Self-catering is on the rise in halls of residence. Are students better at cooking or is it just the bottom line speaking? asks Catherine Quinn
Student eating habits are changing, and it could be partly due to the Jamie Oliver effect. The growing trend in the past few years for self-catered accommodation has meant that universities such as Luton, Sunderland and Wolverhampton have done away with catered halls of residence.
Eleanor Drummond, a welfare officer at Heriott-Watt University for ten years, attributes the change to improved cookery skills. "I am pretty sure most students are better at coping with cooking than they were ten years ago. Maybe Jamie Oliver and TV cookery programmes have made it less of a thing that only mum does," she says. Another factor is the growing number of students who live at home.
The newer universities have seen more movement on the catering front than the more established ones - and the menu divide between Russell Group members and other universities can be vast. Oxford's Worcester College, for example, has access to a trust fund that subsidises university meals. Having extra funds, and wealthier students, allows its caterers to update and refine menus. Sample menus for formal meals include a salmon salad starter, a main course of duck, followed by, perhaps, a dessert of lemon tart with cream. The University of Durham serves chicken liver pate, followed by roast rack of lamb, with strawberry meringue cream to finish. Such choice makes dining in halls a popular choice for "foodie" students.
Other universities that still provide food in halls may find it hard to compete. At the University of Hull, for instance, a typical menu might include a starter of fried bread, followed by curry and a cornflake tart to finish. Despite the tendency for universities to oversell their facilities, Hull's prospectus states boldly: "The meals provided at the traditional halls are prepared on site, in bulk. They are student-quality meals and should not be compared in terms of type or price with the meals offered by restaurants or hotels." Mark Mullaney, catering manager for the university's Lawns Halls, says the menu is based on student demand as well as cost. "Our budget is simply however many students enroll to pay the fee," he says.
Although universities' income from catering and accommodation has risen by 17 per cent between 1995 and 2000, according to a report for Universities UK, this is mainly due to increased student numbers and does not include the cost of providing services. However, the potential for rich pickings may be behind the increased interest private companies are showing in catering and accommodation.
Simon Kemp, housing and social policy research manager for the National Union of Students, links the move towards self-catered accommodation directly with the push for more private-sector involvement. The NUS is worried that privatised accommodation is driven more by profit motives than by the desire to improve facilities - it cites the recent collapse of the Sheffield University-Unite deal as a reason for caution. But it does not rule out part-privatisation, as long as students are involved in the process.
Nottingham Trent University is so far the only institution to have hived off all its accommodation to a private partnership deal, but many others, such as Loughborough, are involved in some kind of partnership arrangement with private companies. Jarvis's University Partnerships Programme, for example, is dealing with 13 universities. Mark Allen, Jarvis's business development director, says private-sector involvement can improve quality and provide "an environment conducive to study, not stress". He adds: "All our services, from building the developments right down to the provision of improved catering, are designed with this in mind."
However inexorable the move to out-sourcing and self-catering may be, there are still staff and students who believe strongly in catered halls provided by the university. Nigel Monks, assistant director of group catering services at the University of Reading, argues that such provision offers a well-balanced diet at less cost than self-catering, once the expense of travel, shopping and energy bills are taken into account. Reading experimented with contracting out its catering services, but has since returned to an in-house operation. Monks says contracting out can enhance existing provision if universities need capital for new or refurbished facilities, but he adds that, ultimately, students may find themselves paying for the company's profits.