Since 2015, the Cabinet has sought to reduce the costs of the pre-paid public transport chip cards by means of measures such as having lectures and seminars taught at night, so as to stop students from commuting during the rush hour. These measures were supposed to result in a €200 million saving, which sum would then be invested in the education system. A great deal depended on the saving at the time, as it was used as an argument to justify the abolition of student grants.

One billion euros

While the abolition of student grants would make getting a degree much more expensive for students, the idea was that the higher education sector would gain several hundreds of millions annually in the long term which would allow it to improve the quality of its degree programmes. In one particular year, the measure was even forecast to result in universities gaining more than €800 million.

Add a budgeted €200 million supposed saving in relation to pre-paid public transport cards, and suddenly we were looking at universities gaining a cool one billion euros per year. VVD, D66, PvdA and GroenLinks liked to bring those one billion euros up as an argument for their plans, as did the then Minister for Education, Jet Bussemaker.

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It didn’t take long for politicians to stop referring to the billion euros. Despite a lot of hard work and many brainstorming sessions, it was clear that no savings would be able to be realised with regard to public transport. It didn’t help that amending the contracts involved would result in legal problems.

On top of that, it was found two years ago that the savings resulting from students no longer commuting during the rush hour would be fairly insignificant. Now the Minister has gone one step further. She has admitted that there will be no €200 million saving, as it would be ‘highly unrealistic’ to expect students to travel less.

Students pay the price

“This causes me to draw the conclusion that the financial targets specified in Better Usage (the name of the plan – ed.) will not be attained without reducing students’ entitlement to pre-paid travel,” she wrote. In other words: we can try and realise some savings with regard to students’ pre-paid public transport chip cards, but students will be paying the price.

Van Engelshoven used the lessons learned during the pandemic as an excuse. It has become obvious in in the last year that ‘it is vital that students be able to attend many lectures and seminars on campus (in addition to their online classes)’, the Minister wrote. “This period has also made it painfully clear that the ability to meet each other in person, both at the education institutions and elsewhere, is valuable to students.”

Effective arrangements

Last week the Lower House had a debate on the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management’s budget. D66 asked the Cabinet to enter into more effective arrangements with universities about reducing the number of students commuting during the rush hour, as it did successfully with higher education institutions in Arnhem and Nijmegen.

Such arrangements won’t harm anyone and will make commuting during the rush hour more pleasant (and possibly safer), but one thing is obvious: the higher education sector will not get the €200 million it was promised.