Customer concerns

June 21, 2002

Treating students as customers damages the academic community, argues Stephen Burwood

It has become commonplace for students to be described as "customers". This is, of course, the sort of terminological barbarity that flusters academics. What does it mean? That we give them what they want rather than what they need? That knowledge and understanding are commodities to be purchased? That students are always right (surely one doesn't fail a "customer")? Should we issue them with loyalty cards as well as library cards? To ask such questions is to reveal yourself as a refusnik and, if not actually branded a "force of conservatism" or a "wrecker" by some colleagues, you will be seen by them as reactionary and antediluvian.

Nonetheless, these questions are often dismissed far too quickly and express sentiments that grope towards a more elemental question that is well worth asking. What is the relationship between students and faculty? Regarding students as customers should be resisted because it is corrosive of this relationship and the very idea of an academic community.

The day-to-day use of the term is mostly casual. Its usage is rarely, if ever, defended by argument and this is because those who use it rarely see the need to offer one. People are often genuinely surprised when confronted with opposition. If pushed to produce an argument, the response is that they are customers because they are now paying. But this is inadequate. First, many students do not pay - fees are most often paid by others - and, even if they did, monetary transaction is not a sufficient condition for being a customer. In any case, there is an educationally more defensible motivation for this practice: the growing impatience with a traditional academic culture that is seen as being elitist, exclusionary and decidedly not student-centred.

It is true that higher education can be an alienating experience for many students. To regard students as customers is, I think, an attempt to empower them in an environment where inclusion and quality are seen as important in advancing their educational needs. What can be wrong with this? Far from undermining traditional educational values, doesn't the idea of student empowerment through regarding students as customers strengthen one of education's core principles?

Unfortunately, no. Calling students "customers" is well-meaning but deeply misguided. It is something that goes to the heart of our teaching: higher education, at its best, is a process of induction. We do not simply teach students about our subjects, we teach them to be philosophers, historians, chemists and so on. The relationship between students and faculty is thus central to the educational process. It is not just that this is undermined by students adopting inappropriate attitudes to their learning, though the North American experience suggests this danger exists - litigious students; pressure for demand-led curricula; an instrumentalist approach to learning; an unwillingness to be "judged"; and the gradual sidelining of educational values in favour of quick gratification.

What really worries me is that the trend will lead to a breakdown, on both sides, of any sense that students are participating members of an intellectual community. After all, customers are not members of the organisations where they spend their money. Even with my loyalty card, I do not have a say in the running of Sainsbury's: customers are external to such an organisation.

On the other hand, when we admit students to university, we are admitting them to our community. This is given formal recognition by the fact that students have a right to sit on the senate and other governing bodies of a university and have a direct say in the running of the institution. Thus, far from empowering students, regarding them as customers is another way of alienating them and treating them as outsiders. Increasing student empowerment is a worthwhile goal. This is not the way to achieve it.

Stephen Burwood is a lecturer in the department of philosophy at the University of Hull and an organiser of Education and Society in the 21st Century: 20th Annual Conference of the Society for Applied Philosophy, taking place on June 28 and 29 at Mansfield College, Oxford.

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