When an employee was banned from a University of Edinburgh car park, union rep Deborah Shepherd took the institution to task. There was a clear case to answer: when the woman had moved from working in one university building to another, her parking charges had soared. She was finally expected to buy a full-time parking permit despite working part-time hours. When she complained, in came the ban.
After the University and College Union pressed the issue on her behalf, the university backed down. But Shepherd, a UCU regional support officer, says the case highlights major flaws in the way universities across the UK treat their staff when it comes to provision of car parking.
"There are all sorts of equality issues that enter into this," she says. "There is the issue of part-timers, of people with mobility needs, and also a gender issue. Women are more likely to be taking children to school, more likely to have a caring responsibility for older relatives, and they're more likely to need to drive."
Shepherd believes that some academics pay as much as £1,000 a year just to drive to work and, because annual increases in parking charges are not linked to inflation, the rising charges are felt in the pockets of the lowest-earning employees.
A survey of 64 UK universities conducted by Times Higher Education found that the average monthly charge for staff parking in the sector was £14 but this figure disguises huge variations between institutions.
The University of Plymouth charges its staff the most, according to our survey, demanding an average of £55 a month to park on campus. The University of the West of England charges a nominal £1.25. Of those surveyed, 26 universities do not charge for parking at all. Overall, the institutions had an average of 1,4 parking spaces available to staff. Three institutions - all of them in inner London - do not have any dedicated staff parking spaces.
Newcastle University is one of the highest chargers. Its staff pay an average of £50 a month - and that does not guarantee a space.
Joan Harvey, senior lecturer in Newcastle's School of Psychology, says the university's attempt to justify the high charges by citing a green agenda is hard to swallow. Infrequent or unpredictable public transport, she says, does little to convince staff to leave cars at home.
"Newcastle is interesting because a lot of university staff live in areas not very well served by public transport. Northumberland county is very rural and attractive to live in, so tactics to persuade staff to get out of their cars are likely to meet much lower success rates than in London, where the Tube or trains serve almost everywhere," Harvey says.
"The eco argument that the city council wants everyone out of their cars in Newcastle is currently unsustainable. Public transport options are not possible for a lot of university staff, (taking into account) the need for unsocial hours in some cases, and school policies (are) not helping either. You can see why people avoid public transport."
Harvey says £50 is steep for the service offered by the university. "The ire when you turn up, having paid quite a large fee, only to learn there is nowhere to park, is extremely high." But she admits that, since the higher charges were introduced, parking spaces are available at most times of the day.
The university says, in response to academics' concerns, that the higher charges are part of Newcastle's efforts to become a carbon-neutral city. "We encourage staff and students to use alternative means of travel, such as car-sharing, cycling or public transport in order to help reduce traffic congestion and air pollution," a statement says. "This makes perfect sense on many levels as car parking spaces also take up room that we could be putting to better use academically."
Plymouth also says its charges form part of an overall green travel plan. Wini Coles, assistant director of learning facilities, says a development programme on the campus meant car parking space was lost to new buildings, leading to long waiting lists for parking permits and, ultimately, a review of the system.
"We had to think long and hard about how to manage this process. One of the ways was to put up the price and bring it closer to the cost of parking elsewhere," Coles says.
"When we first introduced car parking charges, we did it to cover the cost of managing the parking. But, in about 2004, we put together a travel plan. One of the strategic objectives was to reduce car dependence and usage. It was part of our green objectives."
The university now uses the income from staff parking permits to improve its green travel planning, by promoting cycling and securing reduced public transport costs. It offers a subsidised park-and-ride service, and staff who live within a certain radius of the university campus are not allowed a permit.
The push is having the desired effect, Coles says. She admits to changing her travel habits, abandoning four wheels in favour of two. "We're seeing people move to green alternatives," she says. "It was because my hand was forced that I made that change, but I wish I'd done it ages ago."
Though its strategy has been contentious, the university intends to increase the cost of parking again, closer to levels charged by the city council in the car parks it runs.
The UCU finds the creeping cost of parking for university staff in the name of the green agenda distasteful. "Access to a car and a parking space are of vital importance to some staff, and universities need to ensure spaces are available," says Sally Hunt, the union's general secretary. "In an ideal world, we would like to see more being done to encourage people to seek environmentally friendly routes to work, but solving the problems of unacceptable public transport in many parts of the country is beyond the remit of the university sector. What is not acceptable is for vice-chancellors to doff their cap to the green agenda when it suits and to introduce punitive parking charges."
Not all academics agree. John Illingworth, lecturer in the faculty of biological sciences at the University of Leeds, cycles to work and says the "pain" of parking costs is the only way to encourage staff to consider the environmental impact of their daily commute. Leeds charges £25 a month on average. The cost of a permit depends on a car's engine size.
"It's a pain that I want to feel. It's trying to get people to change their behaviour," he says. "They say all kinds of fine words but they won't change until it affects their wallet."
However, Illingworth says the cost of parking at Leeds is rising rapidly and a more "egalitarian" charging system should be adopted, rather than a rate based on engine size. "I wanted to make the charges a percentage of salary. At the moment, if you're the most highly paid senior staff it doesn't really impact on you, but it impacts on the cleaners. The pain should be more evenly distributed."
The University of Cambridge is one of the few remaining institutions not to charge for its parking. In the age of green travel planning, how can it continue to justify this policy?
"The university has got what we believe to be very strong green travel credentials without charging for car parking," says Paul Milliner, senior planning officer at the university.
Along with offering park and ride, park and cycle and car-sharing schemes, the university is in discussion with the city council to improve public transport provision. "All of that means we perform very well in terms of sustainable travel," Milliner says.
However, high house prices in Cambridge mean that half of the university's staff lives outside the city boundaries.
Although its parking is free of charge, Cambridge operates a priority system for a permit to park on campus, and this ensures that disabled staff, those with family commitments and those who work unsociable hours are all able to secure a parking space.
"The effect of this is that the majority of our staff do not have access to car parking on university sites and therefore use other measures to travel to their workplace," Milliner admits. As a result, Cambridge has no intention to introduce a charge.
The plan appears to be working. Less than a quarter of university staff drive to work, compared with a city average of 57 per cent.
The University of Central Lancashire, whose green travel plan was held up as an example of good practice by the Carbon Trust last year, says it will be forced to increase its parking costs for the foreseeable future.
Paul Morris, UCLan's director of facilities management, says the institution funds the management of car parking solely on parking revenue. A recent rate-of-inflation pay settlement for auxiliary staff (including car park attendants) means that parking charges are increasing at the same rate.
The university can also claim some success against its green targets. In 2004, 61 per cent of university commuters were solo drivers. By 2007, this figure had dropped to 56 per cent.
The University of Liverpool has been watching the charging debate closely. It recently began charging a flat rate of 18 pence per hour, payable on up to 35 hours a week.
Patrick Hackett, director of facilities management at Liverpool, said the decision to charge had come partly out of a need to respond sensibly to its £200 million capital development programme. The university has faced a backlash against the new charge.
"We initially had people saying it's a tax, and it's not fair as they've always been able to park, and we had complaints about it being a standard charge (rather than) a charge related to income," he says. "But when you park in a public car park, everyone pays the same rate."
According to Hackett, the parking system has improved as a result. "Because we're in the city, the amount of illegal parking going on was substantial. Staff can now find a parking space. A lot of people are coming back to us saying it's really great," he says.
The university has also appeased its disgruntled staff by promising to ring-fence the income from parking charges and spend it on changing facilities and car-sharing schemes to encourage commuters to change their habits.
The University of Aberdeen has all this to come. In January it decided to introduce charges, but these will not come into force for two years. Steve Cannon, university secretary, admits there is work to do to convince staff of the need for a charge, not least around providing reliable alternatives to the car.
"We have a lot of people travel into Aberdeen from rural constituencies," Cannon says. "The park-and-ride and public transport facilities for those people are not, perhaps, what we would want them to be. As we're introducing the charges we're also seeking to explore some way of mitigating the effects."
The university is already considering running its own shuttle bus connecting the campus to the city's railway station.
Despite a general acceptance from staff of the principles of green travel planning, Cannon says Aberdeen has a fight on its hands. "It will be difficult," he says.
MANCHESTER MET: 'GREEN' BACKLASH
Manchester Metropolitan University is in discussion with academics and administrative staff over plans to introduce car parking charges. It has said the green agenda is the main driver of the proposed change.
But staff are unhappy. "The green travel issue should be separate from car parking," says one academic who works across the university's campuses, from central Manchester to the suburb of Didsbury and, 40 miles outside the city, in Crewe and Alsager.
"By charging, you're offering a subsidy to people who live in Didsbury, which is out of the price range of all administration staff, and most academics," she says. "It isn't easy to get from Bolton to Didsbury on public transport."
The academic, who requires a car to carry out her work, disputes the explanations for the charge. If it were part of a green travel plan, she says, it would be accompanied by shuttle buses between campuses and time allowances for lecturers who visit students on work-based placements.
"In other jobs if you're required to have a car, you're offered a subsidy for that car and help with the insurance," she says.