Customer model is a question of priorities

March 11, 2010

Neal Curtis' article, "'Customer' isn't always right: market model could lead to disaster" (4 March), strikes me as a quaintly hysterical response to the need for universities to accept that they operate in a market economy and that the relationship between student customers and institutional suppliers of education is changing rapidly.

Treating students as customers is not about "dumbing down" or being cowed into passing students who should be failed - something I have never encountered in nearly 30 years of work in higher education. It relates to all aspects of student interaction with their institutions - they consume accommodation, refreshment, facilities and advice. All universities must focus on the "hygiene factors" related to delivering these services to ensure that students get the best experience and value for money.

It is a non sequitur to suggest that this approach necessarily translates into not being able to send students to the library to do basic research because they expect tutors to hand them everything they need on a plate. The student-as-customer no more pays a tutor to "do their learning for them" than someone who joins Weight Watchers can be said to have paid that organisation to ensure that they lose weight.

Treating students as customers is not a threat to academic freedom or rigour. What it means is prioritising students' learning needs over the other research or professional activities that members of academic staff may wish to pursue. Selective institutions may be fearful of this, but recruiting institutions have lived with it for many years and found the right balance.

Mike Molan, Executive dean, Faculty of Arts and Human Sciences, London South Bank University.

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