'Customer' isn't always right: market model could lead to disaster

Prevailing dogma could ruin the academy and produce a generation of dependent, unmotivated, risk-averse students, argues Neal Curtis

March 4, 2010

Current dogma states that all aspects of society should be subject to the principles and logic of marketisation, and part of this dogma - which is gaining wider currency within higher education - is the belief that quality can be improved through the adoption of the customer model. Fortunately, at the University of Nottingham, the particularity of the student-teacher relationship has not yet been subsumed by the misguided belief that learning is just another version of the more transcendental relation of supply and demand.

Of course I believe improvements can be made to my own teaching, and I know my colleagues commit a great deal of time to rethinking lectures - introducing new research and practical examples that help students to grasp the material we present.

We are committed to student feedback and to new technologies, and are not afraid to rewrite courses or even entire programmes in response to social and cultural changes and the ever-changing needs of students heading into a competitive jobs market.

However, this is all part of "old-school" pedagogy. We do not have to think of our students as customers to ensure our classes are interesting, informative and accessible.

There is a big problem with the customer model in the academy. It is like going into Currys to buy a television, expecting the saleswoman to say which one is best value for money, only for her to smile and say: "I suggest you buy What Television, Gadget Monthly and Domestic Technology Times. I'd like you to read the various reviews, make notes and begin to assess the pros and cons of the TVs on offer. Come back in a couple of days and I'll help you make your choice."

Of course, my reply would be: "No. I have £500. I want to buy a TV, and I want you to tell me which one is best."

My concern is that our drive for quality based on the customer model will eventually lead to similar exchanges between academics (salespeople) and students (customers), so that in the not-too-distant future, it will become unthinkable, for example, to send students to the library to do basic research.

This is a policy blind spot. No one is thinking through the implications of what it means to base education on this model. There is a possibility that the drive for quality will destroy it by getting rid of the student-teacher relationship that underpins it. The greatest irony is that the extension of the customer model beyond the business world will eventually produce students who are unequipped for life in that world.

We are constantly told that we need innovative and creative people who can challenge the accepted way of doing things - independent, critical thinkers who will make up the next generation of entrepreneurs. Instead, the customer model threatens to breed dependent, risk-averse students who see no reason for independent, self-motivated learning because they have paid someone to do it for them.

If they fail, it will be the "fault" of teachers, because students will have no responsibility for their own intellectual development.

At the moment, the onus to improve quality rests entirely with academic staff. But without students also being called on to take responsibility, quality cannot improve. To believe otherwise would be to work according to a spurious concept of communication, where "customers" are simply empty vessels that we fill up with knowledge, skills and dispositions, so all we need to do is find better modes of delivery. This is absurd.

The student-teacher relationship requires work on both sides. To be a student, one is required to study. Customers, on the other hand, simply provide custom. They have no responsibility, but act, so it is believed, entirely under their own volition. Add to this the increasing pressure on departments to make sure students don't fail because they don't want to look bad in the market for new customers, and we have a recipe for disaster.

To maintain quality in times of "fiscal restraint", we must challenge this dogma. Historically the university has always been an institution linked to governance and economic growth, but it has also been a place where dogma has been overturned; a counterweight to the perceived common sense of the time.

Looking at the future of the university therefore means holding on to elements of its past. The quality of the student-teacher relationship has produced innovative thought and creative problem-solving that the customer model could never match. Such a relationship still exists at my university, but it needs reaffirming, not usurping.

If we are not careful, the one factor that will help UK universities through the trouble ahead will have been lost by the time the next crisis comes around. After all, the world hasn't changed: the dogmatic thinking that brought us to this point remains unchecked.

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