By Callam Rodya
This article appears in the Nov. 11th issue of Lambda Newspaper.
For some time, prospective and current students, and administrations alike have turned to university rankings as a gauge of quality in institutions of higher education.
In Canada, two major publications are generally considered the de facto of university rankings: the Maclean’s Annual University Rankings, considered ideal for measuring overall satisfaction with each institution, and the Globe and Mail Canadian University Report (CUR), ideal for measuring the quality of institutions by field of study and on-campus amenities.
While some would argue the Maclean’s rankings are often regarded as the more prestigious of the two, it is in fact the Globe rankings that are the most thorough. There is hardly an area of academic or campus life that is overlooked by this annual study.
Laurentian has historically not faired well in either of these publications. Suffice to say, the 2011 Canadian University Report is no exception.
The institution’s average grade in this year’s rankings is a B-, bolstered in part thanks to a pair of A’s: an A- in student-faculty interaction, and an A in class size. The rest of the rankings typically have Laurentian riding the tier of mediocrity among Canada’s universities.
The worst grade for Laurentian comes in food services. Laurentian received a D in that category, the lowest grade given in said category, and also, and perhaps more unsettling, the lowest grade achievable in the Globe and Mail survey. There are no F’s in the Canadian University Report.
Laurentian, technically, is not directly liable for this dismal ranking. The school does not actually handle food services itself but instead contracts it out to a company called Aramark.
Aramark is a US-based multinational food, facilities, and clothing services provider supplying businesses, educational institutions, sports facilities, and health care institutions. It has operations in 22 countries around the world and, in 2009, had revenues of US $12.3 billion. Forbes Magazine ranks it the most admired company in its industry, and it is the 189th largest employer on the Fortune 500 list.
Despite its global reach, Aramark does not seem to be fairing well in the pages of the Globe’s Canadian University Report. For the past three years, Laurentian food services has received a D ranking in the report. In fact, the 2011 report was especially critical of Aramark – on seven other campuses it services received either C- or D rankings including Ryerson University, Trent University, and all three campuses of the nation’s largest higher educational institution, University of Toronto.
Sanjay Gomes, regional manager for Aramark, was quick to question the results of the Globe’s survey.
“In a report like this you have to ask questions like, ‘how is the survey being conducted,’” he said. “How big is the sample size? You have to think about how reliable a survey like this really is.”
According to Simon Beck, the editor of the Canadian University Report, a surveyed sample size generally equals about six per cent of the student body.
“Usually, the minimum is about 230-250 students for the smallest institutions,” Beck said. “In practice, the number is generally far greater.”
All that aside, Gomes said, “Of course, we are taking this D very seriously,” when told of the other seven C- or D rankings received by Aramark.
Gomes went on to explain that Aramark had contracted its own independent survey of Laurentian, the results of which are not yet available. He also cited an increase in revenue in Aramark’s Laurentian operation over the past few years as a clear sign of student approval.
Keep in mind, students have to eat and Aramark has an exclusive food services arrangement whereby there is literally no other alternative, save for the odd club-run bake sale or canteen. Where else are they going to go?
Neither Aramark, nor Laurentian, are particularly candid about campus food services. Gomes cited confidentiality when asked to reveal details of the company’s agreement with Laurentian. The school’s director of ancillary services, Romeo Bertoli, responsible on the Laurentian side for food services, was unavailable for comment.
Laurentian University President Dominic Giroux doesn’t take the ranking lightly.
“When you have a D, like in food services, you need to improve,” he said. “You can do all the analysis you want, but a D is a D.”
On Lambda’s Facebook page, students’ sentiments echo the findings of the Canadian University Report.
“I generally feel that there is little choice,” wrote Mark Mancini, a Laurentian Law and Justice student.
“As someone looking for healthier options, I find the addition of Bulk Barn style candy dispensers a movement in the wrong direction,” wrote Laurentian graduate student Chris Auger, referring to the recently-added candy dispensers in the Great Hall.
“A quick analysis of Aramark’s menu in total does not offer a variety of healthy, fresh food items,” wrote SGA VP of Issues, Casey Lalonde. “Fast food is horrible for you. It goes through so much processing there is probably very little nutrient content in most of their food.”
Laurentian entered into an exclusive agreement with Aramark to provide food services on site beginning May 26, 2001. The initial contract was for a seven-year term, with an option for an additional five-year extension. The contract seems to have been extended and should remain in effect until 2013.
The contract itself is a closely-guarded document, the details of which are bound by a rigid confidentiality agreement between the two parties. As previously mentioned, neither Laurentian or Aramark were willing to share any specifics with the paper.
Lambda, however, was able to obtain a copy of the contract.
According to the contract, Laurentian (the client) grants Aramark “the exclusive right to operate Food Services on or from the Site (campus), excluding Catering and Conference Services for which the University at any time may be permitted to use catering services that provide diversity of food or service.”
Basically, Aramark is the option on campus, period.
The contract, as so many corporate legal documents are, is long and dry with lots of jargon and every base covered. For example, responsibility for cleaning duties is divvied up under the agreement. Specifics on the type of insurance Aramark must carry is also exhaustively covered. The policy is worth $10 million, in case you are wondering.
Aramark has the exclusive right to procure all food, beverages, supplies and services utilized in Laurentian’s operation. Laurentian also agrees not to let its exclusive beverage deal with Coca-Cola interfere with Aramark’s revenue stream. All price increases must be mutually agreed upon by both the company and the school.
Of course, the real meat and potatoes of the contract is the fiscal arrangement, set out in Section 13 of the agreement. Aramark collects all revenue from the food services operation and is responsible for all direct costs of operation involved. In other words, they pay the staff, buy the food, prepare the food, sell it, and collect all the revenue. Laurentian receives an annual 10 per cent commission on all sales derived from the operation, or a minimum of $100,000 a year (in the first year of the agreement), whichever is greater. That minimum payment escalates by $5000 per year of the contract. By now, in its ninth year, that minimum commission totals $145,000 per year.
It is not clear how much Laurentian is actually collecting per year from Aramark, but mathematically, the company’s presence on the Laurentian University campus amounts to a million-dollar-or-greater operation (as suggested by the contract).
Section 19 of the contract outlines confidentiality. In this part of the agreement, both parties essentially agree to keep all aspects of the food services operation a secret from any third party, including, but not limited to “all financial, statistical, operating and personnel data, recipes, meal plans, menus, computer software programs and operating procedures relating to, or utilized in, ARAMARK’s or the Client’s business.”
These provisions give complete control to Laurentian and Aramark to make all decisions related to this essential campus service, due to the agreement between the public education institute and the multinational corporation.
One way or another, ARAMARK will continue to serve Laurentian’s hungry for another three years before the existing contract expires. There is no provision for an additional extension included in the contract.
Please take a moment to answer Lambda’s reader poll on Laurentian’s on-campus food services, located in the right column of the Lambda Blog.
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