Hungry for knowledge but starving for a good food service

April 8, 2005

Friends came to visit me recently, and in the afternoon we fancied the idea of going out for tea. But because the provision of afternoon tea is governed by profit, as is any sort of food with the exception of the shrink-wrapped crap available in vending machines, there isn't anywhere to get tea on campus.

This is but one example of the maddeningly stupid irritations caused by many universities deciding to hive off basic services. One wonders for whom universities exist and who is in charge. Not being able to get something decent to eat when you need it or not having somewhere decent to sit and chat undermines a university's social fabric.

At my university, there are historical and ideological impediments to tackling the problem. As far as I can work out, my university is responsible for academic excellence and for making the place appealing to undergraduates, postgraduates and the research assessment exercise. Its colleges are responsible for the buildings in which this happens. A bit like Railtrack and Virgin, only not always as effective. Admissions are controlled centrally, but accommodation and food are dealt with by individual colleges. The result is that food provision is mostly outsourced by each college with marginal advantage taken of any collective bargaining power.

I might be naive, but I thought universities existed for students and academics and that any facilities should take into account their needs first, not someone else's needs to make a profit. No doubt the university has some student-centred obligations regarding food provision. I imagine a contract that says: "Provide hot food Mon-Fri, from noon until 2pm. For God's sake try not to poison anyone, it upsets the mums." But the university wants to expand substantially over the next few years, with some faculties hoping to increase student numbers by as much as 50 per cent.

High on the agenda is attracting international and postgraduate students, most of whom are more mature than the average undergraduate and tend to expect higher standards. Then there is the question of tackling student retention. With nothing to do at weekends, because no one will run anything if there is no sure-fire profit to be had, resident first-year undergraduates tend to slip away home.

The answer is obvious. Everybody wins if basic services such as food provision are part of a central vision of creating an attractive campus. It seems ludicrous that heads of schools have to submit detailed budgets and projections when neither they, their staff nor their students have any say in the overall infrastructure of the university nor any incentive to feel a part of it.

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