Home > University life > Is the student customer always right? A personal perspective

Is the student customer always right? A personal perspective

BBC News – Is the student customer always right?.

Today was the day that the much vaunted White Paper on Higher Education reform saw the light of day after months of procrastination. To say that the paper’s aims were ‘underwhelming’ would be akin to calling Everest ‘a pretty big hill’, but one of the big issues to emerge is the Government’s insistence in pushing through the idea of the ‘student customer’ (/shudder). After all (as the BBC points out), if students are the ones paying the wages of the staff, then surely they should be the ones who should be calling the shots?

I should say straight off the bat that I’d be more than a little bit disappointed if my students didn’t feel as though I (and my department) didn’t have their best interests at heart. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that I haven’t met a single academic who thinks that students are unimportant, and even (most of) the most grizzled and cantankerous academics I have encountered over the past few years recognise that students are at the core of much of what we do as lecturers and academics. And it’s the assumption that they’re not that I take issue with.

All universities have a vested interest in keeping students happy, which is why universities across the UK invest as much money as they can in new buildings, better internet provision, new books, reformed courses, and so forth. And there are many fine, dedicated, and professional academics and lecturers who go out of their way to go the extra mile for not just a couple of students, but as many as they can. That’s why we stay up till 2am in the morning prepping next week’s lecture. That’s why we forego our research days. And that’s why we give students our time as we rush out to yet another meeting/committee/lecture/seminar/conference/appointment.

There is, however, one other significant issue here. How do students, many of them barely 18 years old, know what constitutes a good education and a good degree? A new recruit wouldn’t go into the army and tell a major how to run the unit. Someone learning how to play football wouldn’t tell Alex Ferguson that his tactics are all wrong. A new hairdresser wouldn’t be let loose on a catwalk model’s hairdo. So why does the Government think that it’s ok to have future (new) students dictate (that might be too strong a word, but it might end up there) how a university department runs its degrees, or how a university runs itself?

The danger is that the demands of future students will manifest themselves in the form of new gym equipment, shiny new buildings, famous lecturers, and so on. And universities will be under pressure to give in to such demands, even if they are not in the student’s best interest of obtaining an education, in order to attract a healthy student population (and their fees).

Imagine a student who doesn’t agree that they should read an article or book per week (and consequently, they don’t). Imagine that this student also doesn’t believe in discussing the ideas they encounter. Lastly, imagine that this student doesn’t really think that learning the material is especially important (after all, that’s what Wikipedia’s for, right?). Is such a student really best placed to say what’s best for their education in the long-run?

Moreover, there is the worry is that a student (or a customer, whatever your preferred nomenclature is) thinks that because they pay £9000 per year that they should automatically be awarded a 2:1 irrespective of the lack of effort invested n their degree (after all, they paid for it). Think that this wouldn’t happen? You only have to take a look at the running commentary on ‘grade-grubbing’ by US academics and the number of times US students complain about their grades with the refrain ‘I pay your wages!’. Such instrumentalisation of degrees will descend upon the UK, if it’s not here in some shape or form already, as a result of the Government’s reforms.

So what’s the solution? In my opinion, the Government needs to stop the rhetoric of ‘students as customers’ and promote the idea that one goes to university to learn how to think, not simply to obtain a degree. There needs to be better investment in alternatives for school leavers which don’t rely on having a university degree. Students should apply to university based on their own desires, not because it’s touted as the ‘next stage’. And how many university entrants a school achieves shouldn’t be a criteria in school rankings. Looking back on that, it would seem that I’m arguing for no-one to go to university (I’m not, obviously!), but I believe that a student should sign up for a university degree because of a desire to learn, not because it’s the next step in life. Maybe it’s idealism, maybe it’s naivety, but whatever it is, it’s something I believe in and I think it’s something which has been lost over the last 15 years.

I recognise that there is a funding gap in Higher Education and I know that something has to be done to address it (although money was found for Libya funnily enough…), but if the line between ‘learner’ and ‘customer’ continues to be erased, my fear is that universities will simply become ‘degree mills’ rather than centres of academic and intellectual excellence which actually stand for something. And I don’t think anyone wants that.

  1. Aaron
    June 28, 2011 at 11:32 pm

    Hey Robert,

    I like what you’re doing here (I’ve certainly thought about blogging myself)! One thing I might suggest is trying to link out when you cite something (eg “All universities have a vested interest in keeping students happy, which is why universities across the UK invest as much money as they can in new buildings, better internet provision, new books, reformed courses, and so forth”), it makes it look a lot less like you’re talking from your ass. Otherwise good for you and keep it up.

  2. June 29, 2011 at 5:24 pm

    Thanks for the comment Aaron 🙂

    Yeah, definitely agree with you about the linkage, just need to find out how to actually do it! Was at a paper today at our research conference (RESCON 2011) about student satisfaction surveys and it touched on the kinds of things students actually value. Interestingly, one of the most important things was teaching and learning, but that still doesn’t tell us much about the *kind* of teaching and learning they value. I’ll definitely be keep my eye on that research.

  3. March 23, 2012 at 4:36 pm

    An excellent article. You have me a topic for my masters thesis. Here in Kenya it is even worse, you can have a degree boiled for you if you have the required cash!

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