This seating is for paying customers only…

Published

Dennis Barry

Amid all the controversy surrounding the expensive implementation of MyCampus, proposed course cuts, cross-border tuition fees and general anxiety over university funding and the cost of higher education in Scotland, the University of Glasgow has begun this year to quietly institute a rather puzzling little policy change. Though seemingly innocuous and unimportant this change speaks to the heart of the greater issues facing universities in Scotland, as well as higher education institutions the world over.

Throughout the ubiquitous university cafes, the evidence of this change can be found upon tables or festooning the walls on posters. If one looks closely they will find that in all university food halls and cafes seating is for paying customers only. This may not seem very disruptive, controversial or really important at all, however this recently adopted policy has far greater implications.

There can be no question as to the motivation behind this rule; it is made clear in the phrasing paying customers only. Money. Most conscientious patrons of food service abide by this principle without the need for explicit instruction, perhaps occasionally eating one’s own sandwich in Tinderbox having, of course, purchased a coffee or cake. But the university is not a privately owned, for-profit business, which is why this policy seems out of place. Yes, but (the devil’s advocate might counter) the university cannot be expected to run its ancillary operations if they are losing money! Surely this policy is there to ensure that the hospitality service can at least break even to continue to provide the convenient food service all students and staff desire. This would be a valid argument…if it were true.

According to the university’s published financial statements for the year ended July 31 2011, the income generated by Residence and Hospitality Services stood at £22,586,000, a 9.7% increase from 2010. If we deduct staff costs and operating expenses stated in the financial reports, we arrive at a rough profit figure. In 2010 this rough profit measured almost £2.7m (that is £2,699,000). In 2011, this figure was £3,250,000! That is an increase of 20%! Knowing this, the real question is why? Why implement a policy which appears intent on augmenting sales when the services are already profitable? And growing in profitability?

One could argue that this is for the benefit of those students who don’t bring food from home, who want to buy their lunch from the uni but cannot find a table at which to sit. One could sigh with grief at such a fuss caused over a policy which the good natured hospitality staff would rarely if at all enforce. Yet these arguments are not complementary, and individually they’re not convincing. If students choose not to buy from the university because there is not enough seating, is not that their own economic choice? When did the university begin to treat students differently based on spending patterns? Again if this were a for-profit business or a university service which was haemorrhaging money, it would make sense. As demonstrated above, this is not the case. Second, this rule is enforced. I have seen it enforced vehemently and unashamedly.

This is all, however, just nit-picking. The real issue is whether,in the name of higher profits, the university is implementing changes which, aside from seeming to value dosh more than students, are actually counter to the very ethos of a university. Is not the very idea of higher education that of planning for the future, instruction on how to live better and think deeper? Are we not daily being urged, nudged, prodded and shoved towards the goal of becoming a foresighted, thoughtful society? Towards a better life for ourselves in the future? Yes these lofty ideals are still being rigorously nurtured at the university, but these seem the kind of ambitions that must be cultivated in every aspect of student life as consistently and relentlessly as possible. This is the truly puzzling nature of the policy.

The message seems inconsistent. One common piece of financial advice given to students is to make their own food. The benefits are as manifold as the costs are minimal: healthier, thriftier, more organised. It isn’t right for everyone every day, but it is a healthy and affordable option on which destitute and malnourished students can rely. Such sage advice must now be qualified: students are prohibited from eating or drinking in the library and lecture halls, and as outside food and drink can no longer be consumed in the university food halls and cafes, bring your lunch, sure, just find somewhere else to eat it. The very ethos of higher education is now jaded; plan for your future, so long as those plans don’t inhibit the universities ability to increase profits.

This is a small issue, granted, but it means it’s easy to ignore. There are probably many other instances of similar practices which go unnoticed, which is why they are so insidious. This is not to say the university shouldn’t be operated like a business. But the characteristics of a good business are common to universities: providing affordable and quality products/services which consumers want in an efficient manner. However, decisions cannot be made only from the perspective of a business. The criteria should be whether a decision makes business sense, sure, but more importantly whether it makes educational sense. Not only is this policy financially unsupported, it is educationally flawed.

This is not meant to, nor ever could, cause the sort of outrage witnessed during the various cuts protests and occupations. It is simply a call to arms to beware policies and decisions which compromise the very spirit of university.