Keeping HE catering ahead of the curve

Matt White, Chair of TUCO, discusses the importance of planning ahead when catering for trend-savvy students

Higher education catering is an exciting field to work in as every day is different – from designing new menus to appeal to one of the most diverse student bodies in the world, to catering a professional event for 500 people. It can move so fast that sometimes it’s hard to find the time to plan for longer-term initiatives like training programmes, or upcoming food trends and reducing environmental impact. 

However, we should not underestimate how important it is to always have a future view and innovate. Creative ideas and concepts that place university catering chefs amongst the brightest stars in the industry, can be the difference between students choosing to dine on campus rather than going to the competing high street.   

One of the main components to achieve this is staff training. This is part of the lifeblood of our industry. New skills, ideas, peer-to-peer sharing and online as well as in-person courses make a huge difference to the success and day-to-day running of campus catering outlets.

This month, the Apprenticeship Levy comes into effect – this essentially means that any UK business with a wage bill of £3m or more will have to pay 0.5% of this into an online fund – which they can then access to pay for apprenticeships. This group will include some universities, but even smaller-sized establishments can access funding for 90% or even 100% of the course cost.


The Apprenticeship Levy is something that TUCO has been looking at closely over the past year or so and as a result launched a number of apprenticeships under our TUCO Academy – which offers a range of training courses specifically for those working in higher education catering. Something we’ve been very mindful of when establishing these has been the need to ensure that our programmes are not only for new-starters or school leavers, but suitable for all staff levels and cover a range of skills, from Hospitality Supervisor Apprentice to Commis Chef and Chef de Partie. 

Our industry is often seen as providing short-term work, which is a perception that is evolving as we put in place quality training schemes to retain staff and plug the skills gap. Upskilling teams to take on more responsibilities can also enable managers to keep an eye on upcoming food innovations. 

With the ease of travel, long breaks and a large international cohort, students are some of the first to come across new food and drink trends and consequently expect them to be available on campus. Over the course of this year we expect to see some of the below hit campuses across the country:

  • International street food and pop-up stalls – a great way of trialling new dishes or even whole new cuisines, pop-ups can be a cost-effective way of ensuring customer satisfaction. 
  • Focus on nutrition, health and wellness – carbs don’t cut it anymore (well not in large quantities anyway), students are looking for healthy breakfast and lunch options in-between classes.
  • Themed dishes – food surrounding a national day or event is a great way to switch it up a little. This requires some planning, but a calendar of events can be a creative catalyst for a variety of recipes. National Curry Week, National Vegetarian Week and even Cinco de Mayo (a Mexican celebration that is synonymous with national food and drink) can all be big hits with students looking for something unique.

In addition to longer-term planning for training and trends, it’s essential not to forget the environmental impact of what we’re doing and how campus caterers can ensure operations are sustainable, now and in the future. 

As an industry, foodservice companies throw away almost 920,000 tonnes of food every year – 75% of which is avoidable. Food waste costs the Education Food Sector £250m a year alone. That’s a huge amount and our members have been working hard to find new ways to cut this down, but there’s still more to be done. From reducing portion sizes to tailoring menus based on customer demands and replacing black bin bags with transparent ones to highlight the amount thrown away – there are many ways a difference can be made. This is not an issue that will be solved overnight, but it is something that should be on every catering professional’s monthly check list. What seem like small ideas can have an important effect when it comes to improving our environmental impact. 

Longer-term planning can sometimes get pushed back after the daily demands of a campus caterer. However, by using a few simple techniques such as an event calendar, investing in training and development or trailing a concept to tackle food waste, it can make a huge difference in terms of the reputation and ultimately the success of your catering operation. 

If you’d like to find out more about how TUCO can help through its Academy or research arms, or even how you can share ideas with like-minded members, please visit or contact 

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