Bottled up or tapped out: Where have all the water fountains gone?

Young man sqeezing past a water bottle machine to access a cramped water fountain

Water fountains are disappearing on university campuses. Richard Girard and Erika Shaker trace how this is yet another example of the way commercialization and privatization realigns and redefines priorities in our universities.

Few would quibble with the following assertion: Campuses today resemble less and less those of just a few decades ago. Student centres have taken on a distinctly mall-like appearance, with job fairs, draped banners, fast food providers, and advertising/information terminals. Bathroom stalls are adorned with ads, some of them “interactive,” designed for “the truly captive audience.” And exclusive beverage contracts divide up schools across the country like the spoils of war for Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.

Although the more visible branding aspect of corporate influence is widely apparent, it’s by no means the only evidence of this growing trend. According to one marketing website, “Corporations benefit by building partnerships with universities. Companies can recruit new grads, influence curriculum and find instructors for corporate training.”[1] Correspondingly, names like Telus and Shell Oil are now attached to buildings once identified with political or academic figures. Corporate representatives on university boards of governors play increasingly prominent roles. And public pontification about national productivity and R&D spending is inevitably followed by a call for more corporate funding for university research, with an emphasis on research that has more immediate commercial application.

When we refer to the commercialization of education in general, and higher education in particular, we are looking at the totality of commercial influence: branding initiatives; sponsorship of research, programs, and buildings; privatized delivery of goods and services; an increasing reliance on private sources of funding, either from individuals, as donations or tuition fees, or from corporations. But what also must be examined is the effect of this funding shift. What are the implications for the “public” nature of academic institutions—the space, or the research that is conducted, or how we think about our so-called public institutions? In other words, how does commercialization realign–and redefine–priorities?

These were some of the questions we set out to address last year when we distributed a survey to universities across the country, designed to determine the scope and extent of corporate initiatives taking place on university campuses—as well as how these initiatives were perceived.

What the survey responses revealed

Perhaps to no one’s surprise, survey respondents commented extensively on what was perceived as “blatant commercialism ”. Almost 80 per cent of respondents indicated that there were fast-food suppliers on campus and that major events like Welcome Week or Spirit Week had corporate sponsors, while over 40 per cent noted that cleaning and custodial services have been contracted out on their campus.[2] Half the respondents indicated that they were aware of corporate-sponsored research, and almost 30per cent were aware of big business representation on their university board.[3]

And as for beverage exclusivity contracts, 54 per cent of respondents indicated their university had an exclusive arrangement with Coca-Cola, and 40 per cent   indicated their institution had a similar arrangement with PepsiCo. One of the first Canadian universities to sign such a contract was the University of British Columbia, which arranged a deal with Coca-Cola in 1995.[4] Since then, dozens of Canadian universities and colleges have signed with either beverage giant. These contracts stipulate that all beverages sold on campus will be provided by the contracted company, from sodas to juices to bottled water.

The survey responses spoke to trends on campus that we have been monitoring for some time—trends that are not necessarily limited to postsecondary education but are most certainly on the increase as a result of three key forces: profit, underfunding, and ideology (discussed in detail later in this article). When these forces converge to create conditions that facilitate corporatization in education, there needs to be a countervailing force to protect the integrity of the public system. Most often, and most effectively, this comes in the form of legislation or regulation designed to counter-balance the growing effects of commercialism and corporate intrusion.[5] A legislative model can be taken from Quebec, where advertising to children under the age of 13 is illegal, and incentive programs in schools have been explicitly banned.

While we were not overly surprised by some of the responses dealing more broadly with the general climate of commercialism on campus, we were quite shocked by some of the responses that dealt specifically with access to clean, potable tap water, in particular drinking fountains.

Fully 33 per cent of survey respondents noticed a reduction in the number of water fountains on their university campus, and 43 per cent said that they noticed delays in repairing water fountains. The comments were explicit: some respondents mentioned the prevalence of decommissioned or broken water fountains, the absence of regular maintenance, and in some cases the complete lack of any water fountains in new buildings.[6] At least one survey response suggested that custodial staff had been instructed not to repair broken fountains.

What the survey responses indicated was that access to water fountains—and in some cases tap water altogether—on campuses across the country was being limited: fountains were left broken for months, boarded up, removed, or in some cases–particularly in newer buildings—not there at all. One respondent from Brock University said , “In new buildings on campus, there are no water fountains, only Pepsi machines, and the water fountains that do exist are sparse and in inaccessible places.”[7]

Some context to the apparent disappearance of water fountains on campus is necessary: again, we find ourselves going back to the trifecta of profit, underfunding, and ideology.

Profit

In the quest to reach their target market of young adults, beverage companies Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have turned to colleges and universities to capture the important 18-24 demographic. In Canada this represents an influential market of 1.6 million,[8] with significant spending power and (generally) no dependents (read: little competition for what they need to spend money on). According to one campus marketing firm, the 18-24 Canadian student demographic represents an annual $2 billion in non-academic expenditures.

Exclusivity contracts give beverage companies an unfettered opportunity to set up an effective monopoly on campuses because these arrangements eliminate competition. It has proved to be a successful and lucrative strategy to build brand loyalty, and this is why these contracts have been on the increase at Canadian universities and colleges over the past 15 years. So perhaps it is not surprising that over 90 per cent  of survey respondents indicated their university had an exclusive agreement with Coca-Cola or PepsiCo, both of which are among the four biggest players in the bottled water industry.

The success of bottled water sales has everything to do with eliminating the obvious competition—not just competition between companies, but competition with tap water itself. An incredibly effective PR strategy began a decade ago to promote the safety, health, and cool-factor of bottled water over plain old tap water, and it has helped to fundamentally change the hydration habits of the general public. The success of the marketing can be seen in sales figures. Whereas in 1995 sales of bottled water in the United States totaled $3.4 (US) billion[9], the figure ballooned to $12.5 billion in 2008.[10] A similar degree of rapid growth has also occurred in Canada.

In other words, there’s money to be made—big money—by targeting this lucrative demographic and by eliminating the competition–whether it’s brown and fizzy and with a different coloured label, or whether it comes from a water fountain.

Underfunding

Parallel to this driver is the underfunding issue. Currently, the Canadian Association of University Business Officers estimates the infrastructure backlog at Canadian universities to be close to $7 billion, of which $5.1 billion is deferred maintenance–$2.4 billion of which is deemed urgent. [11] Sadly, despite the increasingly serious deterioration of physical infrastructure at our institutions of higher learning, funding increases that do materialize tend to be prioritized towards research, not deferred maintenance. And when research funding is insufficient, universities often redirect resources from their operating budgets.[12] Either way, repairing leaky roofs—or water fountains—finds itself far down the list of institutional priorities.

A number of responses to the survey would seem to underscore this. Repairing broken fountains was deemed “not a priority,” or money for repairs simply wasn’t available. Certainly survey respondents noticed a significant time lag in repairing fountains. Respondents also noted the number that had been removed. One student mentioned that even cold water taps in the bathroom had been removed.

Reinforcing this point, documents from Carleton University in Ottawa highlight how campus operations, in this case Carleton’s Physical Plant Services, have in the past issued directives indicating that fountains would only be repaired, if possible, and if they could not be repaired, they would not be replaced.[13] This, along with the survey responses, suggests that that university governments and administrators are taking steps that result in the limiting and even the elimination of access to publicly delivered drinking water. This convergence of a rapid rise in exclusive marketing contracts and the drop in access to tap water means that, in many cases, bottled water becomes the only choice for students, faculty, and staff for hydration on campus.

Ideology  

But the de-emphasis on public delivery of tap water through drinking fountains has another driver—less quantifiable or tangible, perhaps, but no less influential: the ideology of privatization. And this has everything to do with the erosion of public (academic) space as discussed in the introduction of this article. Ideology has an impact on funding choices that privilege certain kinds of spending over others, such as ensuring the viability of a physical infrastructure that keeps students, workers, and faculty safe but doesn’t tend to get much media attention or a prominent ranking in Macleans. The pervasiveness of this ideology has everything to do with the lowering of our expectations about what the public sector can and should provide based on need, compared to what the private sector might be enticed to contribute to if it is feeling generous and if the return on investment is sufficient. It reinforces the misconception that if public space is “free” and remains uncommercialized, it is a wasted marketing opportunity–as opposed to something that’s been bought and paid for as an investment in collective social improvement for present and future generations. And it is rooted in the refrain that everything-knowledge, the commons, health, and water-is for sale, and that erosion of public infrastructure is irrelevant, or perhaps inevitable, because the private sector is only too happy to step in and provide it. At a price.

The thing about ideology is that it tends to be fluid—some might say contagious. While the privatization mantra may originate in corporate boardrooms as part of a “growing the market,” strategy, it can also be found in university boards of governors where decisions on funding or education policies are increasingly based on the same corporate principles. Arguably this is inevitable when public institutions become confused with private, profit-making entities. Or when a university’s financial stability becomes entwined with the financial well-being of a corporation. For example, when it is in a university’s best financial interests to ensure that the terms of an exclusive beverage agreement are met, that the required amount of product is consumed in the specified time, and that the institution and its students are effective spokespeople for the corporate partner (students protesting Coke’s presence on campus might not look so good for the corporation), which priorities take precedence? Students? Faculty? Academic freedom? Or the image of the corporate partner? And the greater this conflation between public good and private need is reinforced, the more it burrows into how we, the public, think of our collective investment, how (or if) we protect it, and what we expect of it.

What does this mean for the presence of water fountains on university campuses, as indicated by the responses to the survey? Over the past 15 years drinking water on Canadian campuses has increasingly been delivered by private companies. This has been facilitated by exclusive beverage contracts and marketing campaigns that see the 18-24 demographic as a lucrative audience for the bottled water industry (the profit driver); and a realignment of funding priorities that privileges money for some aspects of university life over others like–infrastructure repairs, for example (the underfunding driver). And both setting the stage and reinforcing the other two drivers is the overarching ideology of privatization: the reconfiguring of the public as inherently outmoded, unaffordable, and inferior to private models.

How is this playing out on Canadian campuses?

How can universities get away with limiting access to public drinking water by excluding water fountains from new buildings, and refusing to replace broken water fountains with new ones? Beyond the incredibly effective marketing campaigns waged by bottled water industry giants, the codes regulating access to drinking water in Canadian buildings do not require planners to include drinking water fountains in new buildings on campus.

In Ontario, for example, the building code states that potable water should be available within 100 metres of any area where work will be performed. Drinking water is required to come either from a drinking fountain, a tap from a piped water supply, or a tap from a covered vessel (i.e. water jug). This ambiguity means that plans for new campus buildings in Ontario are legally permitted to exclude drinking water fountains. It is therefore perfectly acceptable under the code to simply have a tap in a bathroom as the main source of drinking water in a public building.

These issues are not limited to Ontario. In June 2008, the lack of access to drinking water fountains at the University of British Columbia began to receive public attention when Adrian Dix, the B.C. NDP’s health critic, stated that most of the university’s new buildings have “one, two, or no fountains at all.”[14] In response, UBC’s associate vice-president of land and building services Geoff Atkins was quoted saying that because drinking water fountains are not required under B.C. building codes there is no obligation to install them and that students should fill up their water bottles from the tap.[15] We suspect it’s more likely that students and staff, instead of putting their heads underneath a tap in the bathroom before rushing off to an 8:30 lecture, will purchase their water from a vending machine. And we suspect that Mr. Atkins knows this too.

What is remarkable—or perhaps simply predictable—is his insistence that the issue is not one of accessibility; it is one of adherence to building codes. But perhaps when looking for solutions this is a good place to start.

What can be done?

Promoting access to public water sources, specifically water fountains, has gained a high profile with a number of Canadian municipalities passing resolutions limiting the sale of bottled water in city buildings and reinvesting in drinking water fountains. The largest municipality in the world to pass such a measure was the City of Toronto whose city council voted in December 2008 to ban the sale and provision of bottled water in city facilities and to commit to a wholesale reinvestment in public tap water by investing in new water fountains and fixing old ones.

The municipal “back to the tap” movement, championed by Toronto and others, serves as a useful model for academic institutions wishing to follow suit, particularly if universities intend to live up to their stated environmental responsibilities. At Carleton University, for example, the planning principles that guide the design and placement of buildings, landscapes, and infrastructure state that sustainable campus development should include moving toward eliminating waste and pollution. Eliminating water fountains and leaving wasteful products like bottled water as the only option for hydration is incongruous with these claims of sustainability.

Further, national and provincial building codes should make water fountains a requirement in all public buildings, and provincial and federal regulators need to put an emphasis on access to clean, potable public drinking water. Legislating the inclusion of water fountains is a first step that will help combat the commodification of drinking water in public spaces and ensure access to this vital resource.

Conclusion

There is no shortage of evidence of the very tangible effects of creeping (some might stay stampeding) corporatization on university campuses. Elements of this include corporate-funded research and bathroom ads. And it now appears that we can add water fountains to the list.

Closer examination suggests that this is the result of the convergence of several factors. Universities and beverage companies have been pursuing exclusive marketing arrangements which require the university population to consume a certain amount of product (including bottled water) or be in violation of the terms of the contract. As well, university funding priorities, particularly within the context of insufficient funding from federal and most provincial governments, increasingly reflect a hierarchy that privileges research over basic infrastructure and maintenance repairs.

There is also a prevalent ideological thrust that elevates private ownership and delivery of services over public ownership and delivery. This creates the growing sense among universities that they are private, not public, entities with limited responsibility to meet needs that are not profit-driven.

The totality of commercial influence on Canadian campuses, highlighted in this article, is exemplified by the increasingly private, for-profit, delivery of drinking water. Students, faculty, and staff should resist the loss of access to public water and demand that regulatory bodies inside and outside of the academic institution follow the lead of several Canadian municipalities in going back to the tap and moving away from bottled water. Clearly this requires more than simply scrapping exclusive beverage deals–although this would be a start, and certainly go a long way to confronting the tide of commercialism on university campuses–because the issue of funding priorities and fiscal resources must also be addressed. But it would position the bottled water/tap water debate as central to the discussion of the impacts of privatization on public life and public institutions. And that’s most definitely a debate that needs to take place.

Richard Girard is Research Coordinator at the Polaris Institute. Erika Shaker directs the Education Project at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.


[1] Corporate University Partnering: The benefits to companies of building relationships with universities and colleges. Accessed August 5, 2008. http://trainingpd.suite101.com/article.cfm/corporate_university_partnering

[2] Fast food has just about decimated all the mom and pop restaurants on campus…there is creeping privatization in janitorial services. (University of Alberta, AB)

Our food services is contracted to Sodexo. Our cleaning contract is with a smaller company, but it changes every 2 years or so. In the past, it has been both Sodexo and Novacos. Workers for these organizations have both formed unions on campus, however, as soon as the contract is up for renewal, the university does not renew the contract citing higher wages as one of the reasons for the higher bids offered by the companies. (University of Kings College, NS)

Subway and Tim Horton’s are both on our campus. Sodexo is the food contract company that runs the cafeterias. (Queen’s University, ON)

[3] Ads in washrooms, promotion tables by various companies, private ATMs on campus, and booths set up including internet and telephone companies targeting students. Also, private firms are allowed to table around tax time to help students do their taxes… (Concordia, QC)

Commercial advertising is everywhere. Especially noticeable on start-up and home screens of student computer lab – advertising from major computer suppliers. The School of Business has a big “stock ticker” screen sponsored by an investment company but I forget which. About four years ago, the administration purchased fast food franchises such as Tim Horton’s, A & W and replaced a bunch of the cafeteria-style food outlets with these junk food suppliers. The staff of these franchises are still university employees. The On Campus newspaper (run by the administration) is filled with adverts from all kinds of companies. (University of Saskatchewan, SK)

Every single bathroom stall has an ad, as do most walls that don’t have bulletin boards. (A LOT of Alesse ads…), televisions playing ads in the info service help desk/waiting area, an exclusivity contract with a food service provider that provides terrible (fast) food, no (or crappy, or too expensive) vegetarian/vegan alternatives, no organics, almost no fair trade, all in throw-away, disposable containers…. (University of Ottawa, ON)

Peter Lukasiewicz, Board Chair (Managing Partner, Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP) Phyllis Yaffe, Board Vice Chair (CEO of Alliance Atlantis) Lori-Ann Beausoleil (Partner, PricewaterhouseCooper’s Global Risk Management Solutions) Robert Cockerill (President, Schawk Canada Inc.) Jack Cockwell (Chair, Brookfield Asset Management) Jocelyne Côté-O’Hara (President, The CORA Group; Former CEO, Stentor Telecom Policy) Janice Fukakusa (CFO, RBC Financial Group) Nadir Mohamed (COO, Rogers Communications) Bob Richards (CEO, William Osler Health Centre – a P3 hospital in Brampton) Harry Rosen (Chairman, Harry Rosen Inc.) Ravi Seethapathy (Manager of Distributed Generation, Hydro One) (Ryerson University, ON)

Many of our buildings are being sponsored by corporations like RIM and other research-based companies. Quantum computing and Nanotechnology are the most recent examples. UW is run like a business, not a school. (University of Waterloo, ON)

Not sure of the specific corporations, but tobacco companies are funding research on campus, and De Beers was trying to get a diamond lab built on campus a few years ago with their company in the name of the building; [also] Shell.(University of Alberta, AB)

[4] http://www.oipcbc.org/orders/2001/Order01-20.html

[5] Legislation or regulation is not to be confused with or equated to guidelines which have no teeth and do not necessarily have to be reinforced.

[6] Shaker, E.et al, “Corporate Initiatives on Campus: A 2008 Snapshot”, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2008, http://www.polarisinstitute.org/files/Corporate%20Initiatives%20Snapshot.pdf or http://www.policyalternatives.ca/reports/2008/09/reportsstudies1950/?pa=B56F3A15

[7] Ibid.

[8] Canadian Student Marketing promotional material.

[9] Beverage Marketing Association figures http://www.bottledwater.org/public/statistics_main.htm

[10] Beverage Marketing Association figures, http://www.bottledwater.org/public/Stats_2007.doc

[11] AUCC. “Deferred Maintenance of University Infrastructure.” 2009. www.aucc.ca.

[12] Claire M. Morris. “Funding the full costs of university research is critical to Canada’s global competitiveness.” Research Money. Volume 22, Number 3. February 25, 2008.

[13] Carleton University, Joint Health and Safety Committee Meeting #142, Minutes of January 25, 2006 Meeting, 05-21 Drinking Water Fountains, http://www.carleton.ca/ehs/ehsjhsc/minutes/minutes142-25jan06.pdf

[14] Ibid.