$2.5 million in two years: Why is my university taxing students for parking?

Parking passes for the University of Canterbury campus are set to cost $475 next year. Student Kelly Phillips says it’s revenue gathering, pure and simple.

When the woman gave me the total, I asked her to repeat herself. This was 2016, when an annual parking pass for students at the University of Canterbury cost $304. I didn’t realise it, but that was a good deal. Because the next year parking at the University of Canterbury was $350 for a yearly pass, and this year it’s $400 – but next year it will be $475.

Supposedly, we students are the lucky ones. University staff have to pay $800 this year and $1000 next year. “Staff” include full time instructors, part-time instructors and café workers who are earning close to minimum wage. There is no sliding scale based on income.

One person who doesn’t have to worry about this plebeian issue is University of Canterbury Vice Chancellor Rod Carr. According the State Services Commission’s Senior Pay report, he earned between $650,000-$659,999 for the financial year ending in June 2016. He also has a university parking spot set aside for his exclusive use.

Unlike many students who give up gainful employment and borrow money to attend classes, Dr Carr can afford to pay for parking. The Vice Chancellor is a member of the University Council, and it was its decision to hike the parking fees.

In memos sent out to students and staff, the council claimed this was due to increased maintenance costs, a desire to make students use alternative means of transportation and a requirement to add more parking spaces by 2024.

I’ve been on campus for three years and never seen any maintenance work or parking expansion. I was curious to know if the council had acted unilaterally, or involved the students and staff in the policy process. I also wondered know how much revenue was raised from the fees, and if they were held in a special account or earmarked for spending on parking.

I filed an Official Information Act request with the university to find out. Here’s what I learned; the university did not consult or allow submissions from faculty and staff. Instead, they paid a company called Aurecon to prepare a report. The total revenue from parking fees was over $1.2 million in 2016, and over $1.3 million in 2017. This revenue is not earmarked for parking, and goes into the university’s general account. The university did not provide a single example of maintenance costs on parking and said these are, “not distinguished from the maintenance of the sealant in footpaths, roads or other areas”.

I’d love to bike or walk to campus, but I live 40 minutes away and have a child who attends preschool near my home. The closest bus station is a 4 kilometre walk from my house. I don’t hate the environment, I just can’t get to the university without driving. Clearly, I’m not alone because uni parking is consistently at capacity with several cars hunting for a space.

Street parking around the campus has become so congested that the Christchurch City Council has called for submissions for a solution.

While the parking fees are bad, the penalty for not paying them is worse. I learned this when I returned from class late one day to find my vehicle clamped and ticketed. My partner and I have identical utes and we had switched them that day. Mine had a parking permit, his didn’t.

I did a walk of shame across campus to the security office and paid $50 to get the clamp removed. The whole time I was worried I wouldn’t get to my son’s preschool before they closed. I shuddered to think what clamping might mean during another earthquake or natural disaster.

Students aren’t the only ones to face this penalty. Visiting dignitaries, academics and prospective students have also been clamped. This is a bad look for a public institute. While I understand the reasoning behind fines, being trapped until you pay a ransom for your car is too much.

If the fine isn’t paid within 24 hours, the university can have the car towed. The unfortunate car owner will then have to pay towing costs on top of the university’s penalty. In 2017 alone, the UC issued 516 fines which netted around $25,800.

A simple way for the university to ensure compliance (without using a clamp) would be to prevent students from registering or receiving grades until they pay their fines. As a law student I am mindful of legislation covering the issues of fees and penalties. The Constitution Act 1986 gives parliament the exclusive right to levy taxes except where granted in statute.

In the past, courts have struck down fees that amounted to “a tax by another name.” Section 150(4) of the Local Government Act 2002 states that where an entity is given the power to levy fees, they must not recover more than the reasonable cost incurred for a service. The Education Act 1989 says university councils must act in good faith, not discriminate, foster maximum participation from the community and act with the well-being of its students in mind.

I wonder if anyone told the council all this?


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