Student as customer?

Last year I had a student in a senior-level business course I teach at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.  Let’s call him Mr. X.

Mr. X was not doing well in my class.  His first assignment was far below my expectations and the grade I assigned reflected as much.

Well, let’s just say he was pissed and he told me so in a strongly worded email.

The thrust of his letter was that my grading was unjustly harsh.  His rationale went something this:

  • He works hard and has taken on student loans to pay his tuition.
  • Consequently, I had no right to assign such a low grade to his work.

Conspicuous in its absence was any sort of defense of his work’s quality.

His attitude reminded me of an ongoing debate making the rounds by the water coolers of universities.  Since students (and their parents) pay tuition, should we as a school view them as customers?  Mr. X definitely viewed himself as a customer and saw the poor marks I assigned as a failure to deliver on the product he had purchased.

There are good reasons to view students as customers.  The best reason is they are, in fact, paying for a service.  This makes them a customer by definition.  Moreover, students have choices of where to spend their tuition dollars, and in Canada the age-range constituting our student body is shrinking.  So,  having a customer-centric attitude could be a good survival strategy as more universities fight for fewer students.

But, many teachers have a knee-jerk reaction against viewing their students as customers.  Part of our job is to provide an honest assessment of a student’s mastery of the subject, which, alas, means giving out bad grades when warranted.  How are we supposed to ‘delight’ our customers while dropping a bombshell on their GPA?

It's crazy enough it just might work!

Personally, I think the debate is moot.  Students pay, they’re customers.  QED.  But when we’re defining what “customer service” means for a university, there’s two questions we need to keep in mind.

  1. What are universities actually selling?
  2. Who’s actually paying?

What are universities actually selling?

Despite what Mr. X seems to think as implied in his email, his hard earned money is NOT paying for a grade and he is not buying a degree – that’s not what’s for sale.  Here’s what universities are selling:

  • An opportunity to be exposed to new knowledge and skills.  What students do with that opportunity is up to them.
  • An honest assessment of how well students have mastered the knowledge and skills taught.
  • A path of courses that, if passed, will lead to a degree
And apparently the right to throw hats.

Who’s actually paying?

In BC (where I teach) for every $1 a student pays in tuition the government pays between $3 to $4.  So, who then are our customers?  In terms of overall dollars spent, our society is a significant stakeholder through its taxes, and university instructors forget that sometimes.

Society’s not paying for the the best marks to go to those paying the most.  It’s paying us to arm our youth with the skills, knowledge and mental toughness they will need to ensure our society prospers in the future.

So, teachers, let’s embrace our students as customers.  Just make sure we’re all on the same page as to what’s actually being bought and sold.  Plus, don’t forget our society is a paying member of this transactions and we have an obligation to it as well as our students.

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