Much is written currently about the changes and challenges of higher education. Concerns seem to center around either perceived old dinosaurs clinging to their brick and mortar, small classrooms and priorities for the university centered on research passions, community service, and personal relationships with students. Reformers, and even market disrupters, as they style themselves, focus on technology, cost cutting, privatization and job placement; they often reduce the relationship between a professor and student to that of a service-provider and customer. This binary distorts some nuances, as they all do, but sets the stage. Given that so much of the institutional conflict on campuses these days stems from this divergence in worldview, it’s worth asking: how is a student like…and not like…a customer?
A student is like a customer in that she is paying for a particular service to be provided, and often going into dangerous amounts of debt to do so, especially in the case of for-profit colleges (though rising costs are not limited to for-profits). She deserves readily returned phone calls and emails, thoughtful feedback on work, clear standards set and readings and assignments that are up to date and which speak to course objectives. Especially at the graduate level, which I teach, he deserves mentoring, experiential learning opportunities, opportunities to network and for professional exposure and development.
Yet the similarities between a student and a customer end there, revealing the limitations of this analogy that regrettably seems to drive the direction of change in higher education today. In debating what sort of changes are best, we often fail to remember that our choice doesn’t have to be between the status quo and market-driven reforms; other reforms are possible and needed.
So then, while the comparison of a student to a customer has some utility, what does this analogy miss? How is a student not like a customer? The most key point here is that learning is a process, not a product. The process of learning may well (and should) continue long after the “product” of a class or a degree is delivered. In addition, with the consumer/business owner relationship, the consumer rarely co-constructs the end product, let alone the process involved in delivery. Even with engaged-consumer models in which businesses try to involve consumers in marketing or advertising via social media, this cannot be compared with the co-construction of learning in which students may co-create educational goals along with faculty, produce knowledge in partnership with them and meaningfully self-assess. This is especially, though one hopes not exclusively, true of adult learners.
Secondly, the purpose of one’s relationship with a customer, it is fair to say, is to make a profit. Of course any institution of higher education needs to be financially healthy, but unless you are a for-profit university (many of which are now currently under federal investigation), the relationship between a professor and student ought not to be motivated by money, but rather out of a desire to mentor and support the student. Professors and students alike are responsible for building classroom community. While the financial pressure universities are under in the current economy has been observed countless times, most faculty would object rather passionately to compromising educational goals, and the student experience, for financial purposes. By contrast, profit is of course the reason businesses exist.
Moreover, students, unlike customers, are simply not always right. (The same could be said of faculty.) Perhaps Starbucks did not mistake my order; they are likely to replace my drink regardless if I’m unhappy with it. The same of course cannot be said of all students, some of whom are at times unhappy with a grade, the volume of reading or a challenging and uncomfortable discussion.
Consider the sanctions of a professor in MN who was teaching about structural racism and was reported to the administration by three of her white, male students. This is where I see the difference between a student and a customer most starkly. Many students welcome uncomfortable and controversial dialogues and experiences that take them out of their comfort zone; others, perhaps especially those most socially privileged, do not. Yet facilitating such dialogues and designing such experiences remains an essential task of effective faculty—especially when one teaches conflict resolution as I do.
The task of maintaining a meaningful research agenda highlights another area of higher education where an exclusively business model or culture fails us. Conducting research demands intellectual freedom and autonomy, whereas employees in a corporation are simply expected to complete their task as asked. Any given faculty member can share an example of censorship, or attempted censorship, reinforcing the need for a commitment to academic freedom. Most recently, I can recall a meeting a new colleague at the International Studies Association 2015 conference who told me her environmental science colleagues at her Oklahoma university were under a gag order from the Dean as pertains to research which drew connections between fracking and the rise in earthquakes in the Midwestern U.S. My own area of research, peace and conflict resolution, is by nature controversial and emotional, and sometimes unavoidably political, making this distinction between the mission of a business and the mission of a university important to my research personally.
This brings me to a final aspect where students differ considerably from customers: the job of education is not merely to provide workers and employees for the economy, though that is one critical contribution. It is also to, along with families and other social institutions, shape citizens for a healthy and free democracy. These two goals are not, as I view it, inherently in conflict, but can become so when higher education policies lose sight of the latter to pursue the former. To maximize learning and professional benefits for students, ultimately we must understand them perhaps as customers in a limited sense, but indeed as much more than that.