The occupation of the BB building

Protest! Successive generations of University of Twente students manned the barricades between 1972 and 1996 to protest against new legislation. In those days a key strategy was to occupy the BB building (the Dutch abbreviation for ‘management and administration’, now the Spiegel building). What made the students take such drastic measures, and what did they actually achieve?

The first-ever occupation of the BB building took place in 1970. Reason for the students to man the barricades was the selection policy, which was, according to the protesters, not clear enough. Furthermore, students were disgruntled by the advice of rector magnificus Vlugter to allow research assignments to be driven by cases of the industry. The occupation started in the night of 21 January, after the Studentenraad Drienerlo (‘Drienerlo Student Council’, SRD) decided upon starting the protest. The negotiations with the Executive Board in the morning weren’t leading to anything, so the police decided to evict the protesters. However, the protest did have an effect after all: afterwards, a committee, in which students were represented, was formed to look into the problems with selection.

The biggest occupation of the BB building took place 2 years later: 1972. The students rose up against the Registration and Tuition Fees Act, proposed by then-Minister of Scientific Education Mauk de Brauw. If passed, the Act would lead to a serious rise in annual tuition fees: from 200 guilders to 1,000 guilders. This ‘thousand-guilder law’ naturally caused a commotion among the students.

So, on 25 August 1972, a group of angry students occupied the BB building, demanding that students who hadn’t paid tuition fees still receive an education. The governing council of what was then Technische Hogeschool Twente (‘Twente Technical College’) called an extraordinary meeting that very same day and asked the students to end the occupation. The public gallery was packed during that meeting, partly by the staff of the BB building – they couldn’t get to work that day anyway.

The council expressed sympathy for the students’ point of view and members favoured a policy of ‘tolerance’ towards students who hadn’t paid tuition fees. Presidents of other universities joined the cause and did their best to explain to the minister that they wouldn’t be able to enforce the law. But their efforts were in vain: although Minister De Brauw had to work hard to get his proposal through the Dutch Senate, in the end the law was passed.

1989 saw another occupation, this time in response to Minister Wim Deetman’s proposed Student Finance Act that would increase tuition fees and reduce the course duration. Minister Deetman came to the University of Twente in person to talk to the occupiers, and found himself facing a large mass of students. Nevertheless, he went on to pass his Act.

One of the last occupations, in 1994, was carried out in protest against plans by Prime Minister Kok’s administration, which was nicknamed the ‘purple’ cabinet, to introduce a performance-related grant: the basic student grant would be converted into a loan if the student didn’t graduate within six years. The banners screamed ‘Stop the purple destruction!’. Again, just as in 1978 and 1996, the occupation of the BB building was not enough to halt the plans.

Might the lack of concrete results from previous protests have something to do with the fact that no one has occupied any buildings in Twente for over two decades? It’s clear from the weeks-long occupation of the Maagdenhuis in Amsterdam in 2015 that this form of activism is far from obsolete. The 300 students who occupied the administrative centre of the University of Amsterdam (UvA) hoped to use their action to denounce the entire democratic system at the university. Their eviction by the mobile police unit – which is deployed to break up riots – led to a crisis of trust between the UvA’s representative councils and its President, Louise Gunning, who later resigned.

Whereas the University of Twente has been peaceful for years now...

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