Luckily for them – students are customers


In an earlier post I referred to University students as ‘customers’. Some academics seem to object to this ‘title’ See, for example, here. The view of these academics – that students are not customers – is wrong. And this is a good thing for the students.

The ‘anti-customer’ view may reflect a modern day equivalent of the medieval aristocracy ‘looking down’ at merchants who engage in trade and commerce. It may reflect a view that the academic ‘knows best’ for the students and students should simply be receptacles to receive the wisdom of their academic masters.

However, as a matter of English, students are customers. A customer is a “person who purchases goods or services from another“. Our students certainly ‘purchase’ their education (i.e. they pay for it) from the University. I for one am proud to make sure my faculty’s students get exceptional value for their money and get an education that will help them through life.

From the students perspective it is important that they are customers. It means they are legally protected by the rights and privileges associated with being a customer. They are protected by Australia’s Competition and Consumer laws from being misled, subject to unconscionable or deceptive behaviour, or being at risk of anticompetitive behaviour by universities.  Because they are customers, students have rights. Unwittingly, those who deny that university students are customers seek to strip them of their legal rights.

17 Responses to "Luckily for them – students are customers"
  1. I think there’s a useful distinction between a customer and a client. I have the same rights as a client, as those bestowed on the customer, but recognise there exists an asymmetry of information vis-a-vis me and my service provider (be it a doctor. lawyer or university academic)…surely that has to still be stressed!

  2. Hi Vivek
    There are many situations where customers face asymmetric information. And there is no legal distinction between ‘customer’ and ‘client’ under the Competition and Consumer Act. So while the use of a term like ‘client’ may make us feel nice, the students remain ‘customers’.

  3. Yes…I think we are actually agreeing vehemently! Just that when students lose sight of that asymmetry of information, and view education as they would a bar of soap, as opposed to medical advice, we have more problems. So, its more than just about making us feel good, no?

  4. Agree. But the asymmetry of information is also a key reason why the students need the legal protection of being customers.

  5. Clearly there is a ‘customer’ relationship at secondary school. But probably more with the parents than with the students. The parents act on the students behalf as the student is a minor. 
    Note that just because a University student is a customer, this does not mean that we just ‘do what the student wants’. That is the implication of Vivek’s point. Just as a medical professional has an obligation to act in the patient’s best interest, as academics, we also should act in the best interest of our students – which may not be what they think is best for them. Our customers rely on our expertise, for example, when designing appropriate courses. But they are customers – they pay us (and are legally liable for those payments) and are protected by consumer laws. And if they do not like what we offer, they will take their custom elsewhere.

  6. The customer and client relationships simply do not fit here.

    Students are best described as students, a notion that has full meaning.

    The closest relationship to being a student outside an academic setting is an apprenticeship. Students are scholarly apprentices. They are learning to be scholars from established scholars.

    Is a PhD student a client of his supervisor? Is a medical registrar undergoing pre-exam training a client of the hospital? 

    The problem with the customer model is:

    1) Our interest as teachers is to develop young scholars with an appreciation of the intellectual  condition. This is one of our principal roles as scholarly researchers. 

    2) We set assessments and hurdles and students (I like that term) have to in turn put in some effort to pass.  What customer relationship has this feature?  

    3) One of our main activities of academics is to write letters for students who want good jobs or to get into postgraduate programs. What does the customer client relationship say here? What does it compel me to do? It is the student teacher relationship that compeles me to write these letters. The relationship of scholarly apprenticeship.  

    4) There is no tradition within academia that sees students as simply clients.

    5) As there is a significant difference between a report I write for a corporate consulting project and a paper I write for a scholarly journal, there surely is a difference between the way I teach my students and the way I would teach corporate clients.

  7. I think you’re being simplistic about this, and that’s where people object to using the term customer. A student is a customer, just like a patient is a customer, but to reduce the relationship to just being a customer, as you are doing is a recipe for trouble.

    If we say a student is a customer, they get a range of legal rights, and this is a good thing, students need these consumer protections that their status as a customer gives them. However, being a customer does not just mean the legal rights associated with being a customer, there is a range of social behaviours and attitudes that go along with it, many of which can  have deleterious impacts on the relationship. For example, a number of uni students having taken the customer relationship to heart, start applying the old credo of “The customer is always right” to things like graduation rules, exam results, assignment criteria and the like and any one who has run in to this attitude will realise that it is definitely harmful to the student’s learning.

    Another aspect is cheating, if the relationship between a student and a teacher is simply customer-supplier, then there is very little in the way of moral/ethical constraint on such actions. It becomes entirely the responsibility of the supplier to enforce rules against cheating and plagiarism.

    As well, when you are a customer, you are buying a product/service, but when you place the student as simply a customer, then they will consider the product we are selling to be a university degree, when actually what we are really selling is the opportunity to learn and demonstrate that learning. This confusion is also  harmful to the student-teacher relationship and to the student’s learning.

    You state:

    “Note that just because a University student is a customer, this does not mean that we just ‘do what the student wants’. ”

    But that is exactly what we do in the customer-supplier relationship and then charge an appropriate fee for it, the fact that we don’t just do what the customer wants, tells us that the relationship is more than just customer-supplier. You then go on to use the analogy of the medical profession, which actually refutes your point. When we visit a doctor, it is a customer-supplier relationship, but it’s also more than that, because the doctor is a professional, they are obliged to consider other issues besides the simple customer one. Any doctor who treats their relationship with a patient just as a commercial one is actually committing a serious breach of professional ethics, in the same way that a teacher would.
    The fact that someone is a professional by definition tells us that the customer-supplier relationship is inadequate to describe the relationship: doctor-patient, teacher-student, engineer-client, lawyer-client all of these relationships are not simple customer-supplier and because of that additional complexity, it means that there are things we should not do as a part of the relationship, not just things that might be inadvisable for our ongoing business success, but things we have a ethical/legal obligation to do or not to do.

    To emphasise the commercial relationship between teacher and students without making it clear that the relationship is far more extensive than just that aspect, is corrosive of the learning environment at University and I’m disappointed that the Dean of a faculty of a major university is propagating such a managerialist perspective on the role of the University.

    I’m also disappointed that a person in your position should be characterising Peter van Onselen’s article as “students should simply be receptacles to receive the wisdom of their academic masters”, I fail to see what aspects of the article could be described in these terms.

    Your comment “I for one am proud to make sure my faculty’s students get exceptional value for their money and get an education that will help them through life.” indicates that you probably do see the relationship as more than just customer-supplier, I certainly hope so, but it would be good if you were more specific about this.

  8. I fear I am with Peter on this one even though I am — in principle — all for choice. But choice works best if you know, or at least can identify to some degree of accuracy, your choice set.
    Still being in shock from having graded last week about 100 student essays, I seriously doubt that these kids (the majority of which, sadly, are unable to write a critical literature review of half a dozen papers) can make career choices; what most of them are likely to do is react to all kinds of other incentives (easy marks, influence of peers, promise of easy money, that kind of thing).
    For all I can see, most undergraduate students do need all the liberal-arts help they can get to learn how to think, read, and write (and, yes, do the arithmetic, too.) In a standard liberal-arts curriculum that leaves still plenty of options. 

    So, much as I am for choice in many other contexts, I have serious doubts about your position in this matter. (For the record, I am also in favor of a core of Ph.D. courses.)
    On a closing note, I should note that I am puzzled about your restrictive use of the term customer. Would students choosing between menus (e.g., the UM, Monash, or UNSW menus of some set of courses) not also be customers?

  9. Disappointing that you see students as customers – so North American and so wrong. The information asymmetries here are not minor issues. They define the relationship. University staff should not simply passively meet student preferences – they should change them. Its what is called an education. Its why staff should resist pressures to dumb down curricula and seek to win popularity contests.

  10. Harry, the notion of students as customers is far more prevalent in Australia as far as I know. Probably not because they have legal rights as customers in Australia.

  11. You can choose to embrace the ‘customer’ aspect without losing other aspects of the relationship.
    1) It’s in the university’s interest to protect their own reputation – supplying qualifications to people who aren’t up to scratch sullies the value of the degree from that institution. Employers know that a qualifaction from one university is worth more than a qualification from another, and the student chooses a university that will provide them with the product that meets their needs.
    2) If the university is a business, they are required to sell goods and services of merchantable quality – if they provide a substandard education, this can be contested.
    3) Virtually every industry has its own regulations that govern specific aspects of relationships (and often duplicate the general consumer law) – recognising the ‘customer’ aspect of the relationship doesn’t diminish a duty of care to the customer/client/student – as in the case for regulation of medical professionals, lawyers, finance brokers, etc etc.

  12. A serious problem arises if students consider that they are purchasing a degree, rather than purchasing an opportunity to educate themselves.

    From the BBC in 2008:

    Should university students be seen as learners or customers?

    While you might argue they are both, the dividing line between the two has become dangerously blurred. This was underlined by two news stories this week.
    First there was the allegation from a senior academic that league tables have put universities under pressure to mark too leniently and to overlook plagiarism.
    Second there was the whistleblower who claimed that degrees are being awarded to overseas students who lacked basic English language skills because of the lucrative nature of the foreign student market.
    There was a third story, a few weeks back, on a related issue. This was the discovery that two university lecturers had urged students to exaggerate the scores they gave to their institution in the National Student Survey because, they claimed, everyone else was doing so.
    There is a common theme to each of these stories: the pressures on academics to make sure that their universities are marketable to current and potential customers.
    These pressures are understandable but must be resisted. They are understandable because it is bums-on-seats that determines the bulk of university funding, particularly at universities which receive little research funding…

  13. Oh dear, a lot of people seem to need the benefit of my introductory marketing classes!  Being a customer does not mean you just get what you want when you want, it means you are treated properly when consuming the professional service you’re paying for.  This may well include the gentle counselling associated with a fail grade. 

    More importantly – and my marketing students love this once the howls of outrage die down – students are actually “work-in-progress” in accountants’ terms, because they are being prepared in the university factory for “consumption” by their (often Australian tax-paying) future employers.  My university is marketable to future students because its graduates are marketable to employers. 

  14. I guess Colin that thinking about university philosophies as a marketing issue is about as far from being reasonable as many of us could imagine.  Some of us are idealistic about issues of truth and the role of universities in encouraging rational, critical thinking. 

    Marketing courses themselves belong in TAFEs not universities. Their teaching is part of the dumbing down of university curricula and a perversion of the purpose of any university concerned with rationality rather than faking it. 

    The notion that students should be regarded as “marketable inputs” for employers conveys a view of universities that few involved in teaching would accept.  The students who howl at you rightly recognise the obscenity  of your views.

  15. Stephen,
    You responded to Vivek above with:
    “And there is no legal distinction between ‘customer’ and ‘client’ under the Competition and Consumer Act. So while the use of a term like ‘client’ may make us feel nice, the students remain ‘customers’.”
    What an odd argument: “client” and “customer” are not distinguished in an Act of parliament, therefore the two terms are synonymous?    I would imagine the Act similarly does not distinguish between men and women, so does that mean they also are synonymous?
    Or is it just possible that students might be considered “customers” for the purposes of the Act, but might more reasonably be considered “clients” or “students” in a more general context?

  16. Most posts here are simply playing semantics. Whatever you think the relationship between the student and the university is, as long as you define customer widely enough, you could call a student a customer. At the end of the day it is just semantics.
    What Stephen is saying is that the “anti-customer” view of students is all too often used as justification for one or more of the following:

    why academics ‘know-best’, why students should just sit down and take whatever quality of teaching that is handed to them, no matter how dodgy, and not complain. That somehow students should not critically examine graduation rules, exam results, assignment criteria, assignment marks etc. There is fundamental disconnect here between the academics telling students that they should critically evaluate everything…except when it comes to the academic’s teaching/grading policy/assignment criteria/etc. You can not have it both ways.
    why student choice should be restricted when it comes to subject selection, course selection, university selection etc (because if students aren’t customers then they don’t need/deserve/too stupid to exercise choice)
    why student feedback is generally unhelpful and should not be used to make important decisions

    Essentially its about accountability, and no one likes to be held accountable. For academics, this accountability is intensified if students are viewed as purchasers of education.

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