David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

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Never has the future of higher education in the UK felt less certain.

Two unusual recruitment cycles, and the threat of cuts in funding ahead in England are just the aspects that are currently understood. Regulatory changes and a move towards skills provision will see all four sectors diverge even further – modes of delivery may change, and with them modes of attendance.

But through it all there are two truths about universities that remain inviolate:

  • People enjoy wasting time looking at rankings
  • People enjoy complaining about parking.

These two ideas that link us all are what powers the 2022 Wonkhe Car Parking League Table. That and some increasingly unreliable HESA data from a collection that is no longer mandated in England. And Tableau.

Many congratulations to the University of Surrey, Wonkhe’s Car Parking University of the Year 2022.

[Ranking]

Long a high performer on this measure, Surrey’s car parking estate has remained static since 2015 – it edges ahead of last year’s winner (the Institute of Cancer Research) thanks to a decline in staff demand for parking.

[Plot]

As in previous years, our ranking takes the total number of car parking spaces and compares them to demand (calculated via modal travel splits against FTE, or using regional data where no splits are provided). The highest ranked provider, theoretically, offers the most chance of finding a parking space. If a provider hasn’t told HESA how many spaces it has, it is disqualified.

Every year, someone will leave a comment suggesting that because of “the environment” the table should be inverted, and the places it is hardest to park should be ranked higher. These people usually do not live near a university campus and thus do not have to deal with thousands of cars driving round residential streets spewing toxic fumes in order to find a parking space because on campus provision is lacking. There are no easy answers in transport planning.

Into the future

We’ve speculated at length in previous years about the institutional pressures that underpin the movements up and down the table. The estates team view of the issue, looking at changes in parking provision and demand, always appears the most rewarding.

[estates office]

Here the high performing providers are those that match a growth in demand with a growth in provision, and prune their parking estate in the face of reduced demand. So we can applaud the several universities in the east midlands – Coventry, De Montfort, Warwick – for investing in order to better meet demand (the latter breaking into the top 10 of the main ranking for the first time). And we take our hats off to estates teams in Aberystwyth, Hull, and Manchester Met for removing spaces as demand falls.

Oxford’s decision to add a thousand new places sees a rise of an incredible 58 places on the ranking, whereas a rise in demand at Aberdeen has led to a fall of 60 places, and King’s College similarly has slipped 77 places.

Anomalies

There have been concerns that the baskets of indicators familiar to rankers and regulators would suffer unduly during the Covid-19 years (and let us not forget that 2021-22 will very much be another anomaly). Are such measures valid right now? – or at least, as valid as they ever were. We have no clue.

The Car Parking League Table has long been praised for the cavalier way it ignores on the ground reality in favour of easy-to-use data. A fully defensible ranking would involve a great deal of qualitative work – measures of expectation and satisfaction, along with in person examination of the condition and utility of parking. It would be a long and difficult process, one could imagine establishing an entire agency making regular inspection visits to ensure that we had the best possible information.

The decision to use data only presents other problems – for instance, we know that supply and demand are closely interlinked. An improvement in the availability of parking could lead to more people choosing to drive – a decline in the demand for parking would (in a sensible estates team) lead to less spaces being offered. Which is the input measure and which is the output? It’s a complex question.

A space odyssey

And we have a problem with data quality anyway. According to this release, the provision of car parking has declined , with the number of reported available spaces now the lowest since before 2015. But because the quality and completeness of the data has declined since 2017 (with several large providers now submitting data) we can’t be sure if we are looking at a trend or a collection artefact.

[trend]

But the issues with the quality of this dataset can best be seen with the modal split data for staff and students. It’s clear that some providers have been returning the same data for several years – others return only partial data, and am I being suspicious when I suggest some are just making it up?

[modal]

Whereas I’d agree that giving me the tools to build a car parking ranking every year should be low on the sectors’ list of priorities there is a lot of data in the Estates dataset that feels kind of important. In the year of COP26 why can’t we take a reliable view of sector carbon use, for instance? It’s easy to try to solve every problem with a new data collection, and regulators are working hard to reduce institutional burden. However, understanding environmental performance feels like a particularly pressing issue this year.

As does car parking data. Recruitment has been volatile over the last two cycles, some providers have substantially expanded their intake to changes in A level grade profiles whereas others have changed the nature of their intake and are recruiting more students that already live locally. We’ve been talking about the capacity of lecture theatres, but if students literally can’t find a space on campus it feels somewhat moot.

5 responses to “Bumper to bumper: the Wonkhe Car Parking League Table 2022

  1. I appreciate this is silly fun, but I also look forward to your ranking based on accessible bus routes (UCL in with a chance given the buses on Gower St), accessible rail stations (Uni of Birmingham a sure winner when the massive new station opens) and safe cycle paths (SOAS which is on the Bloomsbury cycle path) as balance. This would give you a much greener metric and give those of us in cities with very limited car parking at all a fighting chance for league table glory.

  2. The University of Leeds has for years prided itself in its push for sustainability. Reducing the numbers of staff and students using cars has been supported by having a bicycle repair hub [jointly with Leeds Beckett], bike hire facilities, showers etc. There are disabled parking facilities. The campus is near the city centre with good public transport access, so encouraging more parking and inevitably more car use is through league tables like this one, is in my view irresponsible when we are facing a climate catastrophe.

  3. Some universities (my own included) will be in regions where significant reliance on public transport isn’t feasible. I’d be genuinely interested in anything about levels of on campus provision of charging stations for EVs.

  4. We’re all going to need to reduce our carbon emissions from transport, even if we live in regions with poor public transport and low population density. As made clear in the 6th Carbon Budget the UK’s existing commitments to cut emissions cannot be met simply by switching to electric vehicles, so modal shift and demand reduction are both required. Employers cannot achieve this on their own. We are going to have to have a genuine national transport policy, and sadly the DfT’s decarbonisation plan falls a long way short. Although I am shocked to see that my employer ranks near the top of the table, we do have a very good subsidised bus fare scheme, so let’s hope some of that car parking will be repurposed over the next year!

  5. P.S. it’s relatively easy to deal with overspill parking in residential streets if you have a local council with decent political leadership. Most residents are more than happy to have parking permit schemes introduced when they realise how much nicer their neighbourhood will be as a result. There are actually quite a lot of easy answers in transport planning, but our local authorities have very limited powers and national transport policy has been largely vacuous for half a century.

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