Schools caterer gobbles its way into universities

It has gained notoriety for feeding the nation's schoolchildren "nutrition-lite" meals such as the Turkey Twizzlers lambasted by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

Now giant catering company Scolarest is making strides into the university sector.

Already operating in "almost 40" universities, according to its website, it has recently struck two further catering deals in the sector - at Middlesex University and, provisionally, at University College London - causing an uproar.

Middlesex has taken over all commercial activities - canteens, bars and shops - from the students' union (MUSU) and plans to hand over the running of these to Scolarest next term. The company has held the catering contract for the university's own activities for the past eight years.

Middlesex said the union's commercial activities had been operating at a loss for "some years" and had accumulated debts of more than £300,000.

A spokeswoman said: "The university cannot afford for this to continue yet, in spite of good intentions, there is no sign that MUSU can repay the debt."

A petition against the move, signed by more than 800 students, was dismissed by the university. It agreed the plans before the results of a referendum, which were 1,058 to 455 against the move, became known.

Raymond Robertson-Worth, senior bar supervisor for the MUSU at the Trent Park campus, said: "I'm pissed off. The cheeky sods [at the university] said we were in commercial conflict with its own operations, but what happened to free trade? A bit of competition doesn't hurt anyone, and the students gain."

At UCL, Scolarest confirmed it had been "informally notified" that it had won a contract to provide catering, subject to the agreement of contractual terms.

Guy Kershaw, UCL's deputy estates and facilities director, said that the deal, involving the main UCL refectory for staff and students, would provide "quality food at the right price".

But support staff union Unison said a campaign to keep catering "in-house" was sweeping the university - with more than 1,000 signing a petition in two weeks.

A Scolarest spokeswoman said its higher education operations were entirely separate from its schools' business - which has to run on a highly restricted budget.

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