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Students aren’t customers…or are they?

With the rise of mass higher learning, tight public funding and intense competition for students, universities are often encouraged to see students as “customers”. But should they? Commentators who criticise…

Are students “customers”? The answer is not so simple. Piggy bank image from www.shutterstock.com

With the rise of mass higher learning, tight public funding and intense competition for students, universities are often encouraged to see students as “customers”. But should they?

Commentators who criticise them for “poor customer service” seem to think so.

But others object that these are social institutions, not businesses selling commodities to consumers. What’s more, if you commercialise higher education, you corrupt it.

To this, others say that all universities, public or private, create private benefits along with public goods. Yes, society benefits from the learning embodied in graduates. And students gain too, from credentials that offer them access to jobs, careers and social mobility.

So why not aim for “customer satisfaction” in the name of better quality, better value for money, or both? Whoever pays?

This seems logical; but the analogy has problems. As the angry professor in Hannie Rayson’s play Life After George says to the cash-strapped dean, “Students aren’t customers! We can’t just give them what they want. They don’t know what they want until after they’ve heard what we have to tell them!”

If it works in business…

Studies of successful businesses may have led to some cognitive dissonance in this debate. A century ago, American and English department stores succeeded with the slogan: “the customer is always right”. French hotelier Cesar Ritz had the same idea: “Le client n'a jamais tort”.

More recently that 1980s bestseller In Search of Excellence found that the best-run US companies stayed “close to the customer”.

Then came “Total Quality Management”. Its focus on process improvements aimed at boosting “customer satisfaction” made consumers the final arbiters of quality.

Meanwhile consulting firms engaged in “Customer Intimacy”, designing solutions for complex client needs, even if the “customer” couldn’t say exactly what they wanted.

Even in business the concepts of “consumer”, “customer” and “client” are not clear-cut. They are shorthand for a spectrum of simple products and complex services, brief encounters and extended engagements.

A “customer focus” spectrum. Source: author

As customers, are they “always right”?

Ideas such as these, tried and true in the commercial world, are hard to reconcile with the student/teacher relationship.

To a lecturer marking assignments, the notion that the “customer is always right” soon gets mugged by the reality that “the student is often wrong”.

The analogy seems to miss the fact that students co-produce what they learn, not just with books and lectures and tutors, but with peers.

For students, study may entail heavy workloads, challenging tasks and uncomfortable interrogations. Knowing this, many lecturers lament the use of short, sharp student surveys as blunt instruments to assess their course or teaching quality.

A spectrum of student experience

In fact, as they engage with the university, students step through a spectrum of identities. Do they ever occupy the role of customer or client? Yes, but with caveats.

The “student as customer” idea is not as novel as it seems. University of California president Clark Kerr observed 50 years ago that as study electives proliferated in US universities, patterns of student choice shaped academic programs: “Their choices, as consumers, guide university expansion and contraction, and this process is far superior to a more rigid guild system of producer determination…”

But here, as part of the bargain, the “consumer” had obligations: “The student, unlike Adam Smith’s idealised buyer, must consume – usually at the rate of fiftee hours a week.”

We can add other caveats. In the marketplace, payment alone entitles the consumer to the product or service on offer. But most students must pre-qualify to enter their chosen course; and to graduate, they must show that they’ve earned their degree.

Student support and professionalism

Cocooned for a time as citizens and subjects of the university, students assume “membership” rights as well as responsibilities. These rights include access to facilities, advice and support.

The more study options there are, for example, the more guidance they may need, if only to avoid a timetable that even Hermione Granger couldn’t handle.

If they want to switch courses, can students find help that is responsive, respectful and reliable? Or must it be time-consuming, cranky, and confusing?

If the 1990s Melbourne film Love and Other Catastrophes is a guide, student administration can be chaotic, and academic supervision unprofessional, due to a lack of service commitment (or “customer focus”).

While the term is not used, a “customer focus” rubric informs the new national University Experience Survey. As a road-map to quality assurance, it shows how multi-faceted student life can be.

Along with what they think they’ve learned, it asks students to rate their experience of social engagement, teaching quality, student advice, administrative support, campus facilities and IT resources.

Limits to “customer satisfaction”

Yet clearly, students can’t finally dictate what universities do. Cambridge University’s David Howarth observes (in an essay on whether law is a humanity, or more like engineering) that academics, like judges, often serve a “virtual client”.

In court, a lawyer must act in her client’s best interests. But in determining the merits of the case, the judge must consider the interests of absent third parties: a whole society may be the “virtual client”.

Scholars are there to help individual “clients” succeed, up to a point. But when giving a grade that leads to the award of a degree, they must keep absent third parties (such as employers) in mind.

As graduates, students become “products” of the university. When assessing student work, a lecturer who gets too “close to the customer” (and here we include “customer intimacy” in its biblical sense) must take steps to avoid bias.

So, does it ever help to see students as “customers”? Yes, if this means ensuring they’ll be well advised and well supported, so they can make informed choices, use their time well, and benefit fully from study.

And no, if this means distorting the teacher-student relationship, failing to uphold course standards, or undermining the institution’s integrity and the reputation of its degrees.

Join the conversation

33 Comments sorted by

  1. Ngaere Blair

    Director, Student Enrichment

    Great overview on a theme that inspires a great deal of debate!

    I may be idealistic, but I like to think of students as 'partners'; they contribute to their University communities, are ambassadors for our 'brands' (both good and bad), they invest financial and social capital into our campuses and as Geoff mentions, they co-produce academic work.

    Partnerships are in themselves often invested with heavy expecations, unrealistic demands and disappointments, but they can also be mutually rewarding, collaborative and constructive when given the opportunity.

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  2. Darren Parker

    logged in via Facebook

    I'm a recent (mature age) postgraduate student and I VERY much saw myself as a customer.

    I had no expectation of exploiting the student / teacher relationship the university provided, but I was very vocal when the university failed to service my needs in other ways.

    Having said that, I would say I had very few issues of substance and my experience was almost wholly positive.

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  3. Ian Gostelow

    Phd Candidate, LH Martin Institute at University of Melbourne

    Students are still students, and will be for the forseeable future, but what defines a student and the student experience is shifting with increased marketisation across both sectors of Tertiary education. This is occuring more rapidly in VET, especially in Victorian VET, through explicit government privitisation policies. These forces are shifting the relative cost of education provision from Government to the student, however in absolute terms Government are still making massive contributions…

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  4. Dennis Alexander

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Thanks for this piece. What is happening between "customer" and "student" is what might be called a conceptual blend (Fauconnier & Turner). However, I conjecture, it is a blend that is idiosyncratic to the individual's conception of which bits of each concept best fit their situation at the time. The "customer" concept has been permeating all areas of relations where there is a financial transaction, including government-citizen, doctor-patient, lawyer-client, regulator-regulated and teacher-student…

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  5. Peter Bentley

    logged in via LinkedIn

    University education is generally a one-off purchase and it is hard to switch providers mid-way in a degree. Higher education is a durable good in the most extreme sense, the experience and credential is valid for a lifetime and generally does not depreciate. Unlike other service industries, most students will not return, regardless of the customer service and experience, meaning that universities can't really compete on service. The market value of the credential is tied to the value placed by others in the diploma and the university that grants it, so poor service from highly reputable universities does not lead students to switch to other providers.

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  6. Paul Richards

    integral operating system

    Interesting premise. From a personal perspective 'the client' for the University systems product has always been the 'employer'. No matter if it is a multinational corporation or a local business, ultimately they are the source of the income stream as a student or 'the product' is paid for. But hey if this works for you that's ok.

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  7. Nick Fredman

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Thanks Geoff for an article that complicates the simplistic student as customer discourse. Peter Bentley offers some further reasons that "consumption" of education isn't very much like consuming a latte or flat-screen telly.

    Another point is that post-school education, while rapidly incurring costs or debts for students at all levels, is also rapidly becoming near universal and almost a necessary requirement to engage in the social activity of the labour market, rather than the choice of a few. As the latest Survey of Education and Work shows, the proportion of 15-64 year-olds who have attained at least one post-school qualification increased from 47% in 2001 to 59% in 2012.

    To emphasise and maybe extend a bit a point that Geoff makes, education is more like production than consumption. Students and educators jointly produce skills and knowledge, which are then used to benefit graduates, the organisations graduates work for and are otherwise involved in, and society generally.

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  8. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    " Thanks Geoff for an article that complicates the simplistic student as customer discourse. Peter Bentley offers some further reasons that "consumption" of education isn't very much like consuming a latte or flat-screen telly. "

    Nick Fredman does have an interseting opening line " Thanks for the complications " really!
    And yes Peter also offers up some reasonable aspects.

    Are we just attempting to complicate too much these days, keeping up with the Jones kind of because life is getting fuller…

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  9. Nick Fredman

    logged in via LinkedIn

    I meant to provide a link to the highlights of the Survey of Education and Work. BTW the proportion of 24-35 year olds with at least one non-school education was a fairly astounding 72% in 2012. It's getting less and less a "choice" ... http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/6227.0

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  10. Matthew Andrews

    Academic Registrar at Oxford Brookes University

    An interesting article; the same debate rages in the UK! My personal view is that the debate is attempting to apply a level of precision to define the student-university relationship which is inappropriate - impossible in fact - due to the multi-faceted nature of that relationship. It's also inappropriate because the debate seems to assume that the different concepts (consumer, client, co-producer) are mutually exclusive. My perspective is that a student is all of these things and more, and that…

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  11. Ewen Peel

    Farmer

    Interesting article and thoughts about education.

    As a graduate of a private tertiary institution where I paid for the education, I expected the provider to deliver what ever was necessary to achieve the outcome needed to do well in the world once I graduated.
    To achieve this they had the respect of the students, lecturers, and industry, and pushed the students hard in terms of contact hours and work load.
    In the end I graduated with a qualification that could have got me work with many and varied employers. There were jobs for everyone.
    I think this article misses the point a little in that it has not mentioned what the employers of graduates want. It is very much a balance of what is needed by employers, want is expected by students and what can be provided by universities.
    Some the customer is right, but just who is the customer?

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    1. Ewen Peel

      Farmer

      In reply to Ewen Peel

      Sorry about the last line, it should read, SO THE CUSTOMER IS RIGHT.

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  12. Terry Reynolds

    Financial and political strategist

    Geoff, your contribution seemed as though it was written by someone that has never been outside the confines of a University since they left high school.

    We go to University to be enlightened with a good deal of critical wisdom and to gain a basic level of understanding of the field we are interested in, before going on to learn abundantly more on the job.

    A University degree used to be a guarantee of a well paid job, whether you were competent or not. It is no longer the case when so many…

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    1. Geoff Sharrock

      Program Director, LH Martin Institute at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Terry Reynolds

      Terry, thanks for raising these points.
      As it happens most of my working life has been outside academia, working in the government sector and then in management consulting with public and private sector enterprises.
      I too have concerns about the cost of some of the business models in use in universities, and about the wide use of lowly paid sessional staff. However at a first pass I don't think your costing reflects the reality of what most Australian universities do, or how this affects the…

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  13. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    Lawyers' first duty is not to their client but to the court, or more generally, to the administration of justice. Thus, lawyers are prohibited from suppressing evidence even tho that may be in the best interests of their client. Lawyers' second duty is to their client, their third duty is to their firm and their fourth duty is to themselves.

    I'm not familiar with medical practitioners' understanding of their duties, but they seem at least informally to recognise a duty to society in protecting it from onerous health costs.

    Employers are one of education's social partners, with unions and government, but it is not normally appropriately to consider them as customers or clients of education.

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    1. Dennis Alexander

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Gavin, what you say is technically correct. However, if you read the popular press, especially letters pages, and various websites (The Drum, the National Forum, etc) and venture below the line, you will find that people do not conceptualise the legal and medical relationships in the technical way: they conceptualise them in terms of the financial transaction as being provider-customer/client relationships. SImilarly, we had the head of a national consulting firm telling universities that his firm was their client just last year (or might have been 2011). What the techncial aspects of social and financial relations are and how they are represented in common linguistic usage can diverge enormously, and I suggest that they have so diverged, whether you and I like it or not (I don't).

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  14. Isabelle Ellis

    Professor of Rural and Regional Nursing at University of Tasmania

    Thanks for this article, Perhaps we should think of Government as the customer more than students as it is the Government that is the majority funder of universities and is the supplier of student fees. Students benefit from the degrees they receive which add personal value and future employment prospects.

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  15. Leonhard Bernold

    A/Professor

    Based on my data, most of my students are my patients.

    As somebody who has researched the study skills of engineering students in three different continents I have proven my old hypothesis many times over that 85% are seriously deficient learners. In fact, they are in need of immediate remediation. Every discussion with administrators about “our customers” deserving wonderful experiences stops cold when I assert that the universities are in fact hospitals full of “patients” in need of all kinds of treatments. The blank faces of the shocked listeners usually lighten up a tiny bit when I point out that hospitals are excellent money makers in the US.

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  16. Mark Harrison

    Senior Lecturer in Chinese

    This is a very helpful and lucid piece. I wonder, though, how long it will be before universities catch on to the era of Facebook and Google and realise that students aren't just customers, they might also be products. Universities know more about students' lives than Facebook could ever dream of, and there's stream of revenue from targeted advertising waiting to be tapped. Log-on to your uni's online Learning Management System to upload an assignment at 3am and get a pop-up ad for Red Bull. Go to a class on the lifecycle of Megacephala Coerulea and get an ad from STA Travel on cheap flights to Bolivia as the last Powerpoint slide. How far would universities, the public and students be prepared to go in the marketization of learning?

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  17. Ian Gostelow

    Phd Candidate, LH Martin Institute at University of Melbourne

    To revisit this article, Stephen Matchett's sardonic commentary in The Australian today seems on topic:
    "Hold the phone: To suggest students are customers drives academics insane. But the model is different for student service staff in universities, who surely exist to assist. So hooray for UNSW ADFA, the professional services team at the University of Adelaide and Kangan TAFE, winners of this year’s Association for Tertiary Education Management awards for telephone service in education. The awards are allocated according to 30 service criteria in handling customer, sorry, clients, damn it, student, yes that's right, student, calls." . http://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/high-wired-update-stephen-parker-has-seen-the-future-and-it-isnt-scary-just-very-challenging/story-e6frgcjx-1226639663410

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  18. Hannah Forsyth

    logged in via Facebook

    Thanks for writing this Geoff. I think it is possibly the most sensible thinking on the student-consumer I've seen - and that includes things I've written myself! As a historian I have been puzzling over why pre-Whitlam systems of fees didn't seem to "commodify" education in the same way as 1990s and 2000s fees have. And the answer, it seems, is that the commodification doesn't really reside in the fees themselves, rather in the language of consumption, deployed by both university staff and students…

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    1. Ian Gostelow

      Phd Candidate, LH Martin Institute at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Hannah Forsyth

      Hannah, as you would be aware the abolition of University fees occured in 1974 and remained in place until the Dawkins revolution of 1989. Lomax-Smith (HEBFR 2011) observes that "Students in Australia, with the exception of the period from 1975 to 1986, have always contributed towards the cost of their higher education". The question as to whether this contribution represents commodification, either historically or currently is worth exploring, and perhaps within the distinction there is a tipping…

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    2. Geoff Sharrock

      Program Director, LH Martin Institute at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Hannah Forsyth

      Hannah, thanks for these comments. I think you’re right to suggest that user pays approaches to study do not necessarily involve commodification of learning, and are not necessarily evidence of bad (neoliberal) ideology at work. In the history of Western universities user pays approaches predate ‘neoliberal’ approaches to government by at least 900 years, if we take the University of Bologna as our starting point. Today there are non-European higher education systems that are largely privately financed…

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    3. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Hannah Forsyth

      Hannah Forsyth wrote; ".... the answer, it seems, is that the commodification doesn't really reside in the fees themselves, rather in the language of consumption, deployed by both university staff and student" This observation of right or wrong really depends on our value system. The standard dominate neo-liberal line is selling this commodity will benefit the country. Benefit is subjective to values. Questions that need to be considered are;
      Do we accept the dominate neo-liberal line of argument…

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  19. Terry Reynolds

    Financial and political strategist

    Hannah, prior to Whitlam you are talking about an era where the parents of students suffered during the Great Depression and WW11. There main aim was to just survive as a familt and get work still with many families have six or more children. State Governments spent a lot on public secondary education then in terms of infrastructure. Monash University Melbourne's second establsihed University did not start until 1967. So for 22 years after WW11 the main emphisus was to get a pass at year nine or…

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    1. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Terry Reynolds

      Terry Reynolds wrote; "Thank God for Mr. Whitlam" You might say the same about Malcolm Frazier as he was no neo-liberal either. Today our options are limited to a just a 'few' individuals in the major parties or the Greens. Education and social capital building is not a neo-liberal priority.
      So it is hardly surprising in the aftermath of the current budget, all the chatter has had nothing to do with the long term importance of education.

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  20. David Malone

    logged in via email @netspace.net.au

    Thanks Geoff for a tremendous article.

    As you say, in business, the concepts of consumer, client and customer are not clear-cut and this points to the difficulty with the word 'customer' in universities. The term tends to lean the conversation towards the purchase decision rather than the relationship. Fine for simple transactions, not so good for longer relationships and not very popular in the professions.

    Yet, the professions and universities definitely have customers who make a choice…

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  21. Deborah Veness

    logged in via LinkedIn

    While students in Australian universities contribute to the cost of their education, the Australian taxpayer bears the majority of the cost. Therefore, the question is not about whether or not students are customers, but whether our graduates are being prepared to make appropriate contributions to society. (HECS = Higher Education *Contribution* Scheme)

    Of course our students should be getting good "customer service"; without it, they will be unable to navigate the administrative processes associated…

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    1. Geoff Sharrock

      Program Director, LH Martin Institute at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Deborah Veness

      Thanks Deborah, your point about how much taxpayers should contribute versus students themselves is a much debated one. I've explored some of the issues in an earlier Conversation piece, linked at the end of this article, on 'Undergraduate study: who should pay?' If the discussion there is of interest, you can now find a more detailed account in my chapter on this topic in an online book published last month.
      'Degrees of debt: The Base Funding Review, Graduate Winners and undergraduate fees'
      in Tertiary Education Policy in Australia, edited by Simon Marginson, CSHE July 2013
      http://www.cshe.unimelb.edu.au/research/policy_dev/docs/Tert_Edu_Policy_Aus.pdf

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  22. Raegan Petzel

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Coming from a customer service background and with Universities entering a much more commercialised environment I have largely been in favour of viewing students as customers and I think they certainly are in terms of the services we offer around the learning and teaching though I agree it is not a good descriptor for viewing the actual service and resultant product of the learning and qualification, however in this article the term membership was mentioned. So I wonder if exchanged customer for member would that be a better general fit as a descriptor?

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    1. Geoff Sharrock

      Program Director, LH Martin Institute at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Raegan Petzel

      Thanks Raegan, I'd agree that there are 'membership' aspects of being a student, some of which may extend beyond graduation. But as with the other suggestions offered in comments on this article, this term can't cover the spectrum of dealings and identities involved in 'being a student'. No single term can, in my view. In this sense I am in the same corner of the debate as Matthew Andrews, whose commentary highlights the 'multi-faceted' nature of the student-university relationship, and the idea that the different ways in which we frame or construe it are not mutually exclusive. I'd also support Dennis Alexander's commentary which highlights the way there is a 'conceptual blend' taking place in this area, where definitions of terms such as 'student' and 'customer' are likely to remain fluid.

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    2. Leonhard Bernold

      A/Professor

      In reply to Geoff Sharrock

      What is being left out is the concept of learning. A customer buys a good or service from a "vendor". A student customer has to consume the purchase. How does the student consume what is taught? It takes many competencies and metacognitive processes to anchor new knowledge. Bloom shows us that there is a path from passive regurgitation to deep understanding that is not easy. As I and others have proven over and over, 85% of our students in engineering are coming to school with no skills to learn…

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    3. Geoff Sharrock

      Program Director, LH Martin Institute at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Leonhard Bernold

      Thanks Leonhard: I can't comment on the specifics of your situation, but your main points, that students don't simply 'consume' what is taught, and should not be seen as 'customers' when their work is being graded against course standards, are in line with my argument in this article. I agree there are real limits to the utility of student evaluation surveys. If it's of interest I've had a go at examining this in an article, 'Quality in teaching and learning: one path to improvement' in Australian Universities Review, vol 54 no 2, 2012, accessible at: http://issuu.com/nteu/docs/aur_54-02

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