Stationary giant WHSmith has emailed universities across the UK in a bid to oust student-run shops from unions, meaning student clubs and societies would lose vital funding, The Huffington Post UK can reveal.
Universities received a letter from a member of the company's business development team, who stated: "I am currently looking at the services that Universities provide their students, and am exploring the possibility of bringing WHSmith to the campus’ of Universities in the UK."
WHSmith, which already partners with Costa Coffee and Starbucks, aims to "tailor our approach to a store, to suit your needs and to bring an accomplished service and offering to your campus".
The letter's author acknowledged the existence of current student union shops, which can provide much-needed part-time employment for up to 500 students annually.
"We understand that there is likely to be an existing retail provision on site," the letter continued. "However we would like to propose one of two options:
"1. WHSmith will work with the University on what they currently have on offer to their students and staff, and look at potential new units on campus and devise an offering which aims to fill gaps in the existing offering.
"2. WHSmith will work with the University to replace an existing unit (such as a Student Union shop), and use our retail expertise to try and create a more impactful unit, with improved ranging and more sales conducive displays."
The WHSmith representative added: "I would like to assure you that we have the capability to construct an attractive offer to you, that would ensure that any shop on your campus performed strongly financially, for both parties."
Kent University's student union is just one of many who would be affected if the takeover went ahead.
Colum McGuire, Kent SU's vice president of welfare said the move would be a "big loss".
"All the profits from the SU shop goes back into funding student clubs and societies and the campaigns we run," he told HuffPost UK.
Last year, Kent's retail departments made a turnover of £5m and the shop alone took £3.8m. "It really does provide a good revenue for us," McGuire says. "The shop itself provides employment for students and we employ between 450 and 500 students so obviously that gives them some key income.
"Last year we paid £714,000 back into students pockets through employment."
He added: "It's really bad to privatise services on student campuses. There just isn't the same ethics and values and motives behind them.
"It would be a big loss to us and the students and I don't think would provide students with any better services."
Loughborough University's student union raised nearly £1.4m for charity last year through its retail departments, with the shop generating profits of more than £165,000 last year.
In 2012, £58,000 of the student union shop profits was used to support the student volunteering society, which works with and for the local community, from litter picking to helping in soup kitchens.
Vicki Baars, NUS vice-president of union development said: "Shops in students’ unions are run by students, in the interests of students on that campus, and deliver the services those students want rather than being a mass-produced version of something you can find in any train station in the country.
"The income students’ unions generate from the services and amenities they offer to students, including shops, is ploughed back into the clubs, societies, campaigns, opportunities and discounts enjoyed by students across the country. Keeping money in students’ unions is vital for future health of student representation, and is also the lifeblood of campaigns to get a fair deal and improve students’ lives at both a local and national level.
"Whether it’s saving the Care to Learn fund that provides financial support to student parents or going to the High Court to defend students’ at London Met against the threat of deportation, or campaigning for equal marriage, a living wage and against the scourge of unpaid internships, this money is channelled through students’ unions into defending, promoting and extending the rights of students rather than being allowed to seep out into the pockets of commercial profiteers."
A WHSmith spokesperson said: “As a leading national retailer, with a presence in many different channels, we continually explore potential new opportunities, the success of which stems from benefiting local markets and communities.”