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.

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3 Comments on “Students as customers?”

  1. One university which has a strong ethos of treating students as customers and equal partners, but without detracting from the academic quality of its teaching, is — wait for it — the Open University!

    I had done all of my undergraduate studies with the OU and was totally delighted with the quality of instruction, the support I received and the opportunities I had to provide meaningful feedback. Then I moved on to postgraduate study in a classical “bricks and mortar” university and was, well, not disappointed, but not exactly delighted either.

    I am not alone in having this opinion. Most OU graduates have a high regard for their alma mater. The OU is far ahead of most other universities as far as the relationship with students is concerned, and its methods should be studied carefully by higher-education strategists everywhere.

  2. cormac Says:

    Enjoying the blog, and heartily agree with that last paragraph.

    However, I think the reason most academics fear the word ‘customer’ is the following: a car customer wants the best car for the cheapest price, and can probably make a reasonable evaluation of the deal on offer. Students, on the other hand, may not know enough about their subject (yet) to evaluate whether the course is good, bad or average – or w hether they are suited to this course. (Also, there is no denying that some students simply want a degree with the minimum amount of work!).
    In this aspect at least, it seems to me that the teacher/student relationship is v different to the garage/customer relationship
    Regards, Cormac

  3. human resource unit Says:

    I am glad to see this topic aired! A customer is someone who pays a fee, receives a product or service, and has no further obligations to the vendor. A vendor values a customer only as a source of future revenue (if you don’t believe that, reflect on your experience as a customer trying to get assistance from, say, a large airline or a broadband provider).Surely this is a poor model for the partnership between the student and university, both of whom should be fully engaged and active partners in the long and often challenging process of learning and development. Universities cannot hand over an education-in-a-box in return for fees (paid not by the “customer”, but the taxpayer in this case – another discrepancy).

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