A battle for student loyalty

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By Caroline Alphonso

Cola companies are knocking on the doors of universities across Canada with multi-million dollar deals in their pockets, and many cash-strapped schools are letting them in.

This summer, Ryerson received proposals from Pepsi and Coke for exclusive rights to sell their products on campus, but no agreement has been reached with either company, said Linda Grayson, Ryerson’s v.p. administration and student affairs.

Deals giving companies exclusive selling rights on campus can be worth as much as $1 million a year for universities scrambling to make up for funding cutbacks.  For corporations such as Coca-Cola  and PepsiCo, such deals allow them to establish the loyalty of 18 to 24-year-old consumers, who tastes will likely remain throughout their adult lives.

But critics question whether these deals are a sign of the increasing corporatization of campuses, where money from any source is more important than students’ individual choice.

While the debate rages, Coke and Pepsi continue to establish a monopoly on campuses across Canada.

“Universities are trying to find a way to offset the cost of education and therefore they are inviting companies to exclusively sell their products on campus,” said Tina Warren, director of corporate communications at Coca-Cola Ltd.

Others see corporations inviting themselves in to cash-strapped schools.

Elizabeth Carlyle, national chair of the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) lobby group, is wary it is becoming easier for firms to establish a monopoly.

“As funding cuts increase, [corporations] know universities and colleges are more vulnerable and looking for funding,” said Carlyle.  “What is the university doing to protect itself?”

The loudest critics at schools have been students who may be young and susceptible to companies’ image pitches, but are also more likely to be activists.

Controversy over freedom of choice arose three years ago at the University of British Columbia (UBC), when the school signed with Coke in a 10-year deal, said Vivian Hoffman, president of UBC’s Alma Mater Society.

Hoffman is skeptical about having corporate monopolies on campus.  “It links student society too closely to large corporations,” she said.  “It does lead to a feeling that you can’t get away from Corporate North America.”

Pepsi said it’s just trying to reach as many consumers as possible.  “It is important to remember that we have been invited in to pitch for a business,” said Jan Waterous, a spokesperson for Pepsi-Cola Canada.  “A deal with a university provides us with exclusive access to a student body.”

Pepsi has had exclusive access to the University of Manitoba for two years, in a deal Debbie McCallum, associate v.p., calls “financially lucrative” for the university and student association.

The deal didn’t sit well with students at first.  Some vandalized vending machines by cutting power cords, but students have now reconciled with Pepsi’s monopoly on campus, McCallum said.  “Everybody who is involved in the deal on campus has benefited from it.”

In Toronto, students at York university have benefitted by $7.5 million over 10 years by signing with Pepsi.  All money will go to students.

“The money is being put into student activities and not into anything academic,” said Dawn Palin, president of the York Federation of Students (YFS).  “It is purely extracurricular.  Pepsi has no say over the governance of the university.”

York’s student union, unlike RyeSAC, was involved in the deal from the beginning.

RyeSAC president David Steele is disappointed Ryerson’s administration has not involved the student body.

“It’s shrouded in mystery and I don’t understand what the big mystery is,” said Steele.  “It’s disappointing that we haven’t been involved in this process.”

Unlike YFS, Steele is skeptical money will trickle down to fund student activities.  But he said if it would help the university decrease its debt load, it would be beneficial for the school to make a deal with Coke or Pepsi.

The University of Toronto, like Ryerson, has also been offered deals with Coke and Pepsi.

But not everyone is buying into the corporate pitch.

The University of Guelph turned down an exclusive contract with cola companies.  “I truly believe that it is better to have competition in a university as long as it doesn’t interfere with academics,” said Gary Round, executive director of facilities and hospitality.

But he has no problem with corporate influence.  “It’s not like we’re naming the building Coca-Cola.”  Bids were not high enough to make an exclusivity deal worthwhile, but, said Round, “We may make a deal in the future.”

The University of Waterloo also turned down exclusivity deals.  Bud Walker, director of university business operations, said beverage prices at Waterloo are lower than at UBC, which has a deal with Coke.

“We’re here to try and provide the students with the best value for products they want,” Walker said.  “We’re not here to provide a revenue stream.”

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