In April, Victoria University of Wellington Students Association (VUWSA) launched its “Fairer Fares” campaign, lobbying the council to reduce public transport fares for students. VUWSA has conducted well-attended student forums on the issue, and the campaign has received coverage on TV One’s Seven Sharp.
Salient, Victoria’s student magazine, ran a debate on the campaign. Critics argued that the campaign “stinks of elitism and privilege” and that students should pay their “fair share,” while campaign head Rick Zwaan responded that students are “among the hundreds of thousands who are struggling” and pointed out that 90% of students are entitled to a Community Services Card. By Zwaan’s logic, arguably anyone with a Community Services Card should have subsidised fares.
Public transport is not just a student issue. Rising petrol costs, the necessity of ecologically sustainable transport solutions, and the commercialisation of public transport are key issues for workers and progressives generally.
Subsidised fares for students is an achievable goal. However, the wider issue is a privatised or commercialised public transport sector that regularly increases prices, cutting back access for low-income workers, beneficiaries and students. Council spends around 70% of its budget on public transport, much of it subsidising private business in its profit-gouging.
VUWSA has recently come under fire for campaigning on “non-student” issues. Conservatives criticised the organisation’s support for same-sex marriage rights, which won around 80% support from students – ironically this policy was introduced at the same time as VUWSA restructured its executive to abolish the Women’s, International and Queer Officers. Students associations are pressured to play an increasingly managerial and mediating role, especially in the context of Voluntary Student Membership (Voluntary Student Membership – A Socialist Perspective, Joel Cosgrove, December 2010 Spark).
Although universities act in large part as training for the managerial class, and production of research for market purposes, most students are indebted and work part-time. Public transport fares affect students as members of a wider community of workers, not simply as students.
Students cannot limit ourselves solely to sectoral issues, “student issues” (although action on student issues is important). A broader campaign for free or affordable, improved public transport could build solidarity with the wider community. Ultimately to address the underlying problem of “fairer fares,” public transport must be made truly public, placing it under community control.