Different groups of people use language in different ways, and sometimes words with positive meanings in one subculture become negative in another. In a university context, terms like ‘customer’, ‘customer satisfaction’ and ‘customer service’ are an example of this phenomenon. In some circles, the case is made that students should be treated like customers, in fact given better service – that we should pay more attention to their satisfaction. Others feel that calling students customers is inappropriate â€“ for instance because to do so devalues the student role by reducing it to a quasi-commercial one, or overemphasises students’ right to have their wants satisfied, undermining the responsibilities involved in studying. Often there the debate ends â€“ we shrug our shoulders and let it lie. It sometimes feels like a tug of war, with some people saying ‘Look, we need to think of students as customers’ and others saying ‘How dare you, of course we mustn’t.’
There are a number of factors which suggest that the customer concept is relevant to the student experience, at least as a useful analogy. Students make choices of course and university, pay a price (fees, entry grades), express satisfaction through both formal systems (national and institutional Student Satisfaction Surveys) and informal channels (word of mouth, individual online communications and ranking sites such as whatuni.com.) All very customer-like behaviour. This set of customer-like factors has at least two implications: students and their families perceive can themselves as customers (especially when they are unhappy), and the success or otherwise of the customer-like relationships has a direct impact on universities (e.g. through student numbers, retention and reputation.)
My own standpoint is one of comfort with ‘customer’ terminology. In my world (as a marketer working to fulfil social rather than commercial objectives), a customer can be a fully human, complex being â€“ a subject not an object â€“ not a devalued commodity. At the same time, customers can have responsibilities as well as rights â€“ for instance, were I to attend a gym I would understand that the responsibility to get fit lay with me, but I would still act as a customer, looking for the gym that offered me the best service in enabling me to achieve better fitness.
But that’s just me. I empathise with views that not all relationships can or should be expressed in customer terms, and with the reaction against anything that smacks of the worst end of consumer society. I also see the point that if students themselves focus too much on their customer role, they may have their eye off the ball in terms of their crucial academic engagement with the university.
And even I (marketer and habitual suit-wearer) don’t see my relationship with every organisation I transact with as one of customer/supplier: religious and medical institutions are exceptions in my case, even though I make choices, receive (or participate in) services and pay money in both these examples. (Reflecting on why this might be â€“ perhaps my culture and upbringing lead me to view these institutions as higher status; perhaps as they deal with my core physical and spiritual being they feel as if they should be on another plane. And perhaps academia belongs in this bracket.)
Thinking about universities in particular, I would like to suggest the following:
A. Students are customers when they use some of the services that support the academic experience. These services require different levels of responsibility from their student customers â€“ buying a meal is pretty straightforward (e.g. pay the money and take your tray back); Learning Resources and Accommodation require higher levels of commitment (e.g return books on time; behave in Halls according to a code of conduct). Most of these services involve access to community resources rather than simple purchase of commodities. Acknowledging this complexity, we nevertheless need to offer the best possible service to student customers as part of the process of attracting and retaining students (i.e. successfully making learning happen and enabling the university to flourish.)
B. The core academic relationship (the nexus of learning/teaching/research, however this is defined) is not one of customer/supplier. It’s something else entirely.
So that’s nice and simple, students are customers of the support services but beyond that the c-word doesn’t apply. Support services have customers, academic departments have students.
But… hang on a sec…there are aspects of the academic relationship which are services, which can be delivered well or badly, which a university is judged by. Timely return of work would be one example â€“ often a feature of student satisfaction surveys. That’s an academic process that is perceived as a service. And needs to be managed as one. So it isn’t as simple as all that after all…
Let’s look at a more sophisticated model that acknowledges the tensions. I suggest there are three things we need to focus on, and that we (collectively) need to focus on all three:
- The student â€“ in the core academic relationship, with all its rigour, challenge and focus on individual effort
- The student customer â€“ meeting their needs in the best way possible, to enable them to fulfil their student role fully and successfully
- Synergy â€“ ensuring 2 does not conflict with 1.
I’m no suggesting students better described as customers, or customers more than students. I’m saying there is a student relationship and a customer relationship existing concurrently, and that both relationships need to be managed well to deliver the core learning aims and the associated satisfactions that comprise the whole student experience. Within this, strong articulation of the unique nature of the student role (including aspects of community membership, responsibility, mutual accountability) should be integrated with our offering and delivering exceptional service.
(Other customer relationships could be overlaid onto this model, e.g with sponsors, employers, professional bodies, funders seeking workforce development outcomes.)
So that’s my Â£0.02 worth on the subject.
Any thoughts? It would be nice to have some responses posted here, partly to see how useful the blogging medium can be for debating issues like this…
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Please be polite – no cussing, actual or implied…