Magdalen catering charge “a farce”

A controversial levy to encourage attendance at Magdalen Hall has been branded “regressive” and “unnecessary” by students.

From October 2013, students living in college will have to pay a £200 catering charge before the start of each term in an attempt to tackle an annual catering deficit of £565,000.

The charge includes £150 that can be used to purchase food in Hall and the college bar, while the remaining £50 is a fixed contribution towards overhead costs and the maintenance of student kitchens.

Students will not be able to use the £150 redeemable portion to pay for formal hall due to “technical reasons” or drinks in the bar, while any money not spent at the end of each term will not be reimbursed.

The college has provided an alternative option of an £80 fixed charge per term intended for graduate students working in labs or hospitals who will find it difficult to make it back for Hall. This option is also available for undergraduates. Living out students will pay a termly charge of £30.

However, Cameron Quinn, Magdalen’s OUSU rep for Hilary and Trinity terms last year, said that the charge is “a regressive and unnecessary transfer of college costs onto the backs of students now already saddled with the cost of the government’s trebled tuition fees.”

PHOTO//Roel Wijnants

The third year Philosophy and French student added: “The charge grants Magdalen the ignominious distinction of being the most expensive college in Oxford, and for an institution that already enjoys a (partially, though not entirely earned) reputation as a playground for public schoolboys and future Tory ministers, this will present an enormous barrier to access efforts.”

A joint JCR and MCR proposal submitted to the College’s Catering Working Party in November 2011 stated that according to 2009/10 figures, Magdalen students are charged the fifth-highest college fees and the 29th highest food prices.

The report raised concerns that the introduction of a £200 charge for living in students combined with a 20 per cent increase in food prices would make Magdalen the second-most expensive college in Oxford.

Magdalen acknowledged that the points raised by the JCR and MCR in this proposal warranted “considerable merit”, but admitted that the cost of subsidising a £565,000 deficit was too high. The college believes that the charge will raise £87,000.

On average students spend £123 each term on college-provided food, also using the 53 kitchens on site to prepare meals. Magdalen’s proposal for the policy states that “the whole point” of the £150 minimum charge “is to encourage a greater uptake of the facilities.”

However students have complained about the quality and variety of the meals on offer at Magdalen’s informal hall.

Toby St Clere Smithe, a finalist at Magdalen, said: “Whilst there have been attempts to improve the quality of food in Hall, we are still served Chicken Kiev as the main option at least weekly.”

The philosophy and psychology student, who labelled the catering charge “a farce”, added: “Prices continue to go up, but in any case, because the deficit is structural to the department, no catering charge will make Hall more appetizing. Quite the contrary in fact.”

Benjamin Sharrock, a 2nd year ancient and modern history student, said that Magdalen’s meals are “highly variable and a bit hit and miss”.

The college’s proposal states that improving the quality and the range of meals is “essential”.

Quinn said: “As to whether College has pursued other ways of reducing the catering deficit, they have repeatedly claimed to be ‘considering’ other options but have so far done very little. As of last term, the only change they had made was to Hall prices: an across-the-board increase of 20% for students.”

He added: “This reflects the College administration’s attitude that the first and sometimes only port of call in seeking to put their accounts in order is to transfer costs to students. They seem to think that the student body of Magdalen represents an inexhaustible pool of funds to be drawn from at will. It obviously isn’t.”

According to the proposal, other Magdalen committees are investigating “the whole organization of our catering operation to see what improvements can be made.”

A 2006 report ranked Magdalen the fourth-best endowed Oxford college with total assets estimated at £153m.

Negotiations between the JCR, MCR and the College have been on-going since last Michaelmas term. Initially, the College proposed a £250 termly charge which included a redeemable sum of £190 with the remaining £60 fixed.

The JCR Catering Committee opposed this proposal on the grounds that the size of Magdalen’s hall made it impossible for every student to redeem the full £190 each term.

While the MCR agreed to the revised charge which is now displayed on the College website, the JCR is continuing to resist the governing body’s decision.

Meg Trainor, Magdalen’s JCR President, said: “Magdalen JCR is strongly opposed to the catering charge, as we made clear to the College in Trinity Term. The charge is unnecessary, it will hit less well off students hardest and it will damage Magdalen’s access programme.”

She added: “What happens now will depend on whether the College changes its position before the JCR meets on Sunday 7th October. If it does not, the JCR may decide to take action.”

The college was unavailable for comment when contacted by The Oxford Student last week.

Magdalen’s accessibility was questioned in January when a law applicant sent a mocking rejection letter to the college, claiming that it “allowed public school applicants to flourish”.

Elly Nowell wrote that “the obvious gap between minorities and white middle class students was embarrassing” and that the “gap between elitism and discrimination” had “not been adequately addressed”.

A college spokesperson responded at the time that six of the seven law applicants to be offered places were from state schools.

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