Students as customers?
Tomorrow (or rather, I should say later today, as it’s past midnight) I shall be welcoming a new group of first year students to Dublin City University. It’s a moment I really enjoy, as you can almost smell the sense of excitement and of a new adventure amongst the people in the room – a lot of raw idealism mingled with just a tad of anxiety. It is always a moment when I experience the sense of shared ambition between the students and the faculty, and when I hope fervently that this survives and prospers throughout the time they spend with us.
One of the things I try to tell the students is that they are not here just to acquire the information and analysis that we give them – it is a much more equal relationship than that, and must be driven by a sense of shared purpose and the willingness to engage in mutual learning. And what this also raises is the question as to what the relationship is between the students and those of us who are employed by the university.
From the 1980s it became common to talk about students as the university’s ‘customers’. The thinking behind this was based largely on the desire to describe a relationship between autonomous and more or less equal parties, with the students entitled to demand support and performance from lecturers and professors. Academics on the whole have been uncomfortable with this label, in part because it suggests that higher education is a market activity in which a commodity is being bought by (or on behalf of) the students. But if they are not customers, what are they? They are certainly not just pupils under instruction and subject to the lecturer’s control.
This is important also because the gradual introduction of quality control measures into academic life has made it necessary to consider what role students should have in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the courses they are studying. Some of the early quality assurance systems almost excluded students from the process. On the whole that has been remedied, or is being remedied, but there are still questions about the extent to which student opinions should be accepted as objective measurements – the fear being, for example, that popularity will be confused with quality.
We probably have not yet resolved the issues in this debate. However, it should be clear to all of us working in universities that students are not our subjects, but our partners in the adventure of higher education. We need to treat them with respect and listen to their opinions and act on their judgements to the greatest degree possible. When we do so, we are also likely to benefit from the contribution that many many students will make to the quality of the learning experience that we, as university staff, can and should also enjoy.Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, university comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.