Returning to live on campus three years after starting university, I have noticed a deceptively innocuous change. Abandoning the coin-operated washing machines of my first year, campus laundry has turned digital and commercial.
The new machines are contracted from Circuit, a division of the company JLA, who currently manage 95% of UK universities’ laundry facilities. In this new system, rather than use my coins for laundry, I am obliged to buy with them a Circuit card (£2) and head online to their website to click a tab declaring ‘I want to do my laundry!’ There I am told to create a profile by registering my details, including full name, email address, and location – more information than usually necessary for simply washing my clothes. Once my profile is created, I have the option to top up my card online in sums of £5. The cost of washing is £2.40 and drying is £1.20.
These displayed prices turn out to be misleading. The gap between the inflexible top-up amounts and the cost of the laundry itself is wielded to the profit of the company and University at the expense of students. Money that goes unused on laundry cards is known in the industry as ‘float’, and Circuit actively generates it. Topping up in fixed increments of £5 means you always give more than you use and the residual top-up on your card cannot be refunded if under £5. If it’s over the process costs you £3.
This means the cost of your laundry always exceeds the amount advertised and that fee grows the more you use it. The digital platform is used as a middleman, and cheating you of your change is framed as the unavoidable casualty of this new medium. While Circuit spins online top-ups as easier and more efficient – no longer do you need to break a note and gather exact change – this system actually operates through leaving you out of pocket while the company and University keep the remainder of your money.*
The amount you pay for laundry essentially becomes a one-way transaction disconnected from the service offered: you pay whether or not you use it, and the system is purposely contrived so you will not get to spend it all. Far from unavoidable, this is one of the card-operated system’s greatest selling points. In America, launderette owners estimate float (or unspent credit) alone contributes $1500 (around £1000) to company earnings each month.
Similar preventable casualties for users abound. As your money is linked to your card rather than your profile, the top-up codes can time-out and credit is lost when your card is, with no reimbursement for either. Of course, this money has not just dissipated; it has become additional profit for the University and Circuit. These are not unavoidable losses but a strategic move to capitalize on your mistakes. Indeed these losses could easily be avoided by linking money to profiles instead of to the cards. Interestingly, Circuit also offers dispensers of free cards for institutions that choose to subsidize them rather than have users pay, and it is up to the client (in this case, the University) to choose the system they prefer.
The solicitation of your details also has a latent purpose. Not only is the data from your Circuit profile shared among the subsidiaries of JLA, and in turn with HgCapital, a private equity firm that owns JLA, your personal information is also sold to third parties. By selling your data, marketing their associated services more directly to you and your purchasing habits, as well as to collective trends in purchasing habits, Circuit profits manifold from your online profile. The global digital issues of privacy, data protection, and surveillance now extend their relevance into the matters of residential laundries.
The fact that this system is so prevalent at university campuses speaks volumes. Exploiting the scarcity of choice in residencies that are effectively islands for their occupants, students already paying thousands of pounds to be at the institution have little option but to agree to give their details and money, and comply with these terms and conditions.
Compare this system with the coin-operated laundry room in the largest student village in Munich, where to wash is only €0.50, and to dry costs just €0.30. In this set up there are no unforeseen costs and no need to register. The stark opposition between here and there is an express difference in purpose; in Munich the laundry room is a convenient and affordable place for students to wash their clothes, while the goal of the launderette here at Warwick is to amass profit by commercialising an essential amenity in a secluded location.
There is little to no benefit for students. The singular user perk is the ability to check online whether a machine is free. This feature does not work for any of the accommodations at Warwick bar one. It’s clear that the online platform is made to service the business over its users.
A shift towards digital platforms is not in and of itself negative. However, we must be aware of the ways new technology can be used by businesses to facilitate and mitigate underhanded ways of seizing your money. From keeping the aggregate of your petty change, to collecting your data for the larger goal of tapping into and exploiting your motives to spend, more and more institutions are taking advantage of the shift towards the digital to maximise profits at our expense.
Amel Mukhtar is a fourth year English Literature student.
* In conversations with Circuit, we gather that Warwick receives a portion of the float. We cannot independently verify this.