An article in today’s (24 Jan 08) THE reopens the ‘are students customers?’ debate with some interesting points:
The notion of students as “customers” has been banned at Liverpool Hope University as it and other church-based institutions lead a fightback in favour of a more rounded approach to higher education.
Gerald Pillay, the vice-chancellor, said: “Students should not be treated as customers but as part of scholarly communities.”
The phrase “customer service” implied that universities were caring for students for financial reasons rather than out of a moral duty to do so, he added. “We place distinctive emphasis on the individual.”
I admire the brio of the ‘church-based institutions’ in staking a claim to this particular piece of moral high ground, deftly implying that institutions without an explicit Christian basis are less likely to recognise moral duties, value individuals, or endeavour to foster scholarly community. The ‘customer’ argument is a good platform for this as it is such a reliable hackle-raiser. This semantic issue was discussed here at length last year. It’s a debate that does need to be reopened (even in a non-Church-based university.)
For what it’s worth, I’ve come to the view that the primary message should be about students as partners in their learning, and members of an academic community. However it has to be acknowledged that higher education needs to demonstrably meet the needs of students (and their funders), and that these are free agents who can choose not to engage. It is therefore necessary to positively influence the experience they have, in a managed way, including communicating the benefits of participating in the academic community. The relationship resembles the customer role in some limited but important ways, so banning the notion (if indeed notions can be banned) and launching a ‘fightback’ is not useful.
Back to the article. Professor Pillay also makes an interesting point about marketing: “The Christian tradition is something that is part of the fabric of an institution and should be obvious in its graduates. Collective memory is the best form of marketing” (italics mine.) This must be true (though it’s a bit like saying ‘results are the best form of experiment’). It is actually quite exciting to consider the kind of collective memory (or impact, or perception) that is being created by the graduates of the mass higher education system as it has evolved over the past decade or so – as unprecedented as a never-before-dreamed dream. Whatever that emerging memory is, it guess it’s as diverse and fluid as the HE system we now inhabit.