Go to aisle 4 to pick up your 2:1

February 24, 2006

Treating students as customers has wider implications than realists may have realised, warns Bob Brecher

Shock horror! Students unprepared for university, claim admissions tutors! They expect "to be spoon-fed" because the schools'

"modular system means they forget what they've learnt" ("Tutors in despair at illiterate freshers", February 10). Hardly earth-shattering news, I know. But something has changed. Even five years ago, we might have responded to league tables' instrumentalising by just teaching first-year students what they did not know. But that's beginning to go. As the competition culture hits the universities, so tomorrow's customers - yesterday's students - will make their choices according to the student satisfaction league. And since the customer is always right, we have to "deliver" what the customer wants... which means spoon-feeding students on our modular programmes.

This is only one way, of course, in which turning students into customers and academics into "service providers" is a continuing educational disaster. What is curious about the whole onward march of commodification, though, is that just about everyone deplores it. Have you ever met an academic who doesn't? Those on what was known as the Left are horrified; the old elitists are appalled; and those who think they're somewhere in the middle are deeply saddened. So who does welcome the advent of the customer? A few born-again Blairites, no doubt; but even true believers seem thin on the ground. Just about everyone working in universities who has the slightest concern for education would rather be dealing with students than doing a poor imitation of running a supermarket. So how can students have been turned into customers, university education into "modules" "delivered"

by facilitators and academics into pieceworkers?

Here is not the place to pick over those bones. It's far too late to undo all that... isn't it? So why not just embrace the fact? If we can't turn our customers back into students, we had better all become realists and take them seriously as customers. After all, our mortgages depend on them. So maybe we should just give them what they want: spoon-feed them; ensure they are never challenged or made to feel uncomfortable; and, when they leave, give them the 2:1s they paid for. Maybe we should just accept that the customer is always right.

Well, suppose we did embrace the transformation of students into customers.

One interesting question that would raise is: whose customers are they? In the commercial world, people are companies' customers, not customers of companies' employees. So if students are customers, it follows that they must be the universities' customers, not customers of the universities'


But that in turn has implications that even hard-nosed realists might find unwelcome. It's not just the legal implications that have seen student appeals turning into the equivalent of customers' claims for non-delivery of goods. It's something more fundamental. Take just one immediate example: industrial relations. How would the Universities and Colleges Employers'

Association like to worry not about "action that could adversely affect students" ("Unions say 'no' to pay", February 10) but about action that might adversely affect the customers - and about the legal implications for them of allowing that? As with commercial outlets, so with higher education plc: today's satisfied customers could be tomorrow's litigants. Maybe it's the McVersity "realists" who've got it wrong.

Bob Brecher is reader in moral philosophy at Brighton University.

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