Precarity and Neoliberalism, Resistance and Solidarity

The role of the university as a place of education and research, as an employer, and as an important institution in the social landscape has changed dramatically in the past decade. As PhD students from various European and North American academic backgrounds, we are keenly aware of these developments and have been involved with or engaged against them – often both at the same time. One of the most pressing issues from our perspective concerns changing labour relations and the situation of the workforce in universities, especially the collapse of working conditions for many academic and non-academic staff and the lack of effective ways of addressing this development.

Professors, who once enjoyed excellent working conditions in Europe and North America, are increasingly subjected to stricter, stranger, and more noxious standards and regulations. They are pressured into constant external grant applications, and are threatened with severe sanctions if the administration considers the results of their activities inadequate. The case of Stefan Grimm, a professor at Imperial College London who was found dead in September 2014 shortly after a distressing email exchange about funding, is one tragic example (Parr 2014).

Academics and their institutions are increasingly being judged according to various forms of ranking, both state-sponsored (such as the Research Excellence Framework in the UK) and international ones such as the Shanghai ranking and the Times Higher Education ranking of global reputation.[1] These rankings, as Cambridge historian Stefan Collini argues, do not actually reflect the excellence of research, or the quality of the university (Collini 2013). And yet they matter tremendously to university administrators, students, and state officials (Floch 2015). Recent months have seen an outpouring of articles from UK-based tenure-track academics in the humanities criticizing the ‘new dirigisme’ of the modern university, many of them inspired by Stefan Collini’s 2012 book ‘What Are Universities For?’

Academic Working Conditions Under Strain

Of course, we must not forget that professors are far from being the only academic workers at a university. There are throngs of other individuals involved in the production of knowledge. These include temporary teaching staff, ‘research assistants’, or graduate students who often combine their own thesis-related work with teaching and with non-thesis related research. It has lately become popular to claim that some of these schemes provide valuable or even necessary experience for graduate students, allowing them to be more competitive in the clogged-up academic labour market (Grove 2014).

However, such valuable experience can come with unpleasant strings attached, such as less than adequate working conditions: these contracts are typically temporary, with irregular hours, and the workers are frequently underpaid. In the last months this has led to teaching assistant strikes and walk-outs at three major Canadian universities: the University of Toronto, York University, and McGill University (Bryson 2004; Chiose 2015; Sadikov 2015). Most recently, our own institution, the European University Institute (EUI) has even created teaching positions that are simply not paid. Instead, they have been branded and sold as opportunities for ‘clinical training’ that do not therefore require remuneration.[2] These moves, by which academic employers attempt to represent exploitative labour relations as ‘win-win’ situations, as ‘valuable experiences’ or even ‘fantastic opportunities’, should be exposed for what they really are and  ought to be resisted.

Similarly, temporary teaching staff are frequently employed in dire conditions, a trend one can observe in such diverse contexts as the United States (Krause, Nolan, Palm & Ross, 2008), Poland (Chodzież 2015, Modzelewski 2015) and even the ‘social-democratic paradises’ of Scandinavia (Sved 2014). High competition, low pay, few to no benefits, and very unstable contracts have become the rule leading to wide-spread precarity. In Norway, for example, as much as 20% of all university and college employees are hired on temporary contracts. Such harsh conditions make it particularly difficult for members of historically disadvantaged groups, such as women, people from lower social classes, and those with a migrant background to succeed, as they are the ones most affected by the low pay and lack of benefits. This exclusionary effect is further compounded by the more specific discriminations many academic workers from these groups experience at their workplace (Bryson 2004: 50-51). The risk and often the result is a university that is not more but less socially and intellectually diverse.

The Neglected Workers: Attacks on Non-Academic Staff

And yet, to only focus on academic workers and their labour conditions would be a mistake. Indeed, we must not forget that an often neglected but huge part of the university-employed labour force consists of non-academic staff. As an institution, the university does not simply produce knowledge – it also consumes a huge amount of services. These run from vast quantities of administrative work to security, cleaning and catering.

The workers who perform these tasks are, to a significant extent, the life-blood of the university. However, their important contribution often remains unnoticed even when their working conditions, and therefore their livelihoods, are being attacked, as has regularly happened in recent years. What is true for young academics hold here as well: those who are overwhelmingly affected by these degrading labour conditions come from historically underprivileged backgrounds. They are often women, migrants or both and do not usually have ready access to institutionalized power or the media to fight back (McDowell 2013).

In some ways these changes did not remain unchallenged. In late 2011, in Montréal, members of the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association went on strike for almost four months. At stake were the usual suspects of labour negotiations: wages and benefits. The contract proposed by the administration included wage cuts in real terms, a negative (and, from the workers’ point of view, fairly dangerous) change in the pension scheme, as well as reductions in other benefits that are usually part of similar contracts in other Canadian higher education institutions. The administration claimed that it needed to make these changes because of the University’s increasing debt and consequent need to cut costs. The workers, in contrast, highlighted the mismanagement of funds and a huge disparity in wages between an ever-increasing number of high-level managers and the rest of the administrative staff (Arsem-O’Malley 2011a).

Across the Atlantic in 2013, students and staff at the University of Sussex occupied a medical school lecture theatre, protesting against the university’s continued privatisation of services that threatened working conditions of staff including porters, caterers and security workers (Elsisi 2013). In 2014, at the EUI in Florence, it came to the attention of several researchers that there was a new call for tenders, putting the porters’ existing contracts at risk. Given what it considered as budget constraints, the administration of the EUI saw a reduction of the costs of the porters’ services as a best-case scenario, but formally only asked for costs not to be increased. The initial result of this call for tenders led to a proposed contract which would require the workers to accept severe salary cuts (of the order of about 10-15% of their salaries), as well as equally severe benefit reductions.

The McGill strike ended in December 2011, with a hard-won victory for the union. In this process, the workers faced not only the usual consequences of a long-lasting strike, but also repeated court injunctions curtailing their right to free speech, as well as their ability to organise picket lines and to make their struggle visible (Arsem-O’Malley 2011b; Gass 2011). Regrettably, and despite the involvement of students and academic staff in solidarity with the workers, the struggles at the University of Sussex and at the EUI ended without allowing the workers to secure any long-lasting gains. Nevertheless, there is a bright side to this: in all three cases, genuine solidarity between students and staff emerged and was put into action, creating new possibilities for resistance.

Unfortunately, the attacks on non-academic labour as well as their social and intellectual consequences have rarely been addressed by the tenured professors who usually focus on recent developments in the academic organization of universities. All the groups that give substance to a university, that is to say students as well as academic and non-academic workers share the same workplace, collectively face more precarious working conditions, and are more generally part of the same society, experiencing and resisting these very developments. It is therefore our view that a broad alliance between all these groups would make us stronger. Indeed, while the combined pressure of these groups has already achieved some smaller effects, in the future we need a stronger, more conscious alliance between tenured professors, junior academic staff and non-academic staff, and students who in turn need to be allied with other groups outside of the university facing similar problems in their workplaces and social existence.

Ways of Protest

The recent university protests in Amsterdam, London, Toronto, and Montréal, to name but a few, are far from unique. To better situate this wave of protest in a broader context, it is helpful to look both backwards and forwards and beyond the ‘West.’ Here we can only do this in a very limited way, focusing on a surprising parallel with student activism in mid-20th century communist People’s Republic of Poland. In 1956 on the wave of Khrushchev’s Secret Speech and the promise of de-Stalinization the activist Polish communist youth, and especially students, unleashed a critique of the Polish United Workers’ Party and what they perceived as the deteriorating situation of higher education.

Engaged Marxist newspapers for young academics and students such as the Warsaw-based Po Prostu (‘Frankly’) and political discussion clubs at the University of Warsaw became important sites for creating and spreading the revisionist Marxist discourse that questioned the official Party line (Modzelewski 2013, 100-103). This revisionist and critical discourse of the students exposed the malfunctioning system of higher education by, for instance, addressing corruption. Far from limiting their critique to their closest social environment and interest, the students and young intellectuals were also critical of the Party’s proclivity to focus on quantity over quality both on the shop floor of the factories and in the universities. As a result of Po Prostu’s uncompromising tone and the increasingly anti-revisionist orientation of the Party, the weekly was shut down in 1957 which was followed by a students’ protest.

It was precisely within the university as an enclave of somewhat autonomous and yet socially engaged critical thought that the student rebellion emerged and eventually made its major public appearance during the famous March Protest in 1968 in Warsaw. The founders of various discussion clubs and leaders of the March protest in 1968 – Jacek Kuroń, Karol Modzelewski and Adam Michnik – later became key activists of Solidarność, a first autonomous workers’ union founded in 1980, which spearheaded change in the ‘Eastern Bloc’ and became the biggest European workers’ movement in the twentieth century. Other members such as Irena Grudzińska-Gross and Barbara Toruńczyk became famous intellectuals in Poland and beyond.

The remarkable example of the Polish post-1956 Marxist students turning against the repressive Communist Party and defending an alternative vision of critical and engaged academic work allows us to trace a history of ideas and student activism over time and beyond the limits of ‘the West.’ As Jo Guldi and David Armitage suggest, such a comparative view also demonstrates that the practices and views informing contemporary protest can and should be linked with other traditions of contestation (Guldi and Armitage 2014: 34). Moreover, the provided example proves that the university’s classroom became one of the sites within which a radically critical thought and conversation could emerge. It was a conversation, with the social bonds of solidarity that it created, that did not limit itself to the walls of the university and eventually turned into a contributing force to a social movement that brought about a substantial social change.

A broader contextualization is not only of intellectual value but can contribute to strengthening the political force of these movements, underlining their resonance and significance beyond the local contexts from which they emerge. Without romanticising past struggles and essentializing cultural differences, thinking along the lines of the examples from the past and beyond the ‘West’ continues to be a helpful framework that might prevent the automatic reproduction of a self-absorbed perspective of actors from the ‘West.’ As recent discussion continues to show the ‘Western-European left’ is far from being free from this self-absorption, often marginalizing perspectives, for instance such as those from the East, that are already marginalized.

Neoliberalism and State-led Privatisation

The responsibility of national governments for ‘marketisation’ and the drive for privatisation in higher education is sometimes underestimated, both within and outside academia. Reforms aimed at privatisation are very often the result of government intervention in the management of universities, and have therefore been imposed from the top down (Gray 2010). Since this has been done by governments of both the centre-right and the centre-left, it has led some to conclude that the word ‘neoliberalism’ is not an appropriate term to describe these developments.

However, this rests on the common misunderstanding that neoliberalism is no different from classical liberalism in that it favours a small state. Had this actually been the case there would have been no use for the prefix ‘neo’ neither for contemporary critics nor for the founding fathers of this doctrine in the 1930s. However, a variety of recent studies undertaken in the wake of the recent translation and publication of Michel Foucault’s lectures on biopolitics from 1979 (Foucault 2010 [1978-79]) have affirmed that both in doctrine and in practice neoliberalism favours a strong state capable of carrying out a program imposing the logic of the market in all spheres of society. It is precisely this political logis that we are witnessing at the university today. Therefore understanding and calling it by its rightful name is one step on the way to resisting it and working through it in a quest for something better.

Resistance to the neoliberalisation of the university comes from both a diverse alliance of the radical-left, who draw on theories of financialisation and indeed neoliberalism itself to explain our current economic situation, and from more conservative scholars who see themselves as the protectors of ancient academic tradition.[3] In critiques inspired by Collini, such as Marina Warner’s recent essay ‘Learning my lesson’ (Warner 2015), there is more than a hint of nostalgia for a past in which professors in the humanities had better working conditions and enjoyed a higher social standing. Such nostalgia, however, should not cloud our theoretical and historical perspective.

Roughly speaking, one can distinguish three different approaches to the contemporary study of neoliberalism. The first is what we may call the nostalgic or even Keynesian approach. Its proponents put the blame for the evils of neoliberalism on right-wing politicians, and an alleged ‘deregulatory project’ that they are supposed to be advocating and successfully enacting. The second approach is Marxist in nature, and famously expounded by David Harvey. According to this view, neoliberalisation is seen as little more than an episode in an ongoing class struggle, and it is always systemic problems of capitalism that are to blame for any perceived evil (Harvey 2007). The third perspective we may call Foucauldian or biopolitical. Instead of focusing on party politics or the systemic features of capitalism, it builds on the concept of ‘governmentality’. Like the Marxist approach, the biopolitical perspective sees little use in a nostalgic or Keynesian view as it recognises that the problem cannot simply be reduced to the latest developments in the field of academic economics and its influence on the policies of whatever party happens to be in power. Unlike Marxists, however, proponents of the biopolitical approach have also acknowledged that the state plays a particular and specific role in the process of neoliberalisation, which does not amount to a bourgeois return to the policies of laissez-faire (Bröckling, Krassmann & Lemke 2010).

The somewhat sentimental critiques by Collini and Warner can also be taken to point to a more Foucauldian approach in their attempts to problematize the changing view of knowledge and those who produce it in current ‘Western societies’. Wendy Brown has remarked that Foucault’s notion of governmentality highlights ‘the critical role of mentality in governing as opposed to the notion that power and ideas are separate phenomena’. It thereby allows us to theorize ‘the state formation of subjects rather than state control of subjects’ (Brown, 2005: 142), and points to a neoliberal political rationality, itself based on a ‘regime of truth’. While being in the middle of the business of producing knowledge, or truth, academics and their positions are under serious threat from the neoliberal conception of markets as information processors and producers of truth. From this logic it follows that academics have a new role in neoliberal society: they do not produce truth themselves, they participate and compete in a ‘marketplace of ideas’, where the truth eventually emerges.

Paradoxically, this is radical change and even those who want to seriously challenge the structures of ‘the postwar settlement’ as it is manifested in the university system see academic traditions of independent enquiry as vital for a new and better society. Despite possible continuities the left has changed since 1968. While still a transcendent political project, neoliberalisation demands a new generation of activists, acutely aware that there are aspects of the past worth fighting for and building upon for a better future. 

Towards a New Future

As young scholars, we are part of the university’s future. It seems evident to us that we should, following Collini, try to find the answer to the question: ‘what are universities for?’ But in so doing, we must not forget to ask an even bolder question: ‘what should universities be?’

Further alliances between students and workers must also be fostered and maintained. One of the strengths of the sequence of struggles, in the academic year 2011-2012 at McGill University, was precisely that it brought together under the flags of various kinds of radical demands students, non-academic workers, precarious academic workers, and to a lesser (though significant) extent, professors. There was an understanding of the commonality of the struggle against a new managerial system and a market-based approach to the university, and its expression took the form of mutual solidarity.

Practically, it meant for example that many students came to picket and demonstrate with the striking workers, and made sure their voices could be heard even in the face of repeated court injunctions that curtailed the workers’ right to protest. Strategies such as this one were devised through discussions occurring at different levels at different points in time. This meant not only that workers discussed among themselves in the context of their general assemblies and union meetings or that students had relevant conversations in the context of their own assemblies, but most importantly, it meant that there were significant and sustained discussions that cut across professional lines and allowed students and workers to build together a stronger movement and a more coherent strategy. In turn, the workers supported the student struggle against tuition increases in the province of Québec, which eventually brought about 250.000 people to the streets of Montréal in May 2012, numbers achieved before only during the demonstrations against the war in Iraq (Arsem-O’Malley 2011c; Bourgault-Côté 2012).

There is no ‘going back’ to a perceived golden age or ivory tower, but it is beyond doubt that there are aspects both of the academic tradition and of the post-war ideal of affordable or free higher education that are worth defending. As institutions charged with the important task of producing new knowledge, universities should not be mimicking already outdated forms of corporate organisation, but rather should be leading the way towards something better. In so doing, the university should resist neoliberal attempts to appropriate the idea of the social relevance of science and knowledge production of which it often gives a reductive, economistic account.  A possible alliance between nostalgic professors with radical potential and a reformed activist left bodes well for the future.

These spaces and practices of solidarity, which have precursors in a variety of historical moments such as the alliance between student activists and workers in the context of the Polish opposition and 1968 Paris, have most recently been explored further through the occupation of the Maagdenhuis in Amsterdam, and the several occupations at universities in London. Through these various loci of struggle, we see the fledgling possibility of constructing a new university that embraces occupational, social and economic diversity, and where workers and students are able to co-determine the directions to be taken by the institution as a whole. It is perhaps with the help of these experiments and the experiences they procured that we may therefore see the future of the universities and get a glimpse of not only what they should be, but also find the way to how we can get to that point.


This article is a significant extension on a contribution the authors wrote for We thank the editors for allowing us to make use of it.

The New University

This special issue of Krisis deals with the future of the university and academic life more broadly. Is a new university possible and if so, what should it look like and how do we work towards it?

The idea and, in fact, the desire for a special issue on this topic was provoked by an event that was at the same time sudden, surprising, wildly effective, deeply affective, long-awaited, strangely evolving, quickly improvised, hopeful, frustrating, maddening, dangerous, violent, multi-sited, unpredictable yet all-too-familiar – an event that, as it took place, quickly became associated with its most prominent locale, the Maagdenhuis in Amsterdam. This building, housing the executive board and central administration of the University of Amsterdam in the centre of the capital city, was where a galvanising protest of students and faculty became most eminently visible in the early spring of 2015. After a string of occupations of university buildings throughout the city, most notably the Bungehuis, it was the eventual claiming of the Maagdenhuis that not only skyrocketed the protests into the light of national media platforms but also entailed a direct, material confrontation with a centre of academic power. Being the site of well-known and at times nostalgically memorialised protests of what is now referred to as the ‘sixties generation’, the appropriation of this building by students and the paternalist response by the executive board of the university, covered live on TV and twitter, turned a longstanding and escalating confrontation between students and faculty on the one hand, concerned about the managerial containment of academic life, and administrators on the other, who claimed to be motivated by ensuring competiveness and excellence, into a full-fledged insurgency able to garner expanding support among national and international audiences. The protest quickly succeeded in clearing from the table plans for top-down reform and forced the administrators to attend to the protests instead of carrying on business as usual. Moreover, the Maagdenhuis protest was rapidly fuelling and being fuelled by remarkably similar protest across European cities, such as Vienna, Warsaw, London and Oslo.

Whereas the great student protests of recent European memory were fights between students and faculty, the former claiming a seat at the table and the latter protecting the corporatist order, this moment of protest was quite different, even if resemblances to past ‘revolutions’ helped to sanctify it with the gloss of progress. Like all successful protest, the events at and around the Maagdenhuis had many sources. Much of the mobilisation came from the humanities, where reform after reform increasingly ate away at the idea that the humanities in any real sense of the term could remain a viable part of the university as the central planners were shaping it. Push also came from other directions, such as the more theoretical and detached sections of the natural sciences. Students in many disciplines critiqued the commodification of their time at university into individualised production of human capital, as explicitly aimed for by both university administrations and a string of ministers of education. The fact that the university is both in terms of demographics and in terms of curricula still overwhelmingly white, male and heteronormative was another source of the protests. Yet, what eventually melded together this web of critiques and movements was a forceful antagonism with what was the very basis upon which public institutions were said to function in accepted political discourse: added value.

As in so many liberal democracies, a certain understanding of ‘added value’ became received wisdom in Dutch politics over the past forty years: public institutions could only and would only be financed in so far as they produced ‘goods’ – health, security, housing, applicable knowledge, human capital, cultural homogeneity, behavioural conformity, etc. – that would enable the ‘growth’ of the financial means of society and the state. It was this ideologically engrained bottom line that eventually gave way when it was shown that extra-parliamentary actions – taking over a public building and performing one’s own idea of academic life within it – could not only draw support from faculty and civil society and kick-start a public debate but actually halt the supposedly inevitable reforms that academic managers were implementing. In contradiction to Thatcher’s famous line: there were alternatives after all!

The energy of surprise and enthusiasm released by the protests should not be underestimated. The fact that direct and confrontational action ‘worked’, that it was even taken seriously and responded to, is somewhat of an anomaly for Dutch political circumstances and seemed to open up new horizons. Dutch political culture prescribes that all changes in policy follow from restrained and institutionalised negotiations between carefully regulated representative bodies. ‘Wild’ and ‘negative’ protests are to be redirected to such ritualistic negotiations or simply side-lined as ‘ideological’ and ‘unproductive’. While these familiar attempts at delegitimation were immediately mobilised against the protests leading up to and following the appropriation of the Maagdenhuis, they failed to derail the movement, not least because the protesters were outperforming the university’s PR machinery on social median and soon also in the traditional media. In fact, such attempts seemed to only affirm the case of the protesters: academic managers are unable to respond to discontent and criticism without managerial domineering. One explanation could be that management appeared to be protecting their own privileges and trying to cover up financial misdeeds. So while university students and faculty could quite easily be dubbed ‘elitist’ in Machiavellian attempts to turn wider publics against those who seemed to exempt themselves from ongoing austerity politics – a strategy that was very effective a few years earlier when budgets for arts and culture we ruthlessly cut – that same discourse of anti-elitism applied even more so to the ‘managerial class’ whose hoarding of public funds were being contested by the protesters.

It is impossible to describe in any detail here how the protests in Amsterdam developed and resonated with similar movements elsewhere. Nor is it clear at this point what those protest will mean for the future governance of and life at the University of Amsterdam – beyond the impressive immediate achievements of the stepping down of the university’s president and the promise of the board to support two independent committees set up by the academic community, with the tasks of investigating the financial situation of the university and of developing proposals for its decentralization and democratization. The aim of our special issue lies in a different direction. We strove to capture some of the imaginative energy that was released by the events this spring. We hope to document, exchange and inject some of the emerging arguments and ideas that are going around about the future of the university. Even if the direct outcomes of the protests will not satisfy on all accounts, the current systems of control over universities have suffered severe damage and will be undergoing far-reaching reconstruction in the coming period. The public debate about this future has just begun. It is in this light that Krisis wants to provide a platform for something that should not be forgotten between all of the meetings, policy papers, negotiations, late night emails and planning: thinking out loud.

The university is in dire need of ideas, and they don’t come cheap. Krisis wants to do its part in creating and spreading new ideas. In preparing this special issue, we were interested both in analyses of protests and the changing governance of universities, in the Netherlands and elsewhere, and in projective ideas about the potential future(s) of a new university. The special issue brings together a range of essays and interventions that radiate the concern, anger and passion surrounding these issues while also developing new concepts and imaginaries of what academic life is and could be.

Writing in response to moments of rupture and protest is complicated. Such writing does, at least, three things all at once. First, it commemorates by fixing certain versions of what happened to paper, adding to a collective memory of ‘how we got here’. Second, it thereby inevitably prolongs the very struggle at hand. Analyses, interpretations, accusations and justifications bend the unfolding of the fight further into the future. Protest demands a collapse of the difference between participating in and writing about an event. Writing thus raises the question: ‘where do we stand?’ Thirdly, this means that writing about protest is endemically judgemental. The genre invites all kinds of claims about what should have happened, what should have been done, what should be done now. Commemorating, taking a stand and making judgements are all part of the writings in this special issue. In doing these things in different ways and with varying emphases, the contributions provide a wide array of meanings to ‘the university’ and its future. In this sense, the special issue responds directly to and re-affirms the central claim of the Maagdenhuis protest: the university ought not be and cannot be an organisation built on the monochrome logic of ‘added value’.

Struggles, diagnoses and futures

Krisis chose to organise the special issue along three points of focus: struggles, diagnoses and futures. Under the heading of struggles, the reader will find contributions that not only describe specific fights taking place but also be able to sense the passion and engagement. We see how the work that people – in this case academics – do, is both deeply personal and overtly political. All of the contributions resist the managerial splitting of this entanglement. Diagnoses deal with the problem at hand. What is actually the problem and how can we grasp it in such a way that we do not argue ourselves into passivity? While some contributions focus more on the way in which universities tend to be organised, others foreground changing conceptions of the university. Finally, there are contributions which explicitly propose future images of the university, both in terms of structure and organisation as well as alternative concepts and callings.

Because this special issue is conceived to respond directly to protest, we start the issue with contributions about struggles. Nguyen Vu Thuc Linh, John-Erik Hansson and Ola Innset provide a sound place to start by analysing the changing circumstances of working in universities under neoliberal reform. They locate struggles emerging in cities such as Amsterdam, London, Toronto and Warsaw in histories of resistance and solidarity in the postwar period. Next, Jonas Staal takes us right into the lively practice of the Maagdenhuis protest in his essay on the art of the new university as it was created during the protests. Instead of merely taking artistic expressions, practices and objects as auxiliary to the political moment, Staal seeks to understand the protest itself as a Gesamtkunstwerk in which images, performances, posters and banners are composed. Sina Talachian and Vasileios Koutsogiannis pick apart the Maagdenhuis protest by analysing the various student movements that formed its core, showing how different notions of democratisation played out and entertained tense relations between them. On this basis, Talachian and Koutsogiannis develop an argument for sustained radical claims making, which they associate with the decolonising efforts of one of the groups involved, the University of Colour. Silje A. Andresen, Levon Epremian, Thomas S. Jakobsen, Michael Jones, and Hilde Refstie take the fight to Norway in their analysis of changing academic governance and ineffectual forms of participation. Critically discussing existing modes of representation, they show how the fight for democracy in universities can be akin to fighting a fog: the opponent continuously reforms itself in response to attempts to get a hold on it. The section is rounded off with a deeply affective essay by Josef Früchtl and Natalie Scholz, both participants in the protests in Amsterdam. Exploring the registers of political emotions at the heart of the protest and implicating personal experiences and attachment into the analysis, the essay calls for sustained engagement with the aesthetics of anger, rebellion and protest.

The section on diagnoses is opened by Rutger Claassen and Marcus Düwell, who lay out a triple democratic deficit in university governance, which will have to be dealt with. The relations between academic communities, society and university administration will have to be reinvented at all three sides, they argue, in order to make genuine progress in efforts to democratise universities. P. W. Zuidhof allows us to more fully understand questions of neoliberal reform in universities by providing a careful dissection of its tendencies and mechanisms, while also highlighting some specificities of the Dutch context. Out of an admission of complicity, Zuidhof seeks to look beyond to a post-neoliberal future. Approaching the problem from a different angle, Kati Röttger offers her perspective on how and why we should begin to recognise anew the usefulness of what is so often rejected as useless, academic knowledge. In an essay adapted from a lecture held at the Maagdenhuis as part of the academic life of the appropriated building, Röttger argues that it is the unconditional creation and exchange of knowledge that has been progressively squandered in contemporary universities. Paul Benneworth sees in the protest an opportunity to redress longstanding tensions in the relations within universities and those between universities and their environments. Applying the notion of soft-coupling, which is opposed to top-down modes of governance based on distrust, he advocates a rethinking of universities on three levels: political structures, within universities themselves and between academic generations. As somewhat of a bridge to the section on futures, Mieke Bal enacts the power of imagination in an essay, focusing in particular on the role of the humanities in contemporary universities. Tying together multiple philosophical and literary sources, from Flaubert to Benveniste and Spinoza to Zola, she argues for the work of ‘versioning’ in the humanities, implying the constant production of multiple visions of the world.

Even if all contributions to this special issue foreshadow new forms of academic life out of the rubbles of the past, the section on futures features contributions that aim to imagine and describe the future in more explicit ways. The section is provocatively opened by Willem Schinkel who argues both for the need to protest against the current state of academic affairs, yet also claims that pleas for a return to past privileges, idealized autonomy or fixation on democratic governance are but regressive moves in a fight that must articulate its own affirmative idea of the university’s place in the world. Schinkel lists what he dubs ‘the public tasks of the university.’ Such affirmative ideas for a new university are presented in three subsequent interventions. The first, by Kirsten Kalkman, opposes two attitudes toward academic study – Alcibiades’ erômenos and Socrates’ erastès – in favor of the latter and draws connections between this source of inspiration and the launch of De Bildung Academie, referring to Humboldtian ideals of academic cultivation, which she and other students are involved in. A second proposal comes from Amos and Machiel Keestra, who work out a ‘circulation model’ of university education. Identifying key shortcomings of the current education model, their intervention describes multiple ways to keep things moving: ‘circulation between research and education, between insights of teachers and of students, between disciplines, between disciplinary and experiential knowledge, between doing research and (meta-)reflection upon research, and so on.’ While much of the protest and discussion focuses on the embattled position of the humanities, Wessel Reijers provides some much need insight into how ideas for a new university might be used to reshape education and curricula at technical universities training future engineers. His proposal revolves around a new image: ‘the virtuous engineer’. On a more conceptual terrain, Rogier van Reekum argues that although ties between academic work and the outside world must be multiplied, current visions of academic worth do not allow us to imagine those connections in adequate ways. Van Reekum proposes a vision of experimental activism as an alternative to current fixations on the knowledge economy and the production of factual evidence. Finally, Mike Neary and Joss Winn describe their ongoing efforts to build and proliferate cooperative practices and organisations of academic work in higher education. Not merely concerned with labour conditions or educational forms, cooperation extends all the way into research methodologies. Thus, Neary and Winn offer a concrete example of the new university in the making.

The Krisis editorial collective hopes that this special issue – involving contributions from students, PhD researchers and faculty members – will not only contribute to and open up necessary discussions about ‘the new university’ but, in its moderate way, exemplifies some of the insurgent and collaborative spirit that drives the struggle for it.