should university coffee be provided for free?

Exploring the argument for free university coffee

Ben Mitchell speaks to the Activities and Development Officer at the London School of Economics Students’ Union, Romane Branthomme, to assess the value of free coffee in higher education.

Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world. It is no wonder students have come to rely on it to fuel unconventional waking hours and often sleep-deprived lives.

The average student drinks over two cups of coffee per day, with 92% of students reportedly drinking caffeine in the past year. With such a clear connection, university coffee should be delivered as seamlessly as possible.

Much of this consumption happens outside of conventional working hours. “A lot of students really rely on coffee to study and stay focused for a whole day, sometimes even in the evening for a good old all-nighter,” says Romane Branthomme, the Activities and Development Officer at the London School of Economics Students’ Union.

A recent Clinical Nutrition study shows that there are various motivations for caffeine intake among college students, listing the most important factors:

  • To feel more awake (79%)
  • To enjoy the taste (68%)
  • The social aspects of having coffee with friends or family (39%)
  • To improve concentration (31%)
  • To increase physical energy (27%)
  • To improve mood (18%)
  • To alleviate stress (9%)

Universities and other further education providers have lots to consider. Not only do students drink coffee for different reasons and at irregular times, but they fit into different consumer groups. 

While the largest cohort is made up of older teenagers and people in their early 20s, more mature students are going to college and universities than ever before.

At the same time, university coffee must also accommodate teaching staff and visitors. Research by McKinsey & Company suggests most employees feel that coffee both increases productivity and improves morale, with 61% saying that “their employer cares about their well-being if they provide hot beverages.”

With different needs to meet, university coffee must be delivered ensuring everyone can drink what they want when they want it.

university coffee can be expensive for students

Catering to a wide array of people

As a consequence, university coffee is provided in a number of contexts across campuses to meet a range of needs.

Cafes and restaurants operating on campus will often be operated through a large-scale food and beverage supplier. With guaranteed footfall, these locations have everything to gain by adding coffee to their menus.

Businesses such as these often use superautomatic coffee machines that can deliver quick and easy drinks to a consumer group that is looking to prioritise convenience over all else, while saving on the labour required to operate traditional espresso machines.

Superautomatic coffee machines, like the Carimali SilverTwin, can produce excellent coffee throughout the day. Set up in libraries or study areas, these machines can cater to students who require coffee outside of normal café operating hours.

However, many students expect to enjoy the same experience and menu options that their local cafe provides. Because of this, more university coffee shops are appearing.

In some cases, a university can leverage its location. Urban campuses give students direct access to the specialty coffee shops that come with large towns and cities.

“LSE is located in an area of London where there are coffee shops about every two metres, which is nice in terms of choices for students,” Romane explains. “But not a lot of those coffee shops sell coffee past 6pm, which could sometimes be helpful to students.”

Universities should consider the surrounding options which are already available, and curate an offering around that. However, they should also take into account the multiple factors that are important to their customer base: convenience, flexibility, quality, and price – a tricky balance and something that cannot be outsourced entirely.

what is the best option to provide university coffee?

Reducing the burden of a daily cup of coffee

Considering the financial scrutiny to which further education providers have been subjected, free university coffee is hard to justify.

Budgeting is already a key topic for universities. In many countries, such as the UK, they rely on government and research grants, while even private further education providers generally keep a close eye on budget constraints. 

Funding is already a controversial topic – as public funds continue to be a topic of debate in many countries, and tuition fees largely continue to rise in line with living costs.

Despite being integral to student life, Romane explains that offering free, high-quality coffee to everyone at the university’s expense is out of the question.

“Providing university coffee for free for the whole student body would be quite tricky,” she says. “Firstly, even if LSE had the money for that, I am not sure it would be the best way to spend it.”

This can be difficult to justify, especially when university and college costs continue to be a topic of great discussion. But given its permanence in many students’ lives, making university coffee more affordable is important to consider.

More cost-effective options are certainly worth considering, but Romane adds that university coffee should be careful not to under-prioritise taste. “The coffee we sell at the Students’ Union is a lot cheaper than that of the cafés around campus, but it’s not selling well,” she says. “I think the quality is a lot poorer.”

Superautomatic coffee machines can be a good solution for university coffee, requiring little supervision and maintenance while slashing labour costs. Labour costs account for approximately 30% of a cafe’s costs, and superautomatic coffee machines offer a solution that doesn’t compromise on quality.

New technology and innovation within the coffee industry can provide solutions for universities. Shiru Café opened in 2018; offering students free coffee and study space with Wi-Fi in exchange for personal information.

Shiru shares this data with corporate sponsors who fund the “free” university coffee. In return, the companies can reach out to potential employees through advertisements, talks hosted by recruiters, and direct emails.

This strategy has been criticised, with complaints over privacy. But while it isn’t truly “free”, it demonstrates that the price of a student’s cup of coffee can certainly be subsidised through more inventive means.

Given how important it is to students’ lives, especially in the face of rising costs, it’s clear that universities and colleges should be doing all they can to help make coffee more accessible to students.

Exploring the argument for free university coffee

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