Are students customers?

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 – 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 – 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 – a subject not an object – not a devalued commodity. At the same time, customers can have responsibilities as well as rights – 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 – 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 – 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 – 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:

  1. The student – in the core academic relationship, with all its rigour, challenge and focus on individual effort
  2. The student customer – meeting their needs in the best way possible, to enable them to fulfil their student role fully and successfully
  3. Synergy – 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 £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…

NB: Comments may be edited to leave a concise, on-topic discussion.  

Please be polite – no cussing, actual or implied…

22 thoughts on “Are students customers?

  1. I was with you until “That’s an academic process that is perceived as a service. And needs to be managed as one.” Not in my view. Feedback on work is part of the teaching and learning process. Encouraging the students to see it as a service is to be complicit with the attitude that some students display, whereby they are only interested in the mark and not the (often lengthy, thoughtful, positive, informative) comments.
    I’d say a customer is someone who buys goods or services. That’s not what’s happening in HE: students are paying, yes, but paying a fraction of the true cost of their education, and paying it on fabulously favourable terms which won’t require them to stump up anything for years.

  2. This debate will run and run, I’m sure, but for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on the customer/student debate.

    Calling students ‘customers’ is dangerous because of the mindset it may engender in the students themselves. If they accept that they are customers, education becomes an act of consumption rather than of application and development. It’s a little like calling NHS patients customers (something which seems particularly ridiculous). My father did not go into hospital to buy a kidney scan nor did I purchase a schleral buckle for my eye. I was a patient and I did not pay for my operation at the site of consumption. I was not a customer. If I had elected to have my retina repaired elsewhere on the NHS, I would have remained a patient since I was not buying my operation there either.

    The term ‘customer’ when used in HE also obfuscates that students have a responsibility for their own education. A fundamental problem seems to me to be the crudeness of the term ‘customer’. As customers we function very differently in different contexts. How much responsibility we might feel for a purchase may depend on how much we are spending, our level of desire, or our need. If I buy the dvd of a film I have not seen, I gamble my £4.99 on liking the film in the knowledge I may be able to recoup the costs on ebay. In short, I judge my expenditure to be worth the gamble (I know the director’s work, or the star, or whatever). If wish to own a film I have seen, which is only available from a shop specialising in deleted dvds, my level of desire may outstrip my sense of responsibility (the film may complete a set, be essential for teaching, satisfy a particular overwhelming desire for consumption). If I need a machine to transfer decaying vhs to dvd, my desire to save my film collection from entropy may exceed my sense of responsibility and I’ll spend £500. The wisdom of my purchase is open to question, of course.

    Hence, I am not one customer but many, or else I am one customer functioning differently in different contexts. The word ‘customer’ seems inadequate to convey my activities as gambler, collector and archivist. There is no such ambiguity associated with the word ‘student’. If we call students ‘students’ – and as a University I suggest we should – we do not have to talk about the responsibilities and needs of the customer and the responsibilities and needs of the student; we speak of the responsibilities and needs of the student alone. The student has specific academic responsibilities; a customer does not have responsibilities beyond the economic (I should not buy the complete series of ‘Star Blazers’ because I have my Council Tax to pay; I should pay for what I have picked up, and so forth). The student’s academic responsibilities are less direct, less tangible, more diffuse and more critical. Tutors also have academic responsibilities that are not the same as a vendor. For example, if a customer buys a packet of chips from me, I accept the money, parcel up the chips, and wave goodbye hoping that the customer will enjoy the chips and return to buy some more from me. The transaction is over. As an academic with three years’ worth of responsibility for a student, I do not accept essays, mark them as if they are free-standing entities, and hand them back. Feedback is not simply found on an essay; it takes place in every lecture, seminar, personal tutor meeting, and consultation. Our responsibilities including helping students develop themselves as students. We must encourage them to see their time in HE as a process involving feedback, reflection and – hopefully – progression. Most vendors are not so intimately involved with their customers – unless something goes wrong. Anyone who has had experience with an extended warranty will note how ‘customer service’ is quite variable and is certainly not an ongoing process of development and support.

    The responsibilities of students and academics are governed by regulations, not by the economic forces which govern material transactions. These regulations establish clearly who is responsible for what. A student must submit work on time; an academic must provide feedback within a set period.

    The conflation of two modes of discourse (the academic and the commercial) does not work, I believe, because it jeopardises the recognition of the responsibilities of both student and tutor, potentially undermining a relationship that depends upon the scholarly activity (research, learning, reflection, et cetera) of both. Such a conflation does not indicate a change in the attitudes of students but a change forced and enforced by the changes in the composition of HE staffing. There are now more business-orientated and commercial professionals working in HE, fulfilling essential roles. They have brought their discourse with them because they are comfortable with it. The academic staff employs the traditional HE discourse because they are comfortable with that. There is a conflict, if not of interests then certainly of perspectives. Yet we should remember that though the business of HE has changed, the fundamental responsibilities and activities of students of a particular subject have not. At a time when academic staff are encouraging students to behave like students (and they are not behaving like customers, either), applying an inappropriate terminology can have a distinctly negative impact. They may believe that all they need to do is come to the ‘store’, buy a few modules, and be rewarded with a degree, wrapped and delivered to them by the shop staff. Education does not work that was, nor should students be encouraged to believe that it does.

    If the notion of the student-as-customer is to be applied, the University must consider special offers, discounts, competitive advertising, loyalty cards and the whole architecture of commercial trading because that is where the analogy takes us. We are a University; we should attract students by emphasising – as we do – a unique university experience and by highlighting how the experience will prepare them for life after university. The customer analogy simply does not work. The idea of running the customer/student label concurrently – presumably using the different terms in different contexts to ensure the diverse areas of the University staff remain comfortable – risks drawing attention away from the main function of the university – to teach and support the learning of those who have entrusted us with their education for an extended period of time.

    At least, that’s the way I see it.

  3. Faced with the prospect of eliding ‘customer’ from our discourse completely, I would feel we were denying ourselves access to a concept which can be useful.I don’t see myself as a customer of the NHS either, but if behind the scenes their staff were to meet up and have a discussion along the lines of ‘OK folks, let’s temporarily think of the patients as customers to help us figure out some ways to better meet their needs’ I wouldn’t be unhappy.

    I think there are many ways that the way the student-as-student relationship is managed by a university can be configured to meet student needs better and thereby support the academic endeavour. Plus of course the services that _surround_ the academic relationship, which need to meet increasing expectations – we wouldn’t want an attitude of ‘they’re just students so it doesn’t matter what we feed them/how we treat them/where they sleep’ to pervade.

    I never like to imply that some kind of impersonal greater forces have created situations that we just have to live with, but variable fees (soon probably to be uncapped) and the variable entry grades that have always been around, combined with the finite resources of funding have created a situation where universities do compete and already and most of the things you descibe as ‘the whole architecture of commercial trading’are happening in one form or another. One saving grace is that it is an amiable form of competition with an equal portion of cooperation happening at the same time.

  4. If you are a customer and you decide your education hasn’t been fit for purpose/ as advertised, can you get a refund?

  5. Were would the line be drawn between customer and student. Could this not reflect down the line to Infant School ?

  6. “If you are a customer and you decide your education hasn’t been fit for purpose/ as advertised, can you get a refund?” asks JM. I think the answer is no, precisely because of the arguments Peter puts forward. As a student, you are not buying anything – you are making a (smallish) contribution to the costs of providing an opportunity. I like the analogy Baroness Deech used when faced with complaints from students along the lines of “I’ve paid my money, I want a II i”. She said the transaction is like joining a gym. Paying the subs is necessary, but it won’t in itself ensure you lose weight- you have to get exercising to do that.

  7. Using the term ‘customer’ for students is the entirely wrong way to go about things; it implies all the wrong connotations and encourages issues with hierachy and equal opp’s in my view.

    Yes they are using a service we provide, but they should be regarded as individuals.

  8. I would rather think of students as investors in their education. Like all good investors they will look for a safe place to put their investment that is going to give them the best return on their investment. ie retention (risk assessment for investment)and achievement (return on that investment). In taking this view point we can encourage students to take a more proactive approach to learning as they too have a part to play in achievement – bit like the gym analogy.

  9. Roy, whilst I admit the ‘concept’ of students-as-customers could be useful, I wonder if it is really necessary – unless it helps colleagues from a business background make the transition into Higher Education. We should meet the needs of students and I’m not certain that thinking of them as customers is altogether helpful. And I’m not convinced that anyone who works here thinks of students as ‘just students’ anymore, if they ever did (and I would agree that we wouldn’t want that attitude to emerge at any point). I certainly hope that none of my colleagues on the academic side of Edge Hill’s activities would be so dismissive – and I doubt that anyone else in the university thinks in those terms.

    Of course, I recognise that the HE sector is a competitive arena – but it always has been. The factors governing that competition have become more complex, perhaps more imperative, yet I wonder if that competitiveness is not driving us to think in more commercial, less sector-specific ways. I am also uncertain whether all of the competition within the sector – and perhaps even within the University – is as amiable as you suggest. Departmental recruitment targets, for example, inevitably foster an atmosphere of competition where collaboration may actually be more productive in terms of student numbers, portfolio development and so forth.

    However, the crux of the issue is how we treat, and what we offer, our students, not only in comparison to other universities but in also in contrast with whatever alternative opportunities are available to them (full-time work, etc). I think we are good at attracting students but as we all know, we are not particularly impressive at retaining them. Widening access has implications that we may not yet understand fully, nor are we yet prepared – it seems – to invest as much in retaining students as we are in recruiting them. It is essential that we recruit students who prefer to study for three years rather than have a full-time job, who are not so vulnerable (intellectually, emotionally, psychologically) that we cannot support them, and who recognise the value of a degree qualification. We need to impress upon them the importance of deferred gratification and their burgeoning status as thinkers, writers, and employable individuals. Calling them customers opposes this, I think, as it suggests instant satisfaction and ease (I pay my money, I get what I want with no more effort than a simple transaction). That might be appropriate for the consumption of sandwiches, but not for the earning of an undergraduate degree.

    Considering students as customers also simplifies the matter of expectation and responsibility.

    If we all agree that the student experience is central to our success, and we have a commitment to expansion, we need to think more about how to consolidate our annual intake (i.e. how to retain those diverse students we already attract, how to construct, develop, respond to and satisfy our students’ needs). That, I think, requires us to raise our expectations of them (and recent changes in regulations seems to promise the exact opposite) and their expectations of us. Using the customer analogy is not helpful in this respect.

    In terms of raising the expectations of our students, there needs to be a greater emphasis on students studying, thinking, reflecting, and disseminating their discoveries (something the customer analogy opposes). As academics, we actively encourage this but we are not always supported in our efforts by the wider university. To achieve this will, I think, require a change in culture and a not insignificant investment to improve the personal tutor system and provide study skills sessions for the high proportion of our students who experience difficulty with literacy and self expression (the proposed foundation year is a positive step in this regard). The return of the attendance requirement is also fundamental if the university wishes to improve the experiences of its students (and its teaching staff), help stem withdrawals and enhance the exit qualifications of its graduates. Here again the customer analogy breaks down. Customers who pay for goods are not compelled to collect them if they do not wish to (they can waste their money). The vendor pockets their payment and is satisfied. If a student pays his or her fees but does not attend, drops out or fails, there are much more significant implications for the university than there are for the high street or mail order vendor. We require ‘customer loyalty’ or ‘brand loyalty’ far beyond that required by commercial traders because penalties (financial, relational or cultural) are levied against us. The concept of student-as-customer does not reflect this.

    Regarding the institution’s responsibilities to its students, it seems vital that we work to enhance the campus as much as possible to make student life here more enticing. I am never certain whether the campus is dead at the weekend because our students go home or our students go home because our campus is dead. Either way, it seems the consequence of Edge Hill being a regionalised – rather than a regional – university. If there is nothing to encourage students to stay, and they live in commuting distance to their home addresses, they will go home to see friends and have a good time. The link to home is never weakened and independence, maturity and autonomy may be postponed. The fact that we work largely to recruit students from the local area (we think of ‘feeder schools’ and undertake school visits as if we are a sixth form college rather than a university) only exacerbates the problem. The university needs a more vibrant campus – one on which the students’ social life does not revolve solely around the bar – and a student union more engaged with providing entertainment that goes beyond drinking yourself stupid. What about band’s nights, for example? Twenty years ago, when the union was proactive and concerned about its members, these were a common occurrence.

    Unfortunately, I tend to view the customer analogy as the driving force behind what I perceive as unfavourable changes around the campus. The new coffee bar in the LRC, for example, is not a welcome change, though it may respond to customer needs (but how many coffee bars do we need?). Less Costa and more concentration is what is required amongst our students. The new open learning space should instead be stocked with intellectual resources. And does the customer analogy lead convincingly to the self-service nature of book-checking in the LRC? Should it not oppose it? The substitution of machines for staff has transformed our LRC into one of the coldest, most dehumanised libraries I have ever been in. There is little to encourage study or even engagement. The ‘customer’ service, the student experience, is poor because there is no service except that which you provide yourself. Now, instead of queuing to see a librarian on the desk, you can queue to use a machine. That’s not an improvement. Perhaps we need to visit the Sidney Jones Library at Liverpool University to see an example of how lively a library can be.

    I think I have strayed a little off-topic but I feel that now is the time for us to really think like a university and not as a service provider where there is no concept of academic excellence, personal development, higher learning, intellectual engagement, discussion, community and so forth. We must pay attention to encouraging and supporting genuine academic aspirations amongst students and staff. The intrusion of commercial discourse clouds that endeavour when we need absolute clarity of purpose.

  10. good grief, what a lot of stuff- maybe too much discourse here.. let’s not get lost in debating the meaning of words. The bottom line is simply that a formal sense of ‘customer service’ in terms of returning work to students (who as customers are important) in good time (and so on) would be very much to be preferred over informal decisions based on hierarchy (pulling academic rank, putting personal priorities first, and returning work whenever). If we genuinely can’t deliver such service, and it’s now a customer service, then we can obviously now (Thanks Roy) go back and ask formally for more time or more help or less teaching. I don’t care that i am called a ‘customer’ of building societies or asda or the gym, i of course know that the onus is on me to put in the effort and make decisions. The terminology doesn’t direct how i think. A bit patronizing to think that calling students customers will affect their brains, poor things. It is actual practices that must be made the whole of the question here.

  11. The word ‘customer’ may have some significance for some students. There may be some who feel that they are paying for their degree and are unhappy if they don’t get one. The gym analogy may be reasonable here.

    The initial and obvious thoughts that sprang into my fevered brain looking at the blog title were about students. But I think a bigger issue concerns the ways the financial relationships underpinning such labels may influence what WE do. It is probably a good thing that the ‘c-word’ is aired in that it makes the significance of the financial explicit. There are very obvious and real material vested interests at stake (‘ours’ and well as ‘theirs’!)that ever so gently (and sometimes not so gently) push us in the direction of ‘satisfying’ the existing customer – or enticing the ‘would be customer’. We need an ever so slightly higher number of 2:1s to 2:2s to rise up the relevant league tables. We need to improve our retention figures. There are too many students who have failed this module – time to look at the mode of assessment.

    Nothing necessarily wrong with all that but we all know that there are means to ends and that there is a vital need for academic rigour at all levels – not least to guard against risks to our reputation (and all that implies commercially).

    When Roy writes that ‘we 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)’ I have a slight difficulty. I agree with the first part, but not because it might be a factor in attraction or retention or enabling the university to flourish (Roy doesn’t, to be fair make the one follow from the other – but this is the link that is increasingly being emphasised). Most of us, I think, try to offer the best service we can – not primarily to attract and retain students – but because that is our job and we find it satisfying, we feel part of a team, we love the subject, we actually respect and want the best for our students etc. etc. If this service turns out to attract or retain students, all well and good.

    But a weakness in the vendor / customer analogy is that it frames service as a means to a commercial end whereas a good service may sometimes not make commercial sense – at least in the immediate term. It certainly may not be what the customer ‘wants’. In some circumstances, for example, it may be the best, most appropriate and ethical support to help a student look at whether being here is/would be right for them at all.

    This isn’t easy. But the problem may not be the student’s attitude – some sense of misplaced entitlement that the customer label has generated. Actually, for many of our applicants and students, getting a degree is not like buying a commodity, it is a dream. Something that nobody in their family has ever achieved. Something they, and others around them, always thought was beyond them. Great, give all the support we can – and how rewarding when we help realise the dream! But the first problem is that for some it IS actually, or is almost certain to be, beyond them. The second is that if a customer implies a vendor – then the vendor has their own interests at stake. It can be difficult enough to try disinterestedly to help a student in this position. But as the customer / vendor analogy illuminates, we are not disinterested. We can try our best, but if application / admissions / expansion targets look unlikely to be met, or concern is in the air over retention rates, and there is income and maybe programmes at stake, it might take an ethical vendor indeed to resist temptation.

    The above, I hasten to emphasise is one example of where conflict may be manifested and is not to suggest that support is a trivial thing – quite the opposite. Nor is it to say that I personally feel unsupported in these tasks and conflicts by my own line management – again quite the opposite. But the potential conflicts and pressures do exist, at all sorts of levels from the one to one meeting, up through meetings, boards, working groups and validations. They are not, let’s be clear, entirely new (although as ‘customers’, our students have to put more on the line than I ever did). There are other examples colleagues will know very well where ‘our’ interests /risks, customer interests/risks and the broader ‘academic’interest/risks may conflict (of course we do also have common interests/risks too).

    Labels are important but the relations underlying them are more important still. If the customer label helps to clarify these and generate discussion, all to the good. But for me it raises as many issues about ‘us’ and what we need to be self-aware and vigilant about as ‘academic vendors’ as it does about our student customers.

  12. Richard – you don’t care if you are called a customer at the building society: why would you?- that’s what you are. The student position is different, and it simply doesn’t help to refer to them or think of them as customers.

  13. I’ll try and draw some threads together, just to get some things straighter in my own head.

    Richard says ‘Labels are important but the relations underlying them are more important still.’ Perhaps labels are _only_ important in so far as they affect how people are treated? If labels define relationships then all parties are affected, eg if students play a customer role then university staff play a vendor role.

    University staff can if they wish ‘label’ students in many ways and we have rehearsed some of these. No label has ultimate validity (the map is not the territory) but any label may or may not be helpful and we can see our differing views on the relative utility of some of them.

    If students _themselves_ *decide* to act as customers in certain situations (eg their approach to choosing courses and universities) then universities have to deal with that _somehow_ – if only by defining clearly where/when the customer relationship ends and inducting/educating people into the ‘different’ student role, which includes responsibility for learning (the gym analogy), effort (Sue’s investor analogy), selectivity (not everyone can benefit from playing), community membership etc.

    I would be inclined to go a bit further and ‘think of them as customers’ to ensure that the services, structures and practices _surrounding and supporting_ learning and the student relationship do meet students’ needs in the best possible way (at least better than the alternatives of other universities or non-HE lifestyles, for those who can benefit from HE.)

    However I don’t think a sort of ‘marketing fundamentalism’ that says the whole architecture of customer relations and associated terminology is necessary and sufficient is not appropriate in a university situation.

  14. The issue I have with using the term “customer” is that it has connotations of retail. Retailers, especially Tesco and the like, will always back down when a customer complains, due to the intense competition of the marketplace, meaning an unhappy customer can easily go elsewhere for their goods. Consequently, they adopt the attitude that the customer should be pleased at all costs, no matter how unreasonable their demands, to avoid this happening. While HE is also competitive, students, and other non-students who use our services will inevitably start to expect this overly-compliant attitude if given this term. The term “student” is better as their purpose for being here is in the term – to study, not to “consume” like a customer.

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  18. the student is a customer, whether we like it or not. maybe we wouldnt like to call them that, since the danger’s of them claiming for consumer satisfaction but affect the way they think of their education. however, if you consider the fact that they are simply paying to receive a service,and that is all there is is to it. the only difference is that the “customer” in this case has to make the necessary efforts in gaining the satisfactory results in his education.

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  21. Right on now. By the way, I know you want a smoking gun from universities, but this is a good way to start.

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