Students are not customers. Higher education is not a product to be consumed. If students were simply consumers, then universities would need to cater to their every want. Indeed, some do, but a parochial focus on giving students exactly what they want is not in the long-term best interests of the graduates, nor of the university.
This is one of the key mysteries of higher education. Students pay our salaries (either directly through tuition fees or via taxes), but we, as lecturers, maintain autonomy and authority, as educators, over them. Students pay for an education, but they have no absolute right to determine the content of that education, nor the grade they receive. For any other consumer, this relationship would be untenable. Because “the customer is always right,” vendors of most products and services typically fall over themselves to deliver exactly what consumers want. When we part with our hard earned money, we are used to being treated like kings and queens.
“This is one of the key mysteries of higher education. Students pay our salaries (either directly through tuition fees or via taxes), but we, as lecturers, maintain autonomy and authority, as educators, over them.”
Don’t get me wrong. Students, quite reasonably, have a right to a high-quality education. Like any other consumer, they can march with their feet if they don’t like what the service provider offers. They can lodge complaints if their experience does not deliver on the promises made. These important checks and balances are essential because they keep universities and lecturers from exercising coercive power and control. But the rights of students to complain do not extend to academic judgement, nor to academic content.
Imagine a university in which students were treated like customers. Because “the customer is always right,” the degree becomes purely transactional. Academic misconduct and plagiarism would be countenanced by universities turning a blind eye. Students would all receive perfect marks because anything less than perfect would signal that they are not always right. Accordingly, assessments would be dumbed down. Would any employer trust such a graduate? A transactional degree is worth less than the paper on which it was written.
Unfortunately, many university administrators are under pressure to cave into such demands. The competition for students is fierce, so the transactional model of education has become more attractive to administrators. But giving students exactly what they want, when they want it, although it will bring them through the door in the short-term, will result in the long-term decline of any university, even elite ones.
What is needed, above all else, is brave leadership in these difficult times. This means finding out and delivering on what students need to know, not what they want to know. This means tightening and even increasing academic standards year on year. This means firmly holding students to account behaviorally, socially, and academically. They may not appreciate all this in the short-term, but they will thank us in the future.
Professor Andrew R. Timming
This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.