Students not Customers
Sad to say, business models are being widely applied in academe.  Here's a little essay I wrote critiquing the idea that the student is a "customer."  Most of my B school colleagues thought I was being too fussy and conservative and were not persuaded.

Peter Vaill

Beware the Idea of the Student as a Customer: 
A Dissenting View

by Peter Vaill, University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN, 2000.

In higher education, we should be ever mindful of, and responsive to, the characteristics, needs, and expectations of the student. However, this does not mean we should think of the student as a "customer" in the conventional sense assumed by a profit-oriented business. "Customer" is just a word, of course, and one could argue that using it does no harm. But we should beware of the possible confusion that the word "customer" introduces, for these reasons:

1.      Education is clearly a service, not a product, and therefore the heavily units-of-product mode of thinking characteristic of business may not hold in a service endeavor.  Many businesses, of course, are learning these difficult lessons as well as higher education.

2.      Businesses compete for "customers."  While any college or university certainly hopes to attract the best students, to "compete for customers" may lead schools into inflated and misleading claims that have little to do with what will actually be required of the student to get a good education. 

3.      The student's active, continual participation in the educational process is required for it to have the value the student wants it to have.  Many businesses, on the other hand, actually minimize the amount of work the customer is going to have to do to realize the product or service's benefits.

4.      The student is not the same person from "transaction" to "transaction," but is instead growing, changing, becoming more discriminating and sophisticated.  The conventional customer's needs and expectations are often assumed to be more constant. 

5.      The provider--the professor--is also growing and changing and becoming more discriminating, and so cannot be expected to regard the student in a fixed and unchanging way.  On the other hand, once the conventional business has "figured out the customer," that view is practiced as long as possible.  The conventional business does not want a lot of unplanned growth and change in either provider or receiver. 

6.      The honest educator wants a lot of growth and change in the student and in the professor-provider. The honest educator knows that an assumption that students and professors never change is demeaning and inconsistent with the goals of education.

7.      The value of education often has long-delayed manifestations.  Frequently an educational experience dramatically improves in perceived value as time goes on.  It is not expected by a business that customers might initially be neutral or even negative about the product/service, but change their mind over time. 

8.      Students are more and more being asked to learn in teams and engage in mutual learning with each other and with faculty. Business knows that customers communicate with each other, but except in rare instances does not depend for the value of its products and service on such communication.

9.      Students go through a rather rigorous qualifying process to participate in the educational activity.  Business tends to minimize the prior qualifications and experience it demands of customers before they can partake of its products and services.

10.     Furthermore, "being a student" is a always a complex multi-year learning process.  One's initial attempts may be very unsatisfying to everyone.  Business does not assume that "customership" is a complex learning process, although for some products and services it clearly is.

11.     The delivery of education is a complex interaction of multiple systems that include students, professors, physical facilities, world events, time, and very complex social relationships.  There is nothing neat about it.  The conventional view of the customer is that such a complex set of systemic relationships should be minimized and streamlined as much as possible.  Business does not want customer relations to be inefficient. 

12.     Many, if not most, students are funded by third-party payers: parents, employers, foundations, government.  A person funded by a third party is a quite different kind of recipient than a conventional customer who directly feels the cost of the product or service he/she is buying.

13.     Most businesses have one class of stakeholders they call "customers."  By definition of a university, all of its stakeholders are "customers," in the sense that its conscious mission is to benefit everyone associated with it, including unborn generations.  This is such a different meaning of "customer" that I think the word is not appropriate at all. 

Some business managers might say that they too strive for the enlightened view of the "customer" that is implied by these statements about educational organizations.  Maybe the real challenge for ALL organizations is to develop a more enlightened view of how to pursue the mission on behalf of those it is intended to benefit.  The real concern of these notes is that the word "customer" may tend to dull our understanding of what we're really up to in higher education.
Try these perspectives:

A student is an acolyte

Learning / teaching is a sacrament.