Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Are students customers?

A colleague at another university recently told me he was aghast his university was now referring to students as "customers".  To see the problem with this terminology, consider the fact that:
  • The customer is always right.
  • The customer does not do any real work. They just pay for products and services.
  • The customer is not really accountable to anyone.
University faculty and administrators do need to do everything they can to create a stimulating environment which gives students opportunities to learn.
Students are not customers. Students are students.


  1. I emphatically disagree with this. The students certainly are customers (you serve them for a fee), the problems is that schools have not been clear enough about what the product is that's being sold to them.

    "the customer is always right" is an often distorted phrase which should really be "delivering the promised product to the customer is priority number 1". I've often seen physics departments neglect their undergraduates in favor of pursuing research to an appalling degree. These institutions have indeed forgotten who the customers are. another example: a faculty meeting figuring out which group of student should be sacrificed to the classroom of a known poor performing but tenured professor instead of firing the poor performer and hiring a competent one. This is a clear case of customer needs being forgotten.

    This in no way need change the professor student relationship that you desire. Students can still be expected to work hard, be honestly and toughly assessed, and earn their marks(or fail to), while still being a top priority of the faculty.

  2. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for your helpful comments.
    I think a key issue you raise is "the problem is that schools have not been clear enough about what the product is that's being sold to [students]".
    Partly, this is because faculty, administrators and governments (or trustees of private colleges), may have very different ideas about what the "product" is. Even when they all say it is "an education" I think this may mean very different things to all the stakeholders.

    The customer analogy also breaks down because I believe you can only understand and appreciate the product (education) after you have bought it and used it for a while.
    I think a student who is buying an iPhone or a car has a pretty good understanding of the product when they buy it. I am not sure this is true of students who think they are customers buying a university degree.

  3. Hi Ross,

    Thanks for replying to my comment. It's a fascinating topic. As you mention, education is an odd product in the sense that the customers don't quite know what they're getting or dont fully appreciate its real value. I wonder what can be done to make it more clear or to manage student expectations. How can the message be sent "education is for sale here, grades are not"? It also made me think of a firm hiring an outside accountant. The firm is the accountants customer, but there is no expectation that the accountant should cook the companies books for them.

    I'm a bit fuzzy on this, but as I remember my days of choosing an undergraduate college, a common recruiter sales pitch was "our students get hired by these companies after graduation" which is really selling the degree. A better sales pitch would be "our students have the abilities to do such and such after going through our program" which is selling the education.

    Finally, said with my head in the clouds, I wonder if it would make sense for the evaluations to be somehow done by a third party. This would be difficult for more specialized classes but might be possible for physics 1 and 2. The professor could then be seen by the student as someone that helps him learn so that he might perform well on the 3rd party assessment (a healthy client relationship) and not someone with whom he must spend his time arguing for favorable marks.

    Thanks again for bringing up this interesting topic.