Is the New Union Co-Op Too “Bougie”?

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The ‘champagne socialist’ archetype has always had a long time association with students. The idea that we’re a bunch of middle class, Starbucks-craving, hummus-sucking, avocado-worshipping “slacktivists waiting in the queue for a £5 bowl of quinoa has a long history. Some of the people reading this article may have faced similar accusations or seen this kind of characterisation in the media. Like all good students, I’ve spent my fair share of time countering these accusations. I object fiercely, for example, when relatives imply that students mostly just sit around watching daytime TV. But the ‘champagne socialist’ criticism has always been my most hated.

It’s exactly these accusations that have been weighing on my mind while attempting to articulate my opposition to the Co-op that just opened up here at the Union. To me, the replacement of our old Union shop is a monument to everything true about those oh-so-frustrating accusations.  Whereas previously one could find budget lunches for prices you’d be hard pressed to match outside of the Union, students are now confronted with the same-old, bog-standard supermarket fare for £3.50 (more expensive now than a Tesco’s meal deal).

Now, I don’t want to make a mountain out of a meal-deal (pause for applause) but as universities increasingly attempt to shake the accusation that they are rigged against working class students, merely doing ‘about as well’ as any other supermarketin a Union specifically designed to support all studentsjust doesn’t seem very impressive to me. Indeed, I’m having a hard time thinking of anything that is cheaper in the new Co-op than it was in the old shop. A shiny, consumerist style has replaced genuine inclusivity. 

Image: ConvenienceStore.co.uk

Furthermore, as society seems finally to be embracing the veggie/vegan trend, it seems somewhat mind-boggling that an institution as self-consciously progressive as a University Union would be so regressive on that area. Whereas previously it seemed a huge range of alternative diets were catered for, vegetarians are now offered a fairly paltry selection of cheese or egg sandwiches, while vegans are even worse off with just a single wrap and salad if I’m not mistaken. I didn’t think I’d see the day Greggs would prove itself more progressive but 2019 has been full of surprises so far. 

Image: ConvenienceStore.co.uk

Now you might think this is all a bit much over a Co-op but this represents more than just one shop. It’s the culmination of a fairly disappointing trend of ‘boujeefication’ in the Union. The lunchtime lineup now aligns so closely with ‘boujee student’ stereotypes, it almost beggars belief. We may have lost our budget meal deals but fear not, one can still get a hummus bowl and a £3 cup of tea with some jelly at the bottom. It’s becoming harder and harder to dispute the idea that universities are fundamentally less welcoming to working class students, something we should be even more aware of as admission continues to increase in price. 

I want to close with a slightly less negative note. I visited a reputably-boujee University at the weekend (that I shall not name but that I daresay a few of you can imagine) and was surprised how needlessly expensive the Union was and it felt pretty unwelcoming. Now I don’t think Leeds is there yet – there still are some relatively cheap eats, Pyramid for example. A lot of people and institutions at Leeds work really hard to make it as open as possible and I don’t want to diminish those efforts in any way. I love Leeds and want to be able to defend it—and its students—against these ‘ivory tower’ accusations. But if this trend of our Union becoming ever-more commercialized continues, I worry that my objections will be drowned out amidst a sea of bubble teas.

A Leeds University Union spokesperson said:

“As Co-op are a new franchise to the Union they are still learning and understanding what our members love and need from their local supermarket. We would encourage students to get in touch with any suggestions by our contact form at luu.org.uk/contact. Co-op has partnered with student discount card Totum and any students who have a Totum card get 10% off all purchases. In addition, students who are also registered Co-op members will receive 5% back on any Co-op own range products.”

Image Credit: Leeds University Union.