Metaphor of student as customer

01/05/2013 § 1 Comment

A colleague sent me a link to Professor Scott Galloway’s advice to a student who dared take a metaphor seriously:

When the student arrived an hour late to the professor’s brand management class, Galloway told him to leave. Later the student emailed Galloway, explaining that he was shopping around for classes, which is why he was late: “It was more probable that my tardiness was due to my desire to sample different classes rather than sheer complacency.”

The student, it seems, really did believe he was customer of the university. He was shopping around, trying to find the product that best met his needs. And why shouldn’t he think that? The metaphor has been around for a long time, and the more students are asked to contribute to the cost of their education, the greater currency it has. I came across this article in the Times Higher Education, from 1999:

Universities face a wave of student litigation because of a failure to grasp their changing contractual relationship with fee-paying undergraduates, an academic lawyer has said.

Mr Birtwistle, a principal lecturer, found that only a minority of universities surveyed understood the potential impact of the introduction of fees. “There can be no doubt now that students hold a consumer contract with their university,” he said. Mr Birtwistle said that now students pay their fees directly means they are, in legal terms, buying a service. They are therefore entitled to private law redress for breaches of contract.

‘Students are our customers’ goes from being a business-school metaphor to being a statement of civil law. Students who are dissatisfied have therefore appealed to the courts for redress — for not providing promised support, for a poor grade (the case failed), for not getting a job, for failing to provide courses in a timely fashion [can’t find a link].

Looking through the various cases, it is clear that courts do not want to meddle with academic issues. They tend to side with universities, who defend themselves by saying they are upholding academic rigour. Interesting, Prof Galloway did not appeal to academic rigour, or even professorial authority. He appealed essentially to accepted standards of behaviour.

Now, we could view the NYU episode as an example of the teaching/learning that can happen at a university beyond the subject matter. The professor is trying to teach the student how to behave in, as it were, polite society. But that doesn’t break the metaphor. It just means that the lessons the student is buying are more than the lectures and slides. They are behaviour lessons — the so-called ‘soft’ employment skills — that make a difference to how people get along in the workplace.

Once again, we get back to the purpose of a university education. Is it to produce graduates who know how to behave? Is it to teach them specific areas of knowledge? To get them jobs? It’s probably a bit of all those things. But that also gives universities a lot of ways they can fail their students, and a lot of potential grievances to be redressed.

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§ One Response to Metaphor of student as customer

  • Grant Taylor says:

    Having been a student during the early phases in NZ of the ‘modernisation’ of university culture, I remember clearly the concern among students at the time of the withdrawal of universities from acting as ‘kindly old aunts and uncles’ who only want the best for their young charges to more demanding, stentorian figures (of course, the rhetoric was not couched in quite these terms).

    It seemed to me that what was being overlooked was that generally (in those days anyway) most students commenced university at 18 years of age and still had a lot of growing up to do. Many were living away from home for the first time and as much of their ‘education’ was about life skills as it was about scholarly subjects – in the classroom, as you note, but largely outside of it.

    This feeling was reinforced when I went to do postgraduate study in Germany; the students were 2-3 years older on commencing university and had done some of the growing up in compulsory civil or military service. They were ready to provide the classroom with relatively undivided attention. The oversight of and demands upon the students by the university was minimal. Assignments and exams seemed to be more a matter of ‘exercises’ to prompt the students and provide them with feedback rather than examine their performance on a criterion. It seemed to be simply assumed that the students were there to learn, that is what they would do, and at the end of their studies, they would be more educated.

    Simply put, the students were not treated as either consumers or funding-related FTEs and their education was not treated as a product. It struck me as a healthy relationship between mature adults.

    Commercialising relationships and emphasising extrinsic motivations can erode what is most important in relationships – responsibility, commitment, obligation, and good faith. When the relationships are trivial, such as many situations involving a buyer and seller in a marketplace, that might not be a great loss but I suggest that the relationship between students and their teaching institutions is far from trivial.

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