Students as customers

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Photo: Yau Hoong Tan CC-BY-NC-ND

A few weeks ago, I was a virtual attendee at a member meeting of a regional higher ed I.T. consortium. In attendance were I.T. Directors and CIO’s.

One of the speakers at the event was an I.T. vendor who continually kept referring to students as “your customers”. Now, once or twice in a vendor presentation is annoying. But he kept repeating it over and over again to the point where I got so frustrated that I did what most people do when they are frustrated these days.

I vented on Twitter.

Now, I get that, to most vendors, everyone is a customer. But I do recognize that it is easy for this type of language to just slip by unnoticed until it becomes an uncontested part of the education landscape, and I think the language of student as customer needs to be unpacked whenever possible.

Thinking of students as “customers” makes me very uncomfortable. When we think of students as “customers”, I believe it changes the relationship we have with students. It alters how we see them. How we interact with them. And it alters how they see themselves. When students begin to see themselves as “customers” of education, then they soon build their expectations of what their education should be using the paradigm of a consumer transaction.

If you have taught, you may have experienced a moment when a student challenges you on an assessment with an argument that contains some version of “I am paying a lot of money for this course, therefore I deserve a better course”. That is one of the more obvious manifestations of the student as customer mindset.

We need to stop referring to our students as “customers”.

It’s a position that the confirmation bias engine that is Google supported when I went Googling shortly after my Twitter outburst.  First result Google returned was a 2008 op-ed article from Peter Wood, President of the National Association of Scholars. Talk about supporting my tweet.

Students are – to embrace a tautology – students. That’s to say, the relationship between a college and a student is sui generis. It needs to be understood in its own terms, not twisted to fit the needs of a metaphor. It doesn’t need to be modeled on the relationship between merchants and consumers, or any other metaphoric arrangement. (Students are not constructively thought of as “patients” either, despite the urges of residence life and student affairs staff. Nor are students “clients,” “colleagues,” or “partners,” etc.)

Alia Wong in a 2016 article in The Atlantic digs deeper into the history of how U.S. institutions developed a “student as customer” mentality, and the increasing influence that various ranking schemes have had on institutions. These rankings, often designed with the intention of helping students make better decisions about where to go to college, have helped to instill a student as customer mindset with institutions as they continually chase high rankings in order to get the greatest number of students applying to their institution. We begin to instill a student as customer mindset on ourselves well before the student even applies to attend our institution as we try to figure out how to best market our services to potential students.

Meanwhile, in the U.K., Patrick McGhee in The Guardian notes a certain ironic twist in our desire to treat learners as customers at a time when so many businesses want to see their customers as learners.

It seems strange to exhort universities to treat learners as customers at a time when businesses are increasingly trying to treat customers as learners. Business analysts are reflecting buying patterns relating to knowledge and learning: “instant skills” has been identified as one of the major consumer trends for 2015. The idea is that there is a relative shift away from “having” to “creating”. Successive generations are spending less on things and more on experiences, desiring collaboration, creativity and transparency.

An Australian perspective offered by Kelly Matthews from the University of Queensland gets to the heart of the implications that “student as customer” has on teaching & learning, noting that, how we see our students influences how we teach, and how students see themselves influences how they learn.

The idea of being a customer shifts the responsibility of learning onto the lecturers, leaving students with a passive role to play. Yet, we know students need to take active ownership of their own learning. Numerous studies demonstrate grades suffer – and students learn less – when they are passive learners.

If students see themselves as customers, it shifts the burden of responsibility for learning away from the students and onto the teacher, making them passive, not active, learners. Instead, Matthews advocates for students as partners, which is far more appealing to me than students as customers.

Core values of students as partners are grounded in principles that highlight how students and staff can work together as co-researchers, co-teachers, and co-creators.

Student as customer is a pretty easy narrative to blindly fall into, both for students and for educators. As students are forced to bear more costs for their education due to continual cuts and rising fees, it is easy to understand how they adopt a transactional, customer-service based attitude towards their education.

For educators, we are often swimming in a sea of neoliberal economic values in our institutions. We are continually being told that the most important bottom line is the economic bottom line.

While the eternal optimist in me wishes we could completely remove all financial fees from our education systems (which is one of the appeals of open textbooks as I think forcing students to buy learning materials reinforces this consumer mindset of learning), the pragmatist in me knows that eliminating all fees for students would be difficult and likely bring about it’s own issues and problems.

But I do believe that educators need to continually kickback at the notion that students are customers because it fundamentally changes the nature of our relationship, boiling it down to dollars and sense. Getting a post-secondary education isn’t like buying a new car. Deep learning has to be driven by something other than economics and the more the language of consumerism seeps into our conversations, the more education adopts values that mimic the market. And we are not the market.

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