Student as Customer

Referring to students as customers is a contentious issue among faculty. I have heard a lot of different arguments both ways, but the fact is that higher education is a buyers’ market. Also, over the years, I have noticed that students increasingly think of themselves as customers. If they do, shouldn’t we?

One seemingly strong argument I have heard against referring to students as customers was made by a professor in response to a recent article that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The professor said that in a normal transaction, the supplier has a large burden of activity, while the customer has a small burden of activity. For example, a restaurant (supplier) has a lot of work to do to fulfill a customer’s dinner order, while the customer has only a little work to do. In higher education, the opposite is true. The student has a lot of work to do, while the professor (supplier) has a little work to do (sum of preparation, class time, and grading time per week). Therefore, they are not a customer.

Is this a good argument? What is the assumption that this argument is based on? Is it a valid assumption?

5 thoughts on “Student as Customer

  1. Bill Waddell

    The argument is so absurd as to be more accurately termed a self-serving rationalization than an intellectual argument. First it is a basis for determining what constitutes a ‘customer’ created from whole cloth. What does the fact that a customer has work to do have to do with what constitutes a customer? The onus should be on professor to provide a rational explanation for why effort should be a criteria for determining who is the customer.

    In forming the defense of this silly proposition the good professor should be prepared to defend the notion that you are not a customer of a gym, a golf course, the public library or a ski resort either … after all, you are probably going to expend more effort (or burn more gray cells in the case of the library) than the proprietors.

    Of course the students are the customers, and that creates a level of responsibility and accountability that makes many in the academic community a bit uncomfortable.

    1. Bob Emiliani Post author

      Indeed, the work that a customer does has nothing to do with what constitutes a customer. There is no rule that mandates the supplier must have a large burden of activity, while the customer must have a small burden of activity.

      Viewing the student as customer makes the academic community much more than a bit uncomfortable, in part because they do not understand the boundaries (I explain this in The Lean Professor).

      It is better to view students as customers and respond to their feedback than it is to ignore them. Otherwise, you could end up with… exactly what we see today: enormous criticism of higher ed cost, quality, and value.

  2. K Muecher

    The word “customer” can be easily misunderstood, especially when learners are required to take responsibility for their academic progress. Really, in the triangulated process between learner, teacher, and awarding body, everybody is a co-producer supporting the final goal of a ‘candidate’ achieving a recognized qualification. This qualification should have a good level of public and industrial credibility, and so should the provider of education, as well as the awarding body. The word customer always implies a bidirectional transaction, i.e. pay for goods, receive goods, transaction finished. Education is far more complicated, diverse and differentiated, and the value added takes on different forms. Therefore, let’s call them customers by all means but let’s also make very clear that they are co-producers in achieving their qualification.

  3. Bob Emiliani Post author

    Indeed, students must be co-producers. I have found that they succeed better as co-producers when professors see them more as customers than students, which, as Bill Waddell said in his post, creates a higher level of responsibility and accountability – and engagement. And. it does that for all three: student, professor, and the university.

  4. Mike Leveille

    As a current student in HE I see myself as a customer. However, being a customer does not mean you a) have to do less than the supplier or b) have no responsibility for ensuring the quality and value of the final product. Consider something as simple as purchasing groceries. Buying some meat, the supplier gives the customer a certain product, yet it is still the customer’s responsibility to do something (cook) the product to achieve the true value (taste, safety). This shows even though students have to do work (study/homework/research/etc.) and they are still responsible for the final value of their education (applying what was learned), they are still “customers.”


Leave a Reply