News - November 15, 2012

No more free train rides

Life without free public transport

The new Dutch cabinet's plans bode ill for students. Not only is the basic grant currently received by all Dutch students to be scrapped, but they are also going to have to cover their own transport costs. Free travel either on weekdays or at weekends will be replaced with a discount card. What will be the consequences? Resource makes an informed guess. 
Bigger debts
Let us start by looking at what losing their public transport pass is going to cost students who live at home. To work this out we first need to know what sort of compensatory discount card the cabinet has in mind. An NS off-peak hours card, perhaps - but that does not seem likely, says student union LSVb chair Kai Heijneman. Anyway, students on their way to class travel during peak hours. So he thinks a special 40% discount card for students will be created. One that can be used at all times of day (on weekdays at least) and on both buses and trains.
What will this mean for a student commuting in from Den Bosch, for instance? A return train tickets will cost 15.50 euros and the return bus ride from Ede to Wageningen, 2.20 euros. Assuming there are classes every day for 40 weeks of the year for five years, the student will end up paying 17,400 euros in total. A student from Zwolle will pay even more (19,800 euros) and one from Utrecht a bit less (10,800 euros).
These are hefty sums, especially when you consider that renting a room for five years costs you 18,000 euros - about the same. Whether you are better off travelling from home or getting a room of your own will very much depend on how far away you live. It will be possible to borrow the money to cover your travel costs from DUO and pay it back over a maximum of 20 years, along with the rest of your debt. You do of course have to pay interest on your debt.
Better off living out
The obvious alternative is to get a room of your own. The rents charged in Wageningen are still below the national average, but even here there is a shortage of rooms. If demand goes up any further due to the public transport pass being scrapped, new accommodation will have to be built. But that may turn out to be tricky, due to another plan in the same government agreement.
The cabinet has decided to link the maximum rent charged for a room to the value of the building. A noble attempt to rationalize income-to-rent ratios, but a disaster for student housing providers, they inform us. The plan would mean in practice that most student housing would go down in price. Housing provider Idealis's income would drop so low that it would not be able to build any new housing. Even the existing plan to build almost 20 percent more rooms (900) by 2015 might have to be shelved.
This would leave students increasingly at the mercy of the private housing market. It is true that the supply there is growing fast, but this is partly a reflection of the economic crisis and is therefore temporary. A third provider is possible, namely the university itself. After its previous experience of building accommodation for foreign students, the university now wants to build residences on campus for Dutch students, and is looking for an investor for this project. But it does not seem likely that this will solve the room shortage.
Distance learning
A difficult accommodation market combined with high travel costs could reinforce a development that is already under way: distance education. After all, it is easy to go on living at home if you can listen to your lectures on the internet. Already now, it is possible to watch many Wageningen lectures on WURtv. There are seven lecture theatres equipped with cameras for recording lectures. This was done to make it easier for people with a disability to study, but many students make use of it to catch up on missed lectures or to revise for exams.
There are other new developments in full swing too. A project group is working on creating full online access to the Master's programmes on Plant Breeding and on Nutrition and Epidemiology. This is really intended for students abroad who cannot afford to come and study in Wageningen. But it could also be useful for students in Zwolle or Den Bosch, says project leader Michèle Gimbrère. The technical equipment for distance learning that the group is experimenting with can also be used for regular courses. 'That is already being done at the university of Copenhagen,' she says. 'Students there sometimes follow their classes from the library.'
Alternative transport 
Travelling by public transport will be relatively expensive for students so they will look for alternatives. The cheapest option, a blast from the past, is of course hitchhiking. Standing in a row on the edge of the campus with their thumbs out... this could be the shape of things to come. But thumbing is not the only way to organize a lift. There is also Facebook, which is already used by foreign students for sharing long car journeys across Europe. A weekend in France is quickly arranged if you know how to find the right person. A similar social media system could easily be developed for sharing car journeys within the Netherlands.
Another option could be car-sharing, something that did not exist before the free public transport pass was brought in. The biggest name in this area in the Netherlands is Greenwheels, but StudentCar is definitely another interesting one: You can hire its cars per hour or per kilometer. There are still only two of them in Wageningen, but that could easily change.
And lastly there is also the option of travelling less, by staying in Wageningen at weekends for instance. Which could be a blessing for the local nightlife. Who know, maybe there will even be a real discotheque some day.