News - November 26, 2015

Fewer students in the rush hour? Good idea!

Minister of Education Jet Bussemaker wants it because free student transport is getting too expensive. The national railways NS want it because the trains are too full. But universities have no intention of keeping their students out of the rush hour by changing their timetables. Yet this would have loads of advantages.

Photo: Remo Wormmeester

Every morning and evening hordes of students cram onto crowded trains and buses that take them to and from campuses around the Netherlands. This is not only irritating but also extremely expensive: outside the rush hour most of those buses and trains can stay at the depot. So last year education minister Jet Bussemaker asked whether higher educational institutions could help to get as many students as possible out of the rush hour. This would generate big savings on their free public transport passes. The NS repeated the request early last month because it expects a shortage of trains in the coming period.

The response from higher education was not particularly accommodating. ‘Closing down the school in the morning – we’re not going to do that,’ grumbled board chair Ron Bormans of Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences. The universities association VSNU rejected the idea too.

Meanwhile a taskforce on ‘better use’ has been established. In the taskforce education institutions, public transport companies, government bodies, higher education and school students are looking for ways of making more efficient use of public transport. Their recommendations are expected late December or early January. The question is whether changing timetables will be among the recommendations, because the universities still have a lot of ifs and buts about the difficulties of doing that. But what is the problem, actually? Here are the advantages.

Less sleepy in class

For students it’s a great idea to go to lectures after nine o’clock. ‘Adolescents are not at their best in the morning, they can’t concentrate well and do not pay attention in class,’ says associate professor Jérôme Gijselaers, who does research at the Open University on biological lifestyle factors in educational achievement. ‘The frontal lobe, the bit at the front of the brain, is still developing between the ages of 18 and 25,’ says Gijselaers. It is common knowledge that while young children are running around at the crack of dawn, as soon as they hit puberty you cannot get them out of bed. It is all biology: only from the age of 25 does the body clock normalize again.

Several biological processes contribute to making most students nocturnal animals. Gijselaers: ‘The production of melatonin, the substance which makes you sleepy, starts later than in adults. There is also a socio-evolutionary reason: in the period when social activities become more important and youngsters are developing sexually, it is functional to be active in the evenings.’

Getting a seat

The minister and the transport companies have never said all students must keep out of the rush hour. ‘Nobody says: ‘You must never again timetable a lecture at nine o’clock,’ laughs chair Hans de Vroome of the steering committee on the student transport pass, a collaboration between all the transport companies. ‘I have investigated for several education ministers whether it was a good idea to allow student pass holders to travel only after the morning rush hour. But I always said, don’t go there. Because you only need to get 10, 20 or maybe 30 percent of the commuters to travel off-peak and the chances of getting a seat are higher.’

If it can be engineered that more students travel off-peak by changing lecture times, that is good news for those who do have to be at their internship address or laboratory at nine o’clock.

More money, better education

If the universities carry on digging their heels in and do not adjust their timetables, they miss out on 200 million euros in education funding. ‘That strikes me as a good reason to give the proposal serious thought,’ said education minister Jet Bussemaker in 2014.

In ten years’ time the student transport pass must cost no more than 750 million euros, instead of the almost one billion it costs now. That is no mean task because soon vocational training students under eighteen will get free transport too. Getting students to travel off-peak looks like the only solution. Just introducing a journey-specific pass would not generate enough savings, as the journey to and from school already accounts for the most kilometres.

No need for more buildings

As a matter of fact, educational institutions have the same ‘peak problems’ as transport companies, said board chair Paul Rüpp of Avans applied sciences university back in 2013. Classrooms can be empty for hours, while at other times there is a shortage of teaching space.

Something can be done about that, showed an experiment at Deltion College, a vocational college in Zwolle. For some of the students there, the day is divided into two half-days of four hours each, explains educational logistics advisor Willem Brinkman. The first group starts at eight a.m., the second at one p.m. ‘The advantage is that we are using the building more efficiently. The classrooms we have are in constant use and nobody has to go looking for a room.’

This new approach to timetabling is not a one-stop solution to the timetabling problem, says Brinkman. But Cees Dijkhuizen, mobility programme manager at Zwolle municipality, is happy with it. ‘The train that arrives in Zwolle at a quarter to eight is the fullest, so if some of the Deltion students take an earlier train, it helps.’

Early bird benefits

In an attempt to keep more commuters out of the rush hour trains, various nice incentives have been dreamt up. In Zwolle there’s a free breakfast for early birds who take the train before eight o’clock and Nijmegen students get to save up for music or clothes if they take the train off-peak. Groningen and Nijmegen are also experimenting with e-bikes for students living out of town.

Mol: ‘Thorny issue’

The idea of starting lectures later to allow students to travel off-peak is a thorny issue in Wageningen, says rector magnificus Arthur Mol. Because starting later means finishing later too, and the Student Council is already against that. Besides, Mol thinks off-peak travel is more of a help with overfull buses and trains in the big cities. ‘Many of our students live in or near Wageningen. Buses to the campus are certainly quite full but hardly ever so full that you can’t get on.’ Starting lectures earlier would be another option in Wageningen, to deal with traffic jams around the campus. The question is whether students would be happy with that. LvdN