Students aren’t customers

Students aren't customers

The latest in the Guardian’s “Anonymous Academic” series covers familiar territory:

Last week I sent out the first round of grades for a module and had 12 emails of complaint within an hour. One in particular stood out for its misunderstanding of what it means to be a scholar. The student said the grade must be incorrect because he had turned up to all the lectures – as if simply regurgitating what I had taught him deserved a 70+ grade.

As I attempted to formulate a diplomatic, polite and supportive response, I pondered a few things. When did it become an expectation that turning up to lectures is worthy of reward in itself? Moreover, when I was studying would I have ever had the balls to contact my lecturers and not only question their ability to grade my work appropriately but imply that my low grade was their fault?

For what it’s worth, this isn’t a recent phenomenon – I experienced it back in 2000. Admittedly that was from an American student who was paying (high) fees, but later that year I also had to field a telephone call from a parent (a parent!) annoyed that her son had only got a 2.2. Annoyed with me! That was my first year of teaching. I should have spotted the signs.

There are a few points to make here, and even they will only scratch the surface of how I feel about this.

While I do believe in student-centred learning, and ensuring that we understand the purpose of education is to advance the student, not the discipline, the idea that the student is a “customer” is simply wrong. The article condemns the idea that education is a service but I’m not so quick. To me the term “service” covers a whole range of things from the sort of service you get at a supermarket to the sort of service you get when you’re a central part of a complex process. One is passive, the other involved.

So it’s better to think of a student as a “member” of the university rather than a passive recipient of a service. Of course that’s how it used to be, and still is in some universities (students at Cambridge are “members” of their college, for example). The moment you think like this you can compare university with other membership-based organisations. Gym members don’t complain to management when they fail to lose weight – they understand they have a role in their own achievements. Don’t show up, don’t get the benefit. (I realise to some colleagues, likening study at university to membership of a gym is as bad as comparing it to a supermarket but bear with me – I’m on your side. To a point.)

Students should be treated with respect, as fellow scholars. Not as idiots.

The term “tuition fee” is so badly chosen it’s unbelievable. There are students out there who have taken their £9,000 and divided it by the number of hours of lectures they receive and used that to calculate, as in the example in the Guardian article, how much they’re owed in refunds if a lecturer doesn’t show up or how much each session is costing them. (I have no truck with anyone who just cancels lectures because they can’t be bothered, by the way, but genuine reasons do exist as to why a session may be postponed). Tuition fees don’t just cover tuition, in the same way that your gym fees don’t only pay for the bit of equipment you use. Perhaps we should start calling them something else? Oh yes – membership fees, perhaps?

Time does not equal money. Or rather, money does not equal tutors’ time. It measures students’ time. The measure of effectiveness is not the input (the teaching) but the output (the learning). A degree is calculated in terms of credits, and they relate to notional student effort, not notional tutor effort. A degree equates to 3,600 hours of learning, not teaching, and the best teachers facilitate learning, they don’t stand at the front and pontificate. So in terms of “tuition” my students might have got less than with some other colleagues but I would hope that in terms of “learning” they got more than their money’s worth.

The problem really becomes overwhelming when the university itself – or significant parts of it – start treating students like customers as well. The first educational establishment I worked in, an FE college, had changed its student support department to “customer services” and we were all told to stop referring to students as students, and call them customers instead. Fortunately the loudest critics of this policy were the students themselves, who rather liked the title.

So let’s reclaim the word “student” and use it wth pride.

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