Why higher education must serve students as the customer and the product

An effective university programme should continually adapt in order to add value for and to the students so that they can meet future workplace demands, Haksin Chan and Roy Ying explain


The Hang Seng University of Hong Kong
11 Oct 2022
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What makes a higher education programme tick? Education success may be measured in terms of ranking, admission figures, student accolades, graduate employability, alumni engagement and so on. In the absence of a set of universally agreed metrics, perhaps we can try to answer this question based on our experience managing the largest bachelor’s in business administration (BBA) marketing programme in Hong Kong, with 800 full-time students. To stay true to the marketing discipline, we focus on the process of creating, communicating and delivering value to satisfy the needs of “target customers”.

The first step in designing a good education programme, therefore, is to identify the right group of customers and find out what they need. But this apparently straightforward task is where many education providers get tripped up.

Understandably, the idea of customer orientation may not sound appealing to educators, particularly dedicated individuals who see this approach as compromising education quality in the name of customer satisfaction. But lost in that heated discussion is a clear definition of who the customers really are.

If students were the only customers, it could be argued that customer orientation would lead to laissez-faire classrooms, watered-down exams and diminished education outcomes. Fortunately, there are other customers of higher education, as we will explain, whose interests and concerns are just as important as those of students who might want an easy ride, if not more so.

From a marketing standpoint, it is perhaps more appropriate to view students as products as well as customers. In marketing terminology, education is a value-adding process not unlike the process of transforming raw materials into high-value finished products. After all, parents send their children to university in the hope that they will be equipped with valuable knowledge and skills for future careers. At the receiving end, employers are looking for new talents who can bring new competencies and add value to their organisations. To be truly customer-oriented, higher education providers must gauge the changing needs of their primary customers — employers, parents, the government and, to some degree, students — and adjust the education process accordingly.

If we can pinpoint one factor that is most responsible for the popularity of our marketing programme, it is our sensitivity to the changing marketplace.

Consider a couple of the interview questions by Elon Musk:

1) Tell me about one of the most difficult problems you’ve worked on and how you solved it.

2) Walk me through the process of something you designed. Now, if you can start over again, what would you want to change?

By and large, these interview questions point to the type of dynamic skills and qualities valued by employers of the 21st century. By closely monitoring changes in the content and process of job interviews, we regularly update our curriculum to better prepare our students for the challenges and opportunities ahead. For example, environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations have emerged as a high priority in boardroom meetings. In addition to adding this into the curriculum, we have partnered with different organisations to present students with real-life social and environmental issues to study as part of their assessments. Last semester, students were tasked to come up with a marketing communication proposal for the Hong Kong Environmental Campaign Committee to promote the Climate Action 2050 agenda.

A support mechanism must be in place to ensure that the curriculum stays current and relevant with rapidly changing employer demands. We draw on the diverse wisdom of an advisory committee comprised of representatives from both the public and private sectors as well as a number of scholars from other higher education institutions.

The primary aim of the committee is to ensure that students are equipped with the right skills and knowledge for the future workplace. As such, each member of the committee is carefully selected from nominations received from faculty members. There is a robust system to deliberate their suitability before seeking approval under the university’s governance structure. A number of committee members are senior executives from the commercial sector, whose views are instrumental in assessing whether the programme provides appropriate training to potential job candidates.

At a recent meeting, one adviser, representing a major brand with offices around the world, strongly recommended that we expose our students to other languages and cultures, particularly those of our neighbouring countries in the Asia-Pacific region. This recommendation was based on the human resources policy of a global company headquartered in Hong Kong. Another committee member gave insight into leveraging a government-commissioned consultancy project, focused on promoting a low-sugar, low-salt diet to the public, to connect students’ ESG studies to a real-world initiative.

According to Kingman Brewster, president of Yale University from 1963 to 1977, a good education adds value for and to students because it “allows [them] to see things which the undereducated do not see…to understand things that the untutored find incomprehensible [and] to think things which do not occur to the less learned”.

These highly transferable outcomes summarised by Brewster almost 50 years ago – the enhanced ability to identify and focus on major issues, to understand and navigate complex situations, and to think logically but creatively – are exactly the qualities that today’s employers are looking for in new recruits.

To us, managing an education programme is about finding ways to add value for and to students and communicating this to all key customers. As marketing educators, we teach customer orientation and added value in the classroom. As managers of an education programme, we try to “walk the talk” by practising what we preach. We have kept our customers satisfied through regular fine-tuning of the programme to ensure the marketability of our graduates.

Haksin Chan is associate professor and Roy Ying is programme director of BBA marketing and senior lecturer, both in the department of marketing at the Hang Seng University of Hong Kong.

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