Student life is all about long sessions in cafés and bars, a frantic social life and minimal studying, right? A captive audience, and a gift to caterers and food-on-the-go brands.

If that is where your image of university living is stuck, then you are probably showing your age. As Sodexo’s latest student survey indicates (see panel), today’s students increasingly see their debt-ridden time in higher education as an investment, involving hard academic application, a part-time job (for a third of them) and less time on-campus.

The positive side to all of this is that university authorities are keener than ever to use innovative catering to reinforce that flagging sense of community.

Richard McGloin is head of trading services at Sheffield Hallam University (SHU), and also chair of The University Caterers Organisation (TUCO), the body representing higher education establishments that run their own catering. In his experience, even where universities are managing the catering themselves, they are increasingly eager to bring brands, from Starbucks to Subway, on to campus.

McGloin emphasises the role of catering in supporting the student. He adds: "Most of it is now run on a commercial basis, or at least has to cover costs. So the quality of what we provide is important."

There are practical limitations, too. SHU’s sit-down catering can feed 16% of the 30,000 student population, he estimates. But grab-and-go outlets play a major role in supplementing this capacity.

SHU currently uses Café Direct products and branding. Until 18 months ago, it had a similar arrangement with Whitbread’s Costa Coffee for outlets around the campus. "If you wanted to use their logo and cups, you had to sign up to their service standards, with the possibility of spot audits, and you couldn’t sell coffees for less than 10p under the high-street price," McGloin recalls.

But the real sticking point was the fact that Costa will only allow its brand to be used where service is from a trained barista. "They didn’t offer services for bean-to-cup or push-button self-service," says McGloin. "Their feeling was that this would be dumbing down the brand."

Café Direct, on the other hand, offers 14 outlets around the campus, only two of which are barista-run. "If you have a 300-seater restaurant, you cannot manage that with a barista," he says. Café Direct quotes a recommended retail price, but there is more flexibility on pricing.

== Wholesale deals ==

Costa has wholesale agreements with some 30 universities, says corporate sales director Rob Gower, involving use of its equipment and coffee. But despite its strong position in other markets, from airports to the corporate sector, it has no full-franchise operations in any UK university. Gower explains: "A full outlet has to look and feel like one of our high-street shops, which means that a level of investment is required by either the university itself or the contract caterer." So while Compass Group has opened Costa shops in a number of NHS hospitals, for instance, it has not done so in those universities where it manages catering.

Compass says it uses a combination of its own and others’ licensed brands (within agreed guidelines) inside universities. It applies these brands flexibly across the various sectors where it operates, in a ’best fit’ approach.

Sector brand manager Kevin Hall says: "We find that high street-style ’grab and go’ brands, such as Upper Crust, are particularly popular. It suits the student lifestyle and income, which is often time- and cash-poor." He adds: "Outlets, products and brands that offer variety and international flavours are also very attractive to this market."

Sodexo runs its range of student-orientated, branded outlets called ’theunity’ in 18 UK higher education establishments. These include shops selling deli-type products, wraps, pasta and Greek-style salads. There is also a premium option, offering remote online pre-ordering for products such as sandwiches, says head of universities Peter Taylor. But are brands as important to students as operators like to make out? In fact, Sodexo’s research says that just 6% claim to seek out particular food brands, while 25% say they are influenced by coffee brands. And here, a clear ethical message is de rigueur.

Taylor says that Sodexo can supply coffee which is not only organic and Fairtrade, but also Rainforest Alliance-certified. Costa says it can offer the same but, like Starbucks, adds its own initiatives - in this case the Costa Foundation, which provides direct investment in the country of origin. Costa’s Gower explains: "Fairtrade is a very successful brand, but few people know where the money goes."

Nonetheless, more campuses are aiming for Fairtrade status. SHU achieved this last year, meaning the university needs to stock a Fairtrade version of a given product, if one is available (whether alongside standard products or not). This is less of a problem with food and drink products than with, for instance, clothing, says SHU’s McGloin.

== Shaping the offer ==

Branding and ethics aside, universities are looking creatively at how they can shape their café and snack areas to better reflect student needs, while still maintaining commercial viability. SHU is running trials on two sites, using its own Chef Hallam brand. "We’re looking at catering outlets more as social spaces, with bigger meeting tables and places where academics can interact with students," says McGloin. "It has also helped sales."

Here, branded suppliers such as Café Direct support the Chef Hallam identity. And, as he says: "There are rules we have to adhere to, even within a brand that we’ve created." Consistency is still key, but here, at least, the model is based on student and staff needs, rather than being imported from a less relevant high-street environment.

Sodexo’s Taylor says: "We will help universities plan how to make the most of the social space. A restaurant is likely to be packed just for a couple of hours a day, so we aim to make the space more interesting and relevant to work, rest and play."

Gower at Costa predicts that it is "only a matter of time" before UK universities take up the option of a "full Costa shop". Maybe so, but how widespread is any such move likely to be? Institutions will be looking not only at fit-out costs and pricing, but also at the relevance of relatively rigid layouts to student and staff needs.

For anyone busy revising the university market, there seem to be at least two lessons here. One is that brands are increasingly being encouraged by those managing university catering operations. This favours high street businesses with a strong identity, especially if that includes an ethical message. As Sodexo’s research shows, a ’local sourcing’ slant could be just as influential as a Fairtrade or rainforest protection angle, for instance.

But secondly, it is clear that the practicalities and products of university catering have to be tuned into the realities of campus life. Students may aspire to brands and what they represent, but they live with tighter budgets, heavier workloads - and, increasingly, mum and dad.


=== Student snapshot ===

Sodexo’s 2008 University Lifestyle Survey paints a less-than-encouraging picture when it comes to on-campus catering.

Most strikingly, 67% of students questioned said they did all or most of their socialising at non-university venues (up from 44% in 2006). And 56% said they spent two hours or less per day socialising. Almost two-thirds estimated they spent £20 or under per week on their social life, with £3.25 as the average lunchtime spend.

Almost the same proportion of students attached importance to Fairtrade products (52%) as to UK/local sourcing (51%). But then only 37% said they would pay more for a Fairtrade product.