hung a Palestinian flag from Beehive and held a small commemoration outside of campus, the security asked them to stop and the police instantly showed up. Not exactly democratic. Besides being undemocratic, this treatment of Students for Palestine unveils double-standards which seem deeply racist and violent.  Students for Palestine is one of the few, if not the only, activist student association which is constantly harassed by the university management, unjustifiably coerced into changing the venues of their events to less popular ones to give them less visibility (ask yourself why these ‘sensitive’ events need to take place in Schouwburgstraat), and whose events’ academic rigor is constantly put under discussion.

If a single unauthorized flag, on a UN-recognized day, is seen as a threat by the university, I fear that the administration is not only cautious about expanding the democratic character of the university, but also scared by anyone who even tries to question their power. This insecure corporate culture is thus also reflected by the securitization of the Wijnhaven campus itself, which can only be accessed by students, staff and official guests. During the weekends, you need to show your badge in order to enter. The university ceases to be a public space, and becomes an elitist and exclusive area where consumers-citizens are prepared for their career.

These criticisms of the university were confirmed during the GTGC conference organized by Leiden University at The Humanity Hub. Answering a question about the role of universities by the dean of Leiden University College (LUC), Tom Marshall of Extinction Rebellion criticized Dutch University for increasingly becoming platforms that aim at turning new graduates into workers, instead of being institutions of science, where young people gain knowledge freely and learn how to think critically. Because the university is focused on manufacturing corporate employees to feed big-companies’ demands for workers, it is then no wonder that the university becomes a sort of training ground for such corporations. It follows that it is difficult then to cut ties with companies that are leading to climate destruction and actively fund climate negationism and misinformation, such as Shell. This and other contradictions about universities’ ties with fossil fuel companies are at the center of the activism of groups such as End Fossil.

In a nutshell, during my studies in Leiden, I observed that students, teachers, and researchers encounter similar problems within the university. I suspect that these issues may have a common underlying cause, possibly stemming from the widespread influence of the neoliberal corporate ethos in all spheres of our life. One might argue that Leiden can do very little about this, as we are talking about systemic changes that should be discussed at the national level. But I still think that, within an increasingly neoliberal country, the university can strive to create more democratic spaces that can, in turn, be a starting point for a paradigm change at a societal level. Many other universities in the Netherlands in the world are increasingly becoming neoliberal institutions, and more and more students and professors are protesting against this concerning trend. There is little evidence that democratization of higher education can be a top-down effort. Thus, it can only be students and staff members who reclaim their democratic spaces. Students and staff members who encounter similar difficulties because of the neoliberalization of higher education have the opportunity to ‘team up’, build kinships and help each other out, resisting and creating a space for alternatives. However, it is also true that neoliberalism is such an all-encompassing and penetrating ideology, which makes it seem almost inevitable not to see any alternative, to react with a collective cynicism. For Giroux, this means that we need to re-claim our right to imagine and create a different reality, in this case a more democratic and inclusive university campus. He borrows a quote by Jacques Derrida to express this urgent necessity –  “we must do and think the impossible. If only the possible happened, nothing more would happen. If I only did what I can do, I wouldn’t do anything”.  We need to imagine a university which is a ‘bastion of democracy’, so that it can also be a ‘bastion of freedom’.

This article reflects only the thoughts and opinions of its author. None of the organizations mentioned has been consulted throughout the publication process and this article does not reflect their stance or view in any way. The author admits his own positionality as a white male student within Leiden University, and the significant limitations that this entails, and is open to feedback and criticism.

Edited by Maria Shamray, artwork by Vanessa Franko