Serve the customer

December 20, 2002

Universities are just another service industry and must respond to the market, says Roger Waterhouse

When I went up to university I knew exactly how things stood. I was 18 and considered myself lucky to be there. It was a privilege enjoyed by few. Three years of bookwork would set me up for life. And I knew my place in the scheme of things: I was there to sit at the feet of the masters. They expected due deference and a certain amount of gratitude for giving me attention. After all, they had more important things to do than teaching students, like writing their next book. This was education as initiation in the context of a very clear power relationship.

How the world has changed. Most of the students entering my university are over the age of 21. Virtually all have been in full-time employment, and a significant minority still are. Many of them are paying fees and they have little expectation that their degree or diploma will give them access to a privileged elite. Higher education is a normal process you have to go through in order to achieve a decent career, and a degree is not expected to be the end of education for life. Students want to learn efficiently and expect the best of new technology to help them do that. They don't expect to be talked down to or treated as inferiors. They expect lecturers to turn up on time and to be available for help when they need it. After all, they are paying for a service and expect a good one.

The media still hawk the increasingly out-of-date image of the old-style student. The more we move towards a universal system of higher education (assuming that the 50 per cent is just a staging post), the more normal the consumers of higher education become. They are as varied as the population at large and as varied in their needs for learning. Higher education is no longer about a one-off initiation into the adult world. It cannot be founded upon the deferential power relationship. And it cannot treat its customers like children.

The truth of the matter is that we are a service industry. As the cost of higher education continues to rise at the point of sale, we can expect our clients to make the same demands of us as they do of other service providers. Why should we not provide support for learning as, when and where students want it? New technology enables us to do this. It is absolutely certain that e-learning will develop, for campus-based as well as distance learners. There will be a multitude of providers offering learner support, and 24 x 7 x 365 does not present any problems commercially. Learner support is not the unique selling point of universities, the public accreditation of successful learning is. But wait for our monopoly to be eroded by the government's proposals to extend degree-awarding powers to the National Health Service University, to corporate universities and to other bodies.

Universities have a remarkable record of institutional survival. But at times throughout their long history they have lost the plot and the real action has moved elsewhere. If we are to prevent that happening, we need to reconfigure ourselves in this increasingly commercial world. There are no university jobs for life, and mergers and acquisitions are officially on the government agenda. Our structures were formed for a different model and a different power relationship. Our culture is demand-side driven, not supply-side led. The more government policy emphasises the needs of the economy and the more clients demand value for money, the more exposed our archaic faculty system will become.

We need therefore to embrace the service industry culture and set up structures to look after our clients. We need call centres, we need advisers, we need mentors, we need learning facilitators with a customer-focused mentality. We need to embrace the potential of e-learning and formative e-assessment - they are powerful tools in enhancing service quality. In this world, the local provider has a powerful advantage, particularly for those in work. Few students want to study wholly online, most choose periodic human interaction. But lest we think that service industries based on the human touch will never change, consider the fate of banking.

Roger Waterhouse is vice-chancellor of the University of Derby.

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