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I've noticed that this idea of a "meal plan" among students is pretty common in the US. Usually this involves:

  • Some amount of money (e.g. "flex dollars") that can be spent on any food (or sometimes even other things) that the student desires, provided that the student spends this money on certain on-campus locations.

  • The student may get a fixed number of "meal swipes" for eating at the dining hall.

  • This is all paid for in-advance by students, often as part of a "room and board" fee.

  • Some universities even require students to purchase such a plan if the student lives in certain parts of university housing, even at some urban universities where there might be more dining options. (I have heard students claim that it would cost the same amount of money as a meal plan to eat at neighbourhood restaurants.)

I have also seen some version of this in Canadian schools: for instance, there was a complaint circulating about poor dining hall management at Memorial University, which alludes to a required meal plan. Generally speaking, as a student, it seems that such meal plans are chiefly used by undergraduates, although I've also seen graduate students eat at the dining hall.

I suspect that this system is specific to North America, although I'm not completely sure. For instance, I saw this document, which stated that the Hebrew University doesn't carry meal plans. I've noticed that university cafeterias in Hong Kong make students pay for food with actual cash when they get their meal, even if there are occasional loyalty schemes (of the same variety that might appear at any fast-food restaurant) or discounted items (where things are much cheaper than they would be off-campus). From a quick glance, HKU and HKUST's housing websites appear to make no mention of any sort of "meal plan". (Meanwhile, the University of Chicago's housing website has a page for residential dining.)

Thus: is the meal plan system (where students pay in advance for dining hall meals and potentially other on-campus perks) a chiefly North American thing? For obvious reasons, I would assume that it would be more common in heavily non-commuter universities (which perhaps dominate the US and Canada more than the rest of the world), but I'm wondering if this is generally true, even if we take the commuter/non-commuter thing into account.

closed as off-topic by Corvus, jakebeal, Peter Jansson, David Richerby, Johanna May 4 '15 at 12:35

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "Questions about problems facing undergraduate students are off-topic unless they can also apply to graduate or post-graduate academicians as described in What topics can I ask about here?" – Corvus, jakebeal, Peter Jansson, David Richerby, Johanna
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    Would you explain why this question has something to do with Academia? – scaaahu May 4 '15 at 6:27
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    @scaaahu: I assumed student life conventions might be on topic. (If anything, I was unsure if something more relevant to undergrads was on-topic here, but I saw some questions about undergrad admissions here.) That said, I wasn't sure, and I'll delete the question if it's blatantly off-topic. – user34009 May 4 '15 at 6:32
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    As a student from the US currently in the UK, it was my impression that the meal plan in the US was a way to sucker students into paying more money by making it mandatory, forcing the students to buy more meals than they normally use, and making the price more than the quality of food would reflect. (The meal plan at Iowa linked above is the best price I've seen by a US university.) In contrast, my limited experience with dining halls in the UK is positive, in that they are giving fair prices (3-5 pounds a meal). I am very interested in whether this occurs elsewhere in the world. – DCT May 4 '15 at 9:39
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    There is also meal plans in some of the halls the National University of Singapore and it's mandatory: "Students staying in the Halls are required to subscribe to meal plans." – justhalf May 4 '15 at 11:46
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    I was on a meal plan as a Ph.D. graduate student in the US, so I don't understand the rationale behind closing this question. – Sverre May 4 '15 at 18:15
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This is not unique to North America and the idea of a meal plan exists in the UK. In the UK halls (i.e., dorms) are either self-catered or catered. Catered halls usually provide breakfast and dinner and in some cases either lunch, a boxed lunch, or points that can be spent on campus.

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I am still not entirely sure about the boundary of "meal plans", but, based on the discussion in the comments, I will answer based on this partial question by the OP:

I'm interested in is whether not paying an advance lump sum for regular meals is really as common outside of North America

As far as I know, German universities usually have no meal plans, if that means signing up (let alone being obliged to sign up) for a contract that equals a certain amount of vouchers specifically for getting meals (and possibly other paid-for services).

Usually, on-campus lunchrooms are run by student service organizations that are separate entities from the universities. These organizations are partly subsidized from tax money, and partly funded based on a solidarity fee that has to be paid by every enrolled student every semester (e.g. €60). As a result, meals in such on-campus lunchrooms (which often really just offer lunch, and only from Mon to Fri) can be bought at a "normal" price (comparable to very cheap restaurants, e.g. around €4 to €5 for one main dish) by guests, while anyone connected to the university gets a certain discount (e.g. there might be two discount levels, one for students (e.g. roughly €2 to €2.50 for one main dish), one for employees). This buying of meals, however, is spontaneous and can be repeated as often as desired, i.e. there is not a fixed amount of previously ordered coupons, and the transaction for the discounted price takes place only then and there in the lunchroom.

So, in a way, students have to pay beforehand, but it's not a payment that is 1:1 mapped to meals. Your mileage may vary on whether to consider that a "meal plan"-like system.

The prices are examples that fit for some German universities, but certainly not all. I have added them to convey a rough idea of the extent of discounts and total payments.

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There is no such thing either in my native France or in Japan where I am currently located. You pay for your on-campus meals either in cash or using a prepaid e-money card, and it is certainly not required to eat on campus. (I suspect that introducing such a requirement would lead to massive protests.)

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I think forcing students to spend part of their money on campus would be illegal where I live (and in most of the western world). I'm actually kind of surprised this is still going on in the US, especially given the US protests against the truck system in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

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    This seems a little bit like it should be a comment. – O. R. Mapper May 4 '15 at 9:58
  • Welcome to Academia SE. Would you care to expand your answer? I agree with @O.R.Mapper that in its present state, it is more suitable as a comment. – user3209815 May 4 '15 at 10:00