Why ‘students as customers’ is bad for policymaking

by Debbie McVitty on December 6, 2011

If asked to pinpoint the moment when the first higher education scrutineer raised the alarm about students becoming more like customers, we would have to travel quite far back. Like the middle classes ‘rising’ at any given point in early modern history, students seem to have been poised on the brink of going on a full-blown consumerist rampage for quite some time now.

Are students becoming more like customers? Do they consider themselves consumers? In the abstract, it is a philosophical question, except that it is so emotive in the higher education context that it is rarely approached with philosophical objectivity. To answer the question we would need to have a clear and distinct idea of what we mean by ‘consumer’, for starters. Buried in the concept of the ‘consumer’ of higher education are implicit ideas about passivity, greed, unreasonable demands and lack of intellectual rigour (‘the customer is always right’ – but students need to learn how often they are wrong). But where did these ideas come from and are they appropriate to this context?

If students are greedy, demanding and passive, we would also need somehow to demonstrate or make the case that this attitude is directly related to students having to make a contribution to the cost of higher education. And if they are demanding, greedy and passive now, what were they like before, and what cultures or contexts shaped their former behaviour? And are we talking about students as acting solely in the learning context or in university life in general? And if students were all greedy, demanding and passive, why is that a bad thing, and for who? And are we talking about all students, or only some of them, and if so, which ones? And is consumerism an identity, or merely a set of behaviours? All these questions are valid.

And while we’re on the subject, a university education isn’t really like an iPod or a washing machine, or the gym, or a case of fine wine – and argument by analogy is kind of irritating anyway.

I personally loathe the idea of the student-consumer, if only because it substitutes economic power – which is no power at all, because someone else determines the product – for self-determination, or the power to negotiate the act of learning. (Which is more nebulous, admittedly.) And once you have conceded that the question is about who has power and what form does it take (and you needn’t even concede that if you don’t want to), you can happily debate and wrangle indefinitely, as is right and proper.

It is therefore highly concerning to see the debate about whether students are consumers flattened into a casual comment like ‘students consider themselves more and more as consumers’ used as an a priori assumption on which a policy argument subsequently rests. The example that caught my eye recently was the written submission of the Economics Network at Bristol University to the BIS Select Committee inquiry into the government higher education reforms.

The quote: ‘ Students are seeing themselves increasingly as customers and are demanding a better service for the money they pay. Such demands are likely to increase from 2012 and are likely to be more co-ordinated. Such demands are likely to drive change, but for the change to be effective, lecturers require support and incentives for better teaching need to be appropriately aligned.’

There is no doubt that the Economics Network is a fine body of clever people. And the argument for support for teaching improvements is really important. But issue shall be taken nonetheless.

I have yet to see a survey in which a representative sample of students is asked, ‘In your learning, do you feel like: a) a consumer b) a partner or c) other’. And I think this is the only way – or something a bit more robust, ideally – that I will be convinced. Peer reviewed would be my preference. I suspect most students would tick option d) unsure or possibly even option e) I don’t understand why you are asking this question.

Anecdotally you do hear students (or their parents) trying to calculate what they are paying for, or challenging grades, or making unjustified complaints. But this is anecdote – a few unpleasantly vocal individuals do not a mass identity crisis make (unless we encourage it by hand-wringing).  An unhappy student will grasp at any straw s/he can find in order to be listened to.

And wanting a job on graduation is not mutually exclusive from wanting an education, especially when you don’t really know what an education is until you find yourself in the middle of one.

But even if students are thinking of themselves as customers – cheekily egged on by government – there is no rule that says the rest of the sector has to put up with that kind of attitude. Students come to university to be challenged to see beyond the narrow confines of their own context. We are higher education, and surely we can do better. Blow their minds. We have the technology.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrew Fisher December 6, 2011 at 8:52 am

It produces a slightly odd effect when you admit openly in the body of the piece that ‘the question is about who has power and what form does it take’ and end on the note that the staff shouldn’t have ‘to put up with that kind of attitude’ from students. Are you calling for students to have less power?

Liz Shutt December 6, 2011 at 10:16 am

Thank you Debbie!! I almost didn’t read this because this discussion has become so predictable but I agree entirely with your piece. Frankly there are bigger issues to discuss. This isn’t about not wanting students to have power, quite the contrary, it is about recognising that this is an incredibly reductionist way to describe university and the way that students engage with it – and that the focus on consumerism may be stunting the real debate!

Alex Buckley December 6, 2011 at 10:32 am

How do students’ representatives feel about this? Does the NUS think of itself as the champion of the students’ rights? And do those rights include consumer rights? How students are represented (especially how their representatives represent that relationship) might have a direct and significant impact on their actual economic/political role.

Jake Broadhurst January 12, 2012 at 9:17 pm

More to the point ‘students as customers’ is bad for students

Ron Jones November 2, 2012 at 12:26 pm

“I personally loathe the idea of the student-consumer, if only because it substitutes economic power – which is no power at all, because someone else determines the product – for self-determination, or the power to negotiate the act of learning. (Which is more nebulous, admittedly.) And once you have conceded that the question is about who has power and what form does it take (and you needn’t even concede that if you don’t want to), you can happily debate and wrangle indefinitely, as is right and proper.”

Hemingway-like…

It is a bit patronising to think that students only see themselves as consumers / customers (two different concepts) because of the government – I demanded value for money from my university 12 years ago and expect students to do the same. £3k to £9k is no meagre transaction.

You may want to extol classical virtues of higher education, but for many young people it is a route to a job and a comfortable standard of living and it should not only be the government and its agencies that apply pressure on HEIs to deliver quality education services. And students are perfectly capable of viewing their institution through a consumerist lens in addition to seeing “beyond the narrrow confines of their own context” (lol).

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