Cash-strapped students claim food and campus expenses are skyrocketing, while officials give their feedback. Amelia Naidoo and Maysam Ali investigate

In these hard times students say their parents are buckling under the strain to pay new university tuition rates, which often run into double-digits. They say it comes on top of soaring food prices on campus.

Universities, however, argue that the rise in prices is inevitable. Factors such as inflation, expanding student services, building new facilities and trying to hire top-class faculty, result in institutions hiking their fees almost on an annual basis.

After receiving letters from students explaining their plight, Notes decided to investigate.

Notes recently received complaints about rising food prices from a student at a university in Dubai International Academic City (DIAC). After surveying students in both Dubai Knowledge Village (DKV) and DIAC, the majority opinion seemed to be that prices were high for all kinds of meals. Notes also looked at food prices at other campuses.

DKV has a number of outlets in its food court. From fast food to ethnic food and a daily buffet, students can choose a different cuisine every day. But there is a price to pay.

"The supermarket we buy from, 24/7, is rather expensive. We get a frapuccino at Starbucks for Dh12 and we pay Dh19 at the supermarket! A Bounty chocolate bar costs Dh4 where we can get it for Dh2.5 outside Knowledge Village," said Amaan Haiter, a foundation student at Middlesex University Dubai.

He and his friends agreed that restaurant prices are uniform at all branches. "We would just like to see more variety in restaurants around," said Mariam Zubair, a foundation student at Middlesex University Dubai.

Vice-president of administration Raymi van der Spek said the University of Wollongong in Dubai (UOWD) used the food facilities provided by DKV. "It's almost entirely in their hands. We can raise the issue but I would carefully suggest that they are not easily influenced."

The university has two internal cafeterias, Coffee Planet, chosen for their considerably lower prices. Van der Spek said a coffee at the cafeteria is about Dh8 compared to a Costa or Starbucks coffee, which costs about Dh14.

"Turnover has increased (at Coffee Planet) so I assume people are voting with their feet."

DIAC recently officially opened its main food court on campus. Outlets include Lebanese, Indian and Spanish restaurants and fast food joints. A service block located nearby has a café and a convenience store.

Like most of his classmates and friends, Jitendar Thawan, a BCom student at Mahatma Gandhi University (MGU), Dubai Campus, skips breakfast in his rush to get to class in the morning. He ends up having two meals on campus: breakfast and lunch.

"I pay around Dh40 everyday on food here. I pick up something in the morning and eat at the food court for lunch," Thawan said.

Syed Ali, a BCom finance student at MGU, said prices at DKV were slightly cheaper.

Syed Mohammad, another BCom student at MGU said: "We have only one supermarket. Its prices are almost double that of supermarkets outside DIAC. From water bottles to potato chips and sandwiches, it's all more expensive than anywhere else.

"When we first came here, we had only this supermarket. The restaurants were still not open. In both cases, we are paying a lot," he added.

Adel Murad, a UAE national and first-year student at the National Institute for Vocational Education (NIVE) located in DIAC, and his classmate Abdul Rahman Ali, said they also find prices to be very high.

"We should have a supermarket with affordable prices to buy sandwiches from. As it is now, we literally have to plan a budget for food," said Adel.

Neha Vyas, a BBA student at Heriot-Watt (HW) University Dubai, said fast food restaurants at DIAC - Skylers in particular - are too expensive. Her friend and engineering student at HW Dubai Ajmal Mohammad said the problem lies with the supermarket prices. It adds up to Dh600 per month, the pair claimed.

Hinna Esrar, a BBA student at SZABIST pays Dh25 on average for lunch alone. "A simple breakfast costs Dh10 and Dh25 for a lunch consisting of a hotdog or a burger and a drink. It depends on what you eat but that's the average cost. Even salads cost around Dh15," she said.

Dr B. Ramjee, director, Manipal University Dubai Campus, said: "Being part of DIAC, we do not have our own cafeteria. We do not set the prices though I must believe that these are reasonably priced to cater to the student body like elsewhere in the world. Also I am not privy to any complaints about the prices and if they are not competitive, these establishments would cease to exist by the process of natural attrition."

The administration of DKV and DIAC maintains that food prices have not increased at the food courts, but that there was an increase last year at the service blocks.

"The prices are decided by the food outlets," said Dr Ayoub Kazim, DKV and DIAC executive director. "Outlets have, however, agreed to have affordable prices for the students. At the newly-opened food court, DIAC has an agreement with all the outlets not to increase the prices for the first year."

Kazim added: "As for the following years, the DIAC management will review the request to be made by the providers for any changes in the prices with justifications."

"Food prices are probably increasing a little bit every year but I would ask you to look at the value provided here," said DWC Director Dr Howard Reed.

He said food prices at the college have gone up in the past two years due to rising food prices in the UAE, but that the prices haven't increased at the same rate as in restaurants.

"We get a request annually from our caterers to increase prices and we go through that and we listen to their reasons for the increase. We negotiate to keep prices as low as possible and encourage them to offer special combinations for a lower price," he said.

Reed said the college reduced the prices of fruits and vegetables to encourage healthy eating habits at a bargain price.

So have there been complaints? "Of course there have been complaints about all aspects of food delivery and part of this is when students come here in their first year. Many of them have not eaten outside of home and are not used to taking money out of their purses. Dh10 can seem like a lot," Reed said.

Salma Nour, a third-year graphic design and photography major, said food prices have increased somewhat at AUD's cafeterias. "It really depends on where you go."

Nour pays Dh40 for lunch every day and usually eats a sandwich, a salad and a soft drink at Paul.

She said the fresh orange juice sold on campus is overpriced at Dh18. "No one has complained but at the end of the month we are quite broke and depend on cheaper snacks like chocolate bars to keep us going."

AUD president Lance De Masi said food prices have not increased at AUD and that the administration does influence the price and quality of food and beverages.

UOS chancellor Professor Samy Mahmoud said the university closely monitors the outlets at their cafeterias for price as well as quality and nutritional value.

"We definitely insist the price be lower than a meal you would have at a restaurant. This is not intended to be a big profit operation so you'd find you can have a simple meal here for much less than outside."

Mahmoud said one could have a good meal - soup, salad and a plate of rice, meat and vegetables with a small dessert - for between Dh15 and Dh20.

There have been complaints, but limited to the cost of merchandise in the vending machines. "Students came to me saying that the vendor raised prices by 30 or 40 per cent but they could have taken a walk to the student centre store where they could have bought the snack bars for half the price," Mahmoud said.

AUS chancellor Dr Peter Heath said prices have not drastically increased over the years but the size of servings has shrunk.

When Notes visited a cafeteria at AUS, we found the items were reasonably priced. Sandwiches started from Dh5, hot beverages from Dh2 and a full plate of mixed grills with rice and vegetables from Dh15. Students also had the option to frequent more expensive outlets if they chose to.

AUS business student Salah Al Rimawi, 20, said his lunch usually came to Dh20 everyday and that he was comfortable spending this amount.