It has become common to refer to students as customers and to use other terms and categories from the business world in referring to students, to universities, and to the relation between them. This is almost always a bad idea.
It is sometimes assumed that people who object to using corporate sounding language when talking about higher education are just fussy, old academics who do not want to change with the times. I may be fussy, and old, and an academic, but any logician will tell you that such characteristics are not good reasons for rejecting the ideas of the person they describe. It is a case of what is called the ad hominem fallacy. As for not wanting to change with the times, there is probably some truth in that too, but I would put it to you that change in itself is neither good nor bad; it depends on cases. And in the case of corporate language and the university, the change is decidedly bad.
Let’s focus on the increasingly common habit of thinking of students as customers. The first point to notice is that not every relationship of an individual to an institution is a customer relationship. For example, a member of a church or mosque or synagogue is not a customer of that institution; she is a member of the congregation. To call her a customer is to misunderstand the relationship. The case is similar for a person who visits a physician. In that case, she is not a customer but a patient, and thinking of her as a customer would misunderstand what is expected and required of both the physician and the patient. Like a congregant’s relation to her confession, and a patient’s relation to her physician, a student’s relation to her university is not as a customer to a provider. The reason is that what is required and expected of both a student and her university differ significantly from the roles and expectations of a customer and provider of goods or services. How do they differ?
Consider an activity that clearly can be described as a customer relation, that of an average shopper in an average store. What responsibilities does a shopper have in this case? She does not have to meet any requirements in order to enter the store; she can come and go at will. She can buy anything she pleases, or nothing at all. If she chooses to buy something, she does not have to demonstrate any need or any reason in order to make the purchase. She simply has to provide the store however much money the store says is required for the purchase. In that transaction, the only responsibility the shopper has is honesty in the transaction: the currency must not be forged or stolen, and a credit card must be valid and legally hers to use. The shopper has to meet no other criteria to make the purchase and carry it out of the store. She is a customer.
What about the store and its responsibilities? The store of course would like the shopper to enter and to purchase something, but it has no responsibility to offer anything specific for purchase. If a store decides to replace braided rugs with toaster ovens because shoppers appear to prefer the latter, it is fully entitled to do so. A shopper cannot insist that the store offer braided rugs, not can the store require or even expect the shopper to purchase a toaster oven. The store has no responsibility to the shopper, other than to describe correctly and honestly what it offers for sale and to honor whatever assurances it makes with respect to warranties, return policies, etc. That, in general, is how the customer relationship works.
Very little of that, however, describes the relation of a student to a university. A university is entitled to have admissions requirements, and probably most of them do. Once a student enrolls in a university, both she and the institution take on specific obligations towards one another that shoppers and stores do not. A student must meet certain requirements to study for a degree, and even more requirements for earning one. She cannot simply say that because she has paid tuition, she is entitled to receive the degree, or credits, or a specific grade. Grades, credits, and degrees are not commodities, and cannot (or should not) simply be bought and sold. They are forms of recognition of specific accomplishments, typically intellectual accomplishments, as described in a curriculum. Moreover, the meaning and value of grades, credits, and a degree derive not so much from their use, as is the case for a toaster oven or braided rug, but the acknowledgement in and by the broader social context that they are meaningful and valuable. In this respect as well, they are not commodities.
While students have to meet quite a few difficult expectations in order to earn grades, credits, and degrees, a university also has responsibilities. Unlike a store, it cannot simply decide that students seem not to want to study history, so history can be taken off the shelf and replaced with whatever students at the moment seem to want. A university on the contrary, has the responsibility to offer what it regards as the material and activities necessary and appropriate for a higher education, much as a physician does concerning a patient’s health or a religious leader concerning a congregant’s spiritual guidance. In this and other respects, a university is not a purveyor of goods or services, just as a student is not a customer.
What, in that case, does the university-student relation mean? A university is not providing goods or services; rather, it is offering an opportunity for an education. If a person does not want that opportunity, then in the typical case she is not obliged to enroll. If she is offered the opportunity, however, and decides to take advantage of it, then she and the institution assume a host of responsibilities towards one another. The university accepts the responsibility to provide the student with what it deems necessary for the student’s education, and to provide it in a timely and reasonably convenient fashion. The student accepts the responsibility to fulfill the expectations that the university has expressed, and in general to act in a way befitting a member of that academic community.
If a student or a university thinks of their relationship as one of customer and purveyor, then they have failed to understand what is expected of each of them. When that happens, the proper role of a university, and the opportunity the student has for an education, are endangered. On the student’s part, she will be more likely to fail to understand, appreciate, and take adequate advantage of the opportunity that is provided; on the university’s part, it is more likely to make decisions concerning what it offers and how it is offered that can undermine its responsibility to maintain a healthy academic community of the sort that is conducive to a valuable education.
For both the student and the university, then, it is dangerous to think of the student as a customer. There are also other, related dangers in the use of corporate language and categories, for example in referring to a university’s ‘brand’, but those matters can wait for another time. For now, it is enough if we can agree to stop referring to students as customers. That, at any rate, is how it seems to this fussy, old academic.