Undergraduate food has often lagged behind that available on the high street, with branded cafés and onsite bars that are effectively poor imitations of better-known names. But this could be about to change, says Nic Paton
When last autumn the café at Nottingham University's Hallward Library started selling Starbucks coffee, there was a storm of protest, with students rigging up a rival anti-Starbucks stall, organising a petition and launching a Facebook group on the internet that rapidly acquired 700 members.
Starbucks, with a reputation for aggressive, faceless US corporatism, is a brand that frequently generates high emotions. But its appearance on the east Midlands' university's campus is nevertheless illustrative of a trend in higher education catering: the spread of the branded, high-street outlet. The coffee bar chain opened its first outlet at Surrey University last summer and it has been targeting other UK universities ever since.
Other brands have slipped in under the radar, too. Costa Coffee, because of an emphasis on ethical and fair trade products, tends to cause less controversy among students, and deals with universities in Sheffield, Swansea, Bedford and Aberdeen, and De Montfort in Leicester, have been agreed. Cafeology opened its first site in partnership with Aramark at Southampton Solent University in April.
Caffe Ritazza and Upper Crust are now present on many campuses as well. These two are owned by Compass, and the contract catering giant intends to bring over a Subway-style sandwich brand called Mondo Subs, too, having been piloting it in 30 sites in the USA.
"We hope to see a number of test sites up and running from the autumn term," says Kevin Hall, brand manager for health, education and defence services at Compass. "Brands are becoming important because students are attuned to them. They tend to be early adopters of new labels that come through. But, while they are brand-savvy and will look for high-street names, they are also value-conscious."
Historically, however, catering in universities has been heavily subsidised. What's more, as pointed out by a survey in 2003 by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, there has often been some confusion, not least among caterers, about exactly what it is they are, or should be, providing in this setting.
While the higher education sector generated an income of more than £320m a year, the survey concluded that there was often a lack of direction from universities about what they wanted from food provision, while caterers themselves were often unclear about whether they were providing a service or a commercial operation. University catering services often suffered from a lack of investment and, as a result, were unable to compete on pay and thus experienced skills shortages.
But the perception of catering within the sector, and of what caterers and universities are trying to do with their catering offer, is starting to change. Robert Salmon, director of Aramark Education, points out: "Within universities, catering was once seen as something of a necessary evil. It's now perceived as an important social and recreational part of the day."
Formal sit-down meals in halls of residence - while still offered in many places - are being replaced by canteen-based, grab-and-go dining. They have even converted, in some instances, into a self-catering offer, where students can simply heat up their own food. Warwick University, for example, no longer has catered halls of residence at all.
The big, refectory-style restaurants, often on a single, central site, where students could rub shoulders with lecturers over subsidised bangers-and-mash and a pint, are also less common. "Universities are less concerned about pastoral care," says Tony Horton, managing director of food service consultancy Tricon. "The view is that these are young adults who can make adult decisions."
These trends were evident in Sodexo's 2006 University Lifestyle survey. This report found that more than half of the students polled made their own breakfast in halls of residence, 45% did the same for lunch and two-thirds of the total did the same for dinner. When it came to food on campus, European and Asian-style cooking was the most popular, along with general snacks. Nearly three-quarters of respondents ate on campus, though not every day, with more than one-quarter eating out once a week.
Price was the primary concern when buying food from a catering outlet, the survey found, followed by convenience, with just over one-fifth saying that the brand was of importance. Even for purchases such as coffee, the vast majority of students were "brand neutral".
The desire for healthier food was strong, but it was not an overpowering need, according to the research. Around two-thirds ticked the box that said "I try to eat healthily, but don't let it dictate my life", while the same proportion admitted that they ate a poor diet as insisted that it was essential to eat properly.
"But there is a greater awareness of health coming through," says John Crowther of schools' catering consultancy Catermap. "Organic is still moving on - people are prepared to pay for it."
Arguably, the fact that there's a captive audience on university sites could have made caterers lazy in the past. Even where campuses are sited in city centres, and there is the potential for people to wander offsite to high-street competitors, students simply don't leave the premises in the same way they do at secondary schools. Often, because there is only a short time between lectures, or because the food is heavily subsidised, students will gravitate toward the campus brand, so a nearby café or canteen would be a useful meeting point.
There are those who advocate going back to the old ways of canteen meals. These are favoured by parents because students are seen as leading a chaotic lifestyle, so they need a substantial feeding at least once during the day. Such food tends to be more on ethnic lines rather than traditional British fare.
Meanwhile, there are concerns about the general diet of many students, with studies from the USA suggesting that the average student puts on 15lb in their first year at university. Universities are keen to provide meals because they have the facilities on-site - the many lucrative conferences and seminars that take place on university sites in holiday periods need kitchens to supply them, and it makes financial sense to carry on cooking during term time.
However, students do tend to be brand-conscious, and it's in this area that the higher education establishments are most lacking. High-street brands have been making inroads on university sites but, Horton argues, "Most of the time, what you will get are university-specific brands that perhaps mimic a high-street offer".
He explains: "At present, there are a lot of halfway-house catering concepts - outlets that have an internal, stand-alone brand name but not the polished nature of the high street. The brand depends on the consistency of what is being provided on a single site." A caterer in such an instance is likely to have a contract for five years. "But your objective is to hang on to that contract," Horton says. "As long as you are doing a good job, that is more important than building a particular brand name."
Examples of such brands in place on university sites include Sodexo's The Unity, launched last year into 15 universities. This incorporates a range of concepts such as a grab-and-go brand called Lo Prendo and an Indian and Far Eastern brand called East In Fusion. Since its launch, it has seen a 40% increase in sales, says Peter Taylor, head of universities at Sodexo.
At one of Sodexo's major contract catering rivals, Aramark, new concepts include Live Station, which offers wok- or griddle-cooked foods, omelettes and hot salads, and Hot Subs, where customers choose their sandwich bread and filling. "Students are always picking up on the latest fads and fashions, so we have to be able to respond to that," says Salmon. One positive aspect for these caterers is the increasing number of international students. Salmon adds: "They pay higher tuition fees, so menus have to reflect that."
While it's clear that students want a strong ethical or fair trade element in their catering, it's not always the case that caterers can provide them. Where a contract exceeds £150,000-worth of goods supplied, caterers have to look Europe-wide if they want to supply a university. EU legislation means that large caterers have less chance of being able to supply food from their immediate environs, and are more likely to have to take meat from abroad.
Since 2003, some 72 universities around the country have become "fair trade universities", according to the Fairtrade Foundation. For caterers, this trend means that offering fair trade and ethically sourced products is no longer a selling point in its own right. In fact, according to Hall, "It is more often than not just a starting point, something that is expected".
Increasingly, students are attending university for shorter periods, and more online learning is expected in future. There are also more mature students, who may be juggling a day job with studying. "So providing more kiosk-style offerings, rather than formal meals, is the future," Crowther believes. He adds that "24-hour offers, such as vending facilities and all-day coffee outlets" are the way forward. Weigh-and-pay, salad bars, students constructing meals and selecting content will also form part of a future campus mix.
Above all, however, students will continue to be price-conscious. "There is always going to be competition from the high street," Hall says, "but by offering high-street products for less than high-street prices, we can counter that."
Could it happen at the local secondary?
In the USA, branded, high-street catering outlets pop up in high schools. Since demand for school meals at primary and secondary level is generally in decline in the UK, perhaps this could be a way to kick-start it again.
Catermap is working with a school (one that John Crowther will only identify as being inside the M25) to serve its sixth-form pupils. But, Crowther says, the potential there is limited "because their timetable is much more fixed by lessons", he says. Children follow a more controlled and regimented timetable than students in the higher education setting.
In some of the government's new academy schools, questions are being asked about what sorts of alternative food provision might be feasible, including the mix between convenience and conventional foods.
What has prompted branding in the USA is that schools there are not subject to the same restrictions as those in the UK, where legal constraints require schools to provide free meals to pupils from poorer backgrounds.
In the UK, there is also concern about how primary school pupils would actually pay for food in a branded outlet, given that they don't pay at the till as they do at secondary school level.
But there's a kernel of an idea in there somewhere