UUGH! or: Issues regarding University of the Underground

This text is written by a group of Sandberg students concerned about the politics and implications of the school hosting corporately funded programs such as the University of the Underground (UUG). Due to the widespread misinformation and rumours about the program, this document aims to inform existing and prospective students about our position towards such programs and the course of action we have taken so far.

Core Concerns:

  1. Principles regarding Corporately Funded Education

All other permanent Sandberg Courses are funded by a combination of student fees and government funding. The UUG promotes itself as being 80% percent privately funded, with 20% state support. The mere existence of this model provides a potential justification for the state to continue reducing funding for higher level arts education, however the UUG not only represents but actively aims to spread this model worldwide, one if its ultimate goals being the more or less total state defunding of arts education.

Once the door to direct privatisation has been opened, it is very difficult to close, heralding unpredictable levels of potential non-impartiality and conflicts of interest. The UUG already proposes a murky exchange of cultural capital between private industries and arts institutions, where the members of the funding bodies are also teaching on the course. This compromises the position of an educational arts institution as a space for critical exploration, instead providing employees for a predefined industry.

2. Branding

Beyond the widespread derision the marketing of the UUG has garnered, the branding and copy of the UUG has to be addressed. The instrumentalization of language is dangerous and powerful, and the coopting of radical terminology is a huge threat to left-wing politics. By adopting the language of genuinely radical education models, for example, the UK Free School movement, the UUG are using the term ‘underground’ and its associations in an intentionally deceptive way — its counter-cultural capital employed to promote a course which is principally funded by multinational corporations.

3. Lack of Transparency

The UUG lists an impressive amount of individuals as “Partners”, “Advisors” and “Founders” without clearly defining what these roles mean in actuality. Without any specific information regarding the functions and intentions of these parties, the UUG appears to be ‘stunt-casting’ itself into significance, with very little liability to either disprove corporate conflicts of interest, or prove actual interaction with these people.

Until recently, the UUG’s funding process was totally opaque, and the misleading term “Philanthropists” was used to refer to private companies such as Wetransfer.

4.Why Sandberg?

Sandberg, as a small and relatively critical institution, seems an inappropriate choice to host this program — this is another co-option by the UUG of existing counter-cultural credibility, where the ideology of the UUG runs completely counter to the values of the majority of other permanent courses — how can a Critical Studies department have a legitimate claim to criticality while having proximity to the UUG?

There have been many calls, from both inside and outside the Sandberg, for students to publicly clarify their position regarding the UUG. Due to the frequent high profile promotion of the UUG through the name-dropping of its associates, the reputation of its sponsors, and the advertorials on It’s Nice That, etc, its association with the Sandberg has the potential to permanently alter the reputation of the Instituut and its students and graduates, many of whom are not comfortable with the affiliation.

Our concerns and demands stem from a sincere desire to protect the Sandberg’s reputation as an important and radical arts institution. We greatly care about the future of the Sandberg Instituut as well as the future of third level arts education globally, which is under the constant threat of neoliberalisation. Association with the “University of the Underground” compromises the Sandberg’s reputation, and damages both its staff and its students.

The Story So Far:

The first time students were directly made aware of the University of the Underground was at the Instituut’s public open day on the 4th of February 2016 — at which point the UUG had already been established, administered was soliciting applications. Two days earlier, a high profile article on It’s Nice That, promoting the UUG and written by Nelly Ben Hayoun herself, was published. The advertorial concludes with the line ‘We are here to stay.’

Awareness of the UUG provoked widespread gossip and concern within the student body of the Sandberg and Rietveld, precisely due to the concerns listed above — and alarm within the staff of the other Departments, who began their own procedures in attempt to halt or reverse the development of the UUG.

In May, a group of Sandberg students representing each permanent department independently from the staff queries, requested a meeting with Sandberg Director Jurgen Bey to discuss these concerns. This meeting was delayed multiple times by the Instituut, until it finally took place after prospective students for the UUG had been interviewed.

In that meeting, we were told that, thanks to the efforts of the department heads and staff, (who will have their own story to tell) the UUG had been changed from an indefinitely running programme within the Sandberg to a limited, two year hosting — but the course could not be shut down or severed from the Instituut as the students had already been selected and the staff already hired.

After voicing our concerns, and being told that the UUG would not be shut down, we came to a compromise with an initial list of demands, mostly oriented around the branding and transparency of the UUG, particularly in relation to the Sandberg Instituut.

The following text is a transcription of the Email sent to the Sandberg Instituut on 24 May 2017, immediately following a meeting of student representatives and Jurgen Bey:

Below are a written version of the most immediate, actionable requests we agreed upon at the end of our meeting. Highlighted are some very specific issue which need to be addressed immediately.
1. Immediate renaming of the course to remove any suggestion that the course is linked with the free-school movement / independent education which the name currently implies. A new name must better reflect its corporate interests or the actual suggested outcomes of the course i.e Experience Design

Update: UUG was moved into a new category on the Sandberg’s own website named ‘Hosted Courses’. It was also given the title ‘Design of Experiences’. Under this section the course is described thus. “The Design of Experiences programme is not positioned in the institute like another temporary programme, because meanwhile we want to investigate future cooperations, similar to this one with organisations like the University of the Underground. This will lead to more, now still unknown, educational or non-educational formats.” On UUG’s own website there is no mention of the course title ‘Design of Experiences’.

2. The funding is not through philanthropy as donors are not individuals, it is through corporate sponsorship and it should be called that on the site.

Update: The phrasing of ‘Philanthorpy’ was removed from the UUG’s standalone website. Organizations such as ‘WeTransfer’ are now under a sections titled ‘Founding Partners’.

3. We demand the immediate changing of language and imagery used on the website. Appropriating the terminology of free schools and activism while blending it with neoliberalised corporate language is an embarrassment for the students and staff of the Sandberg Instituut. The aesthetics of protest such as handwritten daubing should also be removed as they add to the insinuation of an anti-establishment institution.

Update: This demand was completely ignored and the language empty rhetoric of being a ‘resistance’ was doubled down on. Even our highlighting of the neoliberal nature of privately funded higher education was reworded and subsumed into their own FAQs. “Are you neo-liberalist? Absolutely not. You could call us Post-Capitalists. But surely NOT neo-liberalist. We are intelligent agents navigating artificial systems… This sounds more like us.”

4. We demand clarification and full transparency regarding the staffing, funding, and organisation of the “University of the Underground” course be show. With links between teaching staff and funding avenues be explicit.

Update: Over the summer the ‘Stitchting’ or charity, for the course has been set up which boats to be transparent and will publish its books in December 2018. We have no doubt that they will honour this but our issue is with the contradiction between private money being donated to run the course, whilst individuals from these very same corporations are teaching/members of the advisory board. A donation scale from 70 to 50,000 euros has also be installed on the website which rewards those who do so with gradually impressive titles. The idea that someone given the title ‘director of the underground’ for inputting 25,000 euro would have no interest in influencing the future of the program is unlikely at best.

5. A few sections of particular concern are quoted below. However we request that all text on the entire site be rewritten and stripped of both radical rhetoric and the ‘counter-cultural references’ see (www.universityoftheunderground.org/faqs/)

Update: As mentioned before, the text on their website was expanded and the bombastic and obfuscating rhetoric increased.

We would also like to be informed of the plan to involve a journalist which we also have concerns about and would appreciate a dialogue concerning that before any plan is finalised.

Update: No information has been passed on privately or publicly about the introduction of a Journalist to ‘publicize the story of the UUG’. Instead however, multiple advertorials have been published on itsnicethat.co.uk, profiling individuals associated with the course.

We feel it necessary to hereby address our concerns in a quick and responsive manner, particularly in owing to the fact of the speediness with which you were able to move to create the course (as you mentioned, without red tape etc). Once again, our concerns and demands stem from a sincere desire to protect the Sandberg’s reputation as an important and radical arts institution. We greatly care about the future of the Sandberg Instituut as well as the future of third level arts education globally, which is under the constant threat of neoliberalisation. Association with the “University of the Underground” compromises the Sandberg’s reputation, and damages both its staff and its students.

What Next?

We will be holding a meeting on 1pm Friday 22nd September at The Rietveld Academie in room K29 to informally talk about the process so far to discuss future action. We especially hope incoming students from all departments the Sandberg and Rietveld can attend and we can clear up any misinformation, discuss the situation and make plans. This issue has become a highly pertinent one and we do not wish this activity by the institution to become normalized with each successive generation.

It cannot be stressed enough that we do not wish to make the incoming students of the UUG feel unwelcome or attacked in anyway, and we solely have issue with the threat that the funding structure poses to the future of higher level education for all students yet to come. We therefore of course welcome any UUG students to join the meeting on Friday as much as those on any other course.

Clarification (20/09/17): The above post has been edited as, to our knowledge, UUG have not paid for any promotional content to be placed on news sites. ‘Advertorial’ here is used simply to denote a journalistic practice we find uneasy. i.e articles published on itsnicethat.co.uk and vice.com that function predominantly as advertisement for the program.

Clarification (22/09/2017): This text has been further edited to remove personal speculation about the reasons for the UUG choosing the Sandberg as an accrediting body. This speculation was intended as an example highlighting the lack of opacity regarding the initial instigation of the UUG, rather than attempt at causing further rumour, and so has been removed.