We have to acknowledge that students are customers and we have to meet customer expectations. To do that, we have to know who our customers are and understand their needs and desires.
These recent comments by the Principal of the University of the West of Scotland have provoked a number of responses, not least the sardonic remarks on a friend’s Facebook where I found the quotation. It may possibly be true that universities as large, complex organizations need to regard students as “customers” to carry out certain functions effectively, though I think the language of consumerism is already far too much a part of the public discussion around higher education. But even given the possibility that students are best seen as customers at some particular moments in their university careers, I would entirely reject the idea that my students are my customers. Here are a few reasons why I cannot see them in this way, and why I think they should join me in rejecting this sort of market-language for their own benefit.
First of all, being a “customer” implies that they are purchasing a specific set of items or services from me and the department that employs me. As I’ve written elsewhere, if this were true then a university education would not be worth the purchase. Even the most conscientious sixth-former, poring over league tables, course structures, seminar sizes, optionality maps, spend-per-student figures, publication records and SU rosters, is only looking at proxy measurements. At best they are trying to find numbers which might provide an indicator that this was the sort of place where they might do the sort of things they think they might find sort of valuable. That “sort of” is not an indictment either of teenage uncertainty or academic obscurantism: in that “sort of” lies the major purpose of education. There is no way students can know what it is they are going to discover at university, because it is only after they have become fluent in certain disciplines that they can appreciate the meaning of what they have learnt to themselves. (There are literally some unknown unknowns involved here…)
They may reasonably decide that a particular degree course is more likely to provide a well-paid career, or that a different one is totally unsuitable to their apparent skills, but they cannot know what it will feel like to have immersed themselves in a discipline for three years. Even more significantly, that process of study will certainly change the person making that judgement in ways they cannot predict. This is one of the reasons why so many literature courses have required modules at first year (and sometimes later on), since secondary school education has not given the freshers a chance to genuinely choose between the sub-disciplines. It’s one of the reasons I think the first year course at Nottingham (where I teach) is so valuable, since it gives students the experience of a year’s serious academic study of linguistics, post-1500 literature, drama, medieval language and literature. After that, they are in a position to specialize further, and have all changed quite significantly.
In this situation, the student is at a major disadvantage, if seen as a customer. They are suffering from what I believe business studied would call an “information asymmetry”, since the people selling them an education can know vastly more about what that education involves, and how they are likely to react to it, than they can. Luckily, academics do not regard themselves as salespeople, and they do not regard students as customers, so we have no interest in exploiting this asymmetry and benefitting from the fact that we possess a market advantage. At open days and similar events we certainly try to persuade prospective students that we are part of an excellent institution which it would be worth their while to join, but we generally do this by explaining what we find valuable about being at university. It may raise a wry smile from some accompanying parents to see us deep in discussions of Gothic poetry or graphic novels with applicants, ignoring the questions of staff ratios and league table positions.
But those are the parts of a university experience which need to be discussed far more urgently, since it is largely from us that they will hear about them. I do not try to persuade students that the knowledge they will get on our course is somehow shinier or more high-spec than the equivalent from York or Birmingham or Durham. I do not lay out the whole of English literature and tell them they can pick exactly which bits they fancy right now. I try to explain what studying literature means, what it is like taking the course, and hope they will trust me. Customers don’t need to trust a salesperson in a big store, beyond not telling them actual lies about the product or what it costs. If the object in the packet doesn’t match the receipt, they can take it back. A phone bought from a generally untrustworthy retailer will still be the same phone when the customer walks out of the shop. But an education at an untrustworthy university, filled with untrustworthy staff, will quickly turn from a shiny brochure to a miserable experience. Students don’t have the security which a customer would have in this situation, so it seems terribly important that we don’t treat them as customers.
Once they are part of the department, this remains vital. My students and I need to talk to each other, and listen to each other, in ways which would be impossible if this was a customer relationship. I will have to advise them on their academic plans, discuss their work, encourage them in their development, and in turn I will need to listen to their ideas, their worries and their suggestions. All of this requires a quality of relationship which is not compatible with the transaction between customer and service provider. I need to recognise that there is a hinterland of experience and personality beyond their immediate statement which is affecting what they say and how their course is going (even if the reason I need to recognise that in particular cases is to avoid interfering in things which aren’t my professional concern.) I am concerned with students as people, with interests, commitments and values which stretch beyond our time in the seminar room and lecture hall. I can only talk to them as fellow members of the department if I see them as real people, not the abstractions of the customer relationship.
I also need to see them as fellow members of my discipline, even if many will only be part of our joint endeavour for a few years. So when a student suggests we replace one book on a module with another, or alter the balance between lectures and workshops in a particular term, I ask for their reasoning. If they were a customer, no reason would be necessary or relevant. Their expressed preference would be sufficient in itself, since their money would be at the disposal of their personal whim, and they could purchase precisely what they did or didn’t want. A customer choosing to close their account at a bank does not explain their theory of macroeconomics to the branch manager, nor even their personal idea of how the retail banking sector is moving. They simply make their choice and leave. But this is exactly what I need a student to do for me if they think we should tweak a module, or offer a totally new one. They will address me in the shared language of our discipline, explaining why the text they have in mind fits better with the ethos or purpose of the course, holding the module to account by the academic principles we all hold in common.
If they were a customer, who was merely expressing a preference, I could dismiss them out of hand. A single customer’s preference may be enough for them to buy another product, but it’s not a reason to change a whole line of products. I could point out that whatever their feelings, several thousand other people had no such problems and were keeping our turnover going quite nicely thank you. But because a student is not a customer, it’s important that I listen to them, and consider whether the majority may not be wrong, or misguided, or simply apathetic about the place this text has on the course. Their refusal of the customer role enables them to speak in the shared language of the discipline, and my refusal to see them as a customer allows me to listen seriously and generously.
Having listened, seeing my students as more than customers makes it possible for me to react creatively and particularly to what they need. Fairness is extremely important in higher education: we need to make sure there is “equality of provision” and that students are provided with the same opportunities and support. But fairness does not mean treating every single student in the same way, as I might if they were customers. Some will need more of my time, others will need me to recommend books beyond their course, others will need advice on career choice, still others will need me to put them in touch with friends at other universities, and a certain number may need me to just deliver my lectures and nod amiably at them as I shamble by in the corridors.
Taking them seriously as people – not as purchasers of my hourly rate – means working out with them what will be best for their studies and trying to put that into practice. If some students find a particular theoretical point difficult, I am not “stealing” time from others if I pause and explain it in greater depth, or make an appointment to see them outside seminar hours and work it through more thoroughly. If a piece of coursework has so flawlessly mastered the salient points of the question that I spend most of the feedback sheet discussing what the writer should read next and how their ideas might develop, rather than pointing out the issues which they know they got right, I am not “cheating” them of their statutory feedback. Supporting students in their education will mean varying kinds of activity from person to person, and this is possible because they are not my customers and I am not parcelling out pre-purchased chunks of time or attention.
Finally, I think students should refuse to see themselves as customers because that would mean seeing each other as customers. They are a whole range of roles which they can occupy (and may need to) during their time at university: voter, protestor, artist, counsellor, mentor, delegate, ally, and many others. Almost all of these will be drastically eroded, if not made totally impossible, if they are characterised mainly as customers. This is a role which separates them from other students, which configures their relationships as individual contracts with a central corporation, rather than states of solidarity, co-operation and community. It determines value by how they have spent their money, and how much they have spent. It validates them insofar as they have maximised their capital aggregation. It encourages them to accrue value to themselves by taking advantage of the bad luck or unwise choices of others, and it denies the possibility of generosity and even self-denial in the service of those less privileged.
A student body which saw each other only as customers would hold no effective protests, since there will always be fault lines between those more or less affected by an injustice, and there would be no point in solidarity. It would produce no art, because squandering hours of usable time in acquiring complex and creative skills would seem ridiculous if those skills could only produce delight and wonder. It would not run volunteering projects, since it would have cultivated so precise a sense of the price of people’s time that volunteering would appear to squander the value accrued by paying for lectures. It would have no religious worship or political meetings, since it would have abandoned the horizon of values which stretch beyond contracts and transactions. Or – an even more bleak prospect – all these activities would continue, on the basis that they offered opportunities for individuals to polish their credentials, and become a grim parody of themselves. I don’t think my students are customers, because I couldn’t do my job if I thought they were. I also don’t think so, looking round the campus, because they certainly don’t act like they are. I think they should be indignant at the suggestion.