Against a backdrop of demands for a Covid-19 refund and value-for-money risks to student-customers, Aveek Bhattacharya spotlights the paradigm shift in how students are perceived and assert their identities.
‘The customer is always right’ is such a powerful maxim in retail, not because it is literally true (if someone walks into your car dealership and offers £100 for the latest model, you obviously refuse them), but because it reminds retailers of their fundamental objective: to satisfy the customer. However, many university teachers have been fiercely resistant to the notion that they should consider their students as customers, and, consequently, that their mission should be to satisfy their students. Indeed, there are genuine problems with the metaphor of student as customer. As McMillan and Cheney point out, it implies that students are passive recipients of a product, rather than active participants in a process, and over-emphasises the promotional and entertainment role of teachers.
But if as undergraduate teachers we are not here to satisfy the needs of our customers, what is our fundamental objective? Malcolm Tight considers a few alternative metaphors. One is the idea of the student as apprentice – being inducted and trained into a certain academic or professional discipline. Tight relates this model only to vocational courses, such as medicine, and PhD programmes, and in these contexts it is unproblematic. But I think apprenticeship also fits much of what happens in more generalist undergraduate degrees, where it is arguably less appropriate. I could fairly characterise my experience of BA programmes in politics and philosophy as preparation for an academic career in those subjects. I suspect the same is true in history or English. Yet in subjects like these, the vast majority of students will not go on to be academics, nor do they have any desire to do so.
More troubling still is the metaphor of student as child, seeing university effectively as an extension of school, with students expected to defer to their teachers. Tight believes that such an approach is clearly out-of-date. While it may have been the case 50 years ago that “academics would have had little doubt about their expert status, their right to decide what their students should receive, and to make judgments about their students with little in the way of explanation or justification”, Tight claims those days are long gone. I’m not so sure.
can we then presume to know better than our students as to what is in their interests?
Gert Biesta argues forcefully that “ that “teacher judgement is essential in education”. He contrasts this position with the view that students are customers: “Whereas in economic transactions we start from the assumption that customers know what they want…the whole point of professional practices such as education is that they do not just service the needs of their clients, but also play a crucial role in the definition of those needs”. University students are almost all over the age of 18 and have are deemed competent to make a decision as significant as whether to attend university in the first place. How can we then presume to know better than our students as to what is in their interests? And even if we do believe we know better, how can it be legitimate for us to foist this judgement upon our students, regardless of whether or not they agree with it? In fairness to Biesta, he denies that his position entails that students “should have no voice”, but it is unclear from his account where this voice fits into the process of teaching.
In my view, the best way to respect students’ capacity to make judgements about their own lives is to try to understand their overarching objectives for university, and to ensure that our teaching helps them towards these goals. The metaphor that is the most appropriate fit from Tight’s definition, is that of the student as client. Just like lawyers or accountants, there is an asymmetry of knowledge and experience between the teacher and those they serve. Nonetheless, such groups have an obligation to seek to understand the preferences of their clients, and make sure that they use their technical expertise in service of them. In the same way, I think university teachers should consider their position as a fiduciary responsibility. Students have chosen to place themselves in our hands – it is therefore incumbent on us to try and understand what they want from our teaching and seek to give it to them.
A 2008 National Union of Students survey identified four (not mutually exclusive) orientations towards university among students:
- Academics: those committed to their subjects and the intellectual challenge of university, often keen to pursue postgraduate study
- Next steppers: those coming to university with a clear career goal, primarily seeing it as a means to that end
- Option openers: those with less clear objectives from university
- Toe dippers: those primarily attracted to university for the lifestyle experience
Though their relative prevalence varies, these basic motivations are fairly consistent across different studies. For example, a survey from last year found 58% rated passion for their subject among their top three reasons for wanting to go to university, compared to 55% who said it was to pursue a particular career.
My sense is that, by and large, the university system serves ‘Academics’ well, by treating them like apprentices. It may work for ‘Option openers’ by treating them like children. But I suspect our teaching is less suited to ‘Next steppers’ (and perhaps ‘Toe dippers’). It is this perceived deficit that the ‘employability agenda’ seeks to address, for example, by working with businesses in developing curricula and facilitating student placements. There are risks with such an approach. It may focus too narrowly on inculcating specific skills, which may quickly become obsolete. Ronald Barnett is correct to insist that universities reject such technicism and instead focus on developing more general, flexible, and imaginative capabilities. Fundamentally, the employability agenda assumes that universities are able to figure out what skills make for an employable worker, which is far from self-evident.
But respecting our students’ abilities to decide for themselves what is important to them, and what they want to get out of the university experience, means we have to take such questions seriously, even if they are hard. And given the evidence that career prospects are such an important motivation for coming to university, our efforts cannot just be token or limited to internships and placements. For example, given the importance of oral presentations in the outside world, perhaps these should take greater precedence over written exams. More radically, perhaps we should be more accepting that classes are a less valuable component of university to some students than, say, networking, internships or extracurricular activities. This isn’t to say everything needs to change – we do not want to swing too far and alienate those that are well served by the status quo, like the Academics; but I think university teachers can better recognise and respond to the diversity of student motivations for wanting to achieve a university education.
Different perspectives: the student as customer
- Maria Magdalena Gajewska, a PhD candidate, argues for a Covid-19 refund as she is no longer able to enjoy the traditional on-campus learner experience in a Times Higher Education blog.
- Wonkhe discusses that whilst controversial, if students are indeed customers, then surely this demands a better quality of service from their institutions.
- Mark Corver outlines some packages and special deals universities can offer their customers (aka students) to mitigate value-for-money risks during the pandemic in a blog for HEPI.
- Louise Bunce on her seminal research that shows the negative impact of the ‘student-as-consumer’ mindset on academic performance in the AdvanceHE blog.
Compiled by Paulette Annon
Disclaimer: This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.