NUS 'cashless campus' initiative draws criticism from students

The fully-automated cashless kiosks at the Gong Cha outlet in the National University of Singapore’s UTown.
The fully-automated cashless kiosks at the Gong Cha outlet in the National University of Singapore’s UTown.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Ambitious plans to make National University of Singapore (NUS) a cashless campus have seemingly been reined in a little in the wake of student protests.

The Office of Campus Amenities said in an e-mail to students on Monday (April 16) that the positive response to a trial has prompted it to move towards cashless transactions in all retail and dining outlets by the upcoming academic year, which starts in August.

That would mean its 40,000-strong student body would be able to use only mobile apps and ez-link and Nets cards to make payments.

But the announcement sparked resistance in the form of an open letter by sociology graduate student Tiffany Gwee, 23, and two online petitions.

They called on NUS to keep its current cash-cashless hybrid, or else better justify the change and to survey students to better understand the "actual consequences" of the move.

Both petitions, which will be presented as a combined effort, were launched on Tuesday and have about 1,700 signatures in total as of Wednesday night.

The unease seems to have prompted a rethink by university bosses. NUS said on Wednesday that it would progressively move towards a cashless campus but this would not necessarily be fully in place by the end of the academic year, as was initially proposed.

It noted that it would take account of feedback from students and stakeholders.

Not all students are against the plan. One told The Straits Times that her peers were "neutral" about it while others said they were already participating in cashless initiatives.

Patrons at NUS canteens and foodcourts get a 50-cent discount if they pay by Nets. More than 60 per cent of transactions are now cashless.

The Office of Campus Amenities said this "encouraging response" gave impetus to the "cashless campus" plan.

But some have questioned interpretations of the statistic, which includes visiting members of the public and may have been spurred by the financial incentive rather than a real desire to go cashless.

"There isn't a very tangible benefit for us to go cashless once we step out of school," said second-year nursing student Kimberley-Ann Tan, 22. "Because quite a lot of stuff is still not cashless."

Ms Tan added that people tended to spend more with cashless methods, as "it's harder to keep track of how much you spend".

Some students acknowledged that having cashless options was useful, but were critical of going completely cashless. Many contended that the cashless plan is non-inclusive, such that students with no bank accounts or those with no value in their cards or with flat phone batteries would be left high and dry.

One of the petitions also cited the unreliability of such systems, recounting a Nets breakdown in February that incapacitated a cashless Gong Cha outlet in University Town.

"Making it 100 per cent cashless can start to inconvenience certain demographics who are either not capable of using the service or would rather not use it," said first-year medical student Ben Lew, 20, who cited his parents as examples of people who choose not to use mobile payment apps such as DBS PayLah.

Another student expressed concern for elderly staff who were less tech-savvy.

Those such as first-year medical student Beth Chow, 20, called for a solution for those lacking access to cashless methods. She also suggested installing top-up machines near canteens to facilitate the use of ez-link cards.

An NUS spokesman said in a statement: "Retail and dining operators are trained to carry out cashless transactions. University staff are also on site to assist users in the use of the relevant apps.

"Efforts are under way to improve the technical infrastructure to support cashless transactions."