'Consumer' right? No, it's the wrong analogy

December 1, 2011

After two decades of exposure to the managerial mantra "the student is a consumer", I was intrigued to see the Times Higher Education headline "A bad deal for 'consumers'" (17 November), particularly its use of inverted commas. The opinion article in question reported on research showing the shallowness and irrelevance of the consumer concept as a label to capture the intellectual and personal development that students undergo at university.

In my experience, the student-as-consumer concept has never been used or demanded by students themselves; still, it has dictated much university policymaking on account of its seemingly straightforward operationalisation by way of "consumer satisfaction" questionnaires, simplistic "league tables" and "Key Information Sets".

All these are based on the assumption that students' university choices are determined by simple pick-and-choose strategies. This assumption may be appropriate for marketing decisions in the retail industry, but it is a misleading pseudo-analogy in higher education.

Under the guise of responding to customer/consumer "demands", the approach traps students in the passive role of clients who pay for "goods delivered" or "services rendered", as if education were akin to having a haircut or buying a mobile phone.

The opinion article by Paul Ashwin, Andrea Abbas and Monica McLean shows how little such a trivialised understanding of the "learning experience" has to do with the genuine interests and wishes of students. Its results should be widely published and disseminated to give them a chance of "impacting" future managerial decisions in higher education.

Andreas Musolff, Chair of intercultural communication, University of East Anglia

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