16 December 2016 • HOP • Hein Cuppen
Oversight leads to €400 public transport fine
Students are still not being properly alerted to the high fines they will have to pay if they don’t invalidate their expired student travel card. ‘It’s as if DUO likes fining us.’ The Lower House will discuss this on Thursday.
Ezra, a 24-year-old law student, accidentally ignored one important e-mail from the Education Executive Agency (DUO) last summer. He didn’t see that if he failed to invalidate his ‘student travel product’ as of 1 September, he would be fined €97 every half a month. The e-mail contained a link to a video providing more information.
As he openly admitted, ‘That e-mail was crystal clear. I just let it slip by. I was busy re-enrolling. It was my own fault.’
No payment slip
He was less pleased with the warnings that followed. ‘If you get a traffic fine for €40, you receive a letter in the mail after a number of days with a payment slip that you have to pay. DUO doesn’t do this; meanwhile, €97 keeps adding onto your fine every two weeks.’
The only things he received from DUO were standard e-mails that he didn’t open because he didn’t expect any important news. ‘Dear student, we posted one or more notices for you about your student financing. Because they contain personal information, you will find your notices in My DUO.’
He didn’t realise what was happening until he looked at his bank account at the end of October and discovered that the amount deposited for his student financing was €150 short. When he called DUO, he learned that he had been fined €97 four times because he had been able to travel for two months with a student travel card he should have invalidated. ‘Even though I go everywhere on my bike here in Amsterdam.’
He thought it strange that he hadn’t been alerted to the fine more clearly. ‘It kind of gives you the feeling that the people at DUO like collecting these fines.’ According to Ezra, the solution would be simple: ‘An e-mail with the subject line “You’ve been fined!” would make sure that innocent students would invalidate their student travel product within half a month.’
This evening, these fines will be addressed again in the Lower House during a consultation with Minister Bussemaker. Last spring, a political majority in the Lower House prevented allowing the Dutch Cabinet to double this public transport fine to make it €150 per half month. These fines had already generated around €56,000,000 for the public transport companies over 2014 and 2015. The two governing parties (PvdA and VVD) were among those thinking that the fine shouldn’t become a cash cow. Even so, the fine could still be raised later (see sidebar).
Under this pressure, Minister Bussemaker decided not to change the fine (at that time anyway). ‘The vast majority of recent graduates acts in good faith and is somewhat lax at most.’ DUO would have to work with the student organisations, the public transport companies and the Ministry of Education to improve the communication about the fine.
Ezra’s story, however, shows that the problem hasn’t really been solved, despite the improved communication. ‘This is news to me,’ said Jan Sinnige, Chairman of the Dutch National Students’ Association. ‘To be honest, I didn’t know that DUO’s e-mails were failing to suggest an urgent situation. I think it would be a really good idea to send fined students a letter or at least a personal e-mail with a subject line stating that they have to pay a fine. I’d be glad to raise this with DUO, and I hope that something gets done soon.’
Paul van Meenen, a D66 MP, wasn’t at all surprised by Ezra’s story. ‘I still have a whole bunch of old e-mails from my bank in my inbox that I’ve never opened. They’re just like those standard e-mails from DUO: you don’t open them unless you expect something relevant. For a fine, DUO really should communicate more clearly.’
Not very convenient
Like all the other MPs, Mohammed Mohandis (PvdA) would rather have the validity of the student travel card automatically expire or, in any case, make it possible to invalidate it online. ‘I know a student who moved to another country and was informed there that he would have to get to a public transport card reader or receive a fine. Not very convenient, right?’ Until this situation improves, he thinks that fined students should be better informed. ‘They should be sent a letter or an e-mail immediately.’
A spokesperson from DUO said that informing fined students in a more direct manner isn’t that simple. ‘Students let us know whether they want to be informed by letter or e-mail. If they choose e-mail, they don’t get a direct e-mail. Instead, they get a message that an e-mail has been posted for them in their secure My DUO environment. We have to do it this way due to privacy legislation.’
Now, however, graduates who have been fined receive an e-mail with a clear subject line: ‘You have received a request for payment.’ DUO is looking into ways to address not only graduates but also fined students in a more direct manner.
Will the public transport fine get doubled anyway?
The previous consensus in the Lower House that prevented the public transport fines from being doubled has since dissipated. The CDA and VVD parties have submitted an amendment calling for reducing the fines from €97 to €75 per two weeks during the first month. A fine imposed on well-intentioned students who simply forget to invalidate their card would be a bit less than it is now. But to reduce abuse, the fine would be increased to €150 per two weeks (€300 a month) during the following months.
This angered PvdA MP Mohandis: ‘The VVD was initially against an immediate increase and has now made a U-turn. There was consensus about this matter. Research showed that no more than 10 percent of students had purposely not invalidated their student travel card. Minister Bussemaker thought that the innocent students should not suffer for the guilty ones, and called off doubling the fine until DUO had improved its communication. Apparently the CDA and VVD didn’t want to wait.’
MP Michel Rog also said that he thought DUO should communicate more clearly about its fines. ‘The bill that we want to amend still has to be adopted by the Lower and Upper Houses. By that time, DUO and the Minister will certainly have come up with something.’
Pieter Duisenberg, a VVD MP, said that he would take forgetful students into account by reducing their fine during the first four weeks. In his opinion, any students who still hadn’t turned in their card by then should be subject to a tougher approach. If not, this would encourage abuse.