Why students MUST NOT be treated like customers

Originally posted on Bestthinking.com on Jan 13, 2012

I’m not sure who I’m writing this entry for. Professors who struggle with demanding students? Students who think Profs should follow them around ready to answer their every query. Perhaps administrators who have been reading management books on being Customer Focused and assuming students are our customers. What I do know, is that I’m often confronted by students who claim that they are my customers and as such, I should be willing to do anything they demand. I’m usually quite willing to sit with diligent students and aid them with their studies. But this sort of “I pay your wages” approach doesn’t inspire much sympathy in me, and let me tell you why.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a customer is “a person who buys goods or services from a shop or business”. In this sense, my students are one of my customers. If my students were my only customers and my job was to satisfy their needs, then surely the easiest option would be to award all students an ‘A’ regardless of attendance of performance in assessment. This way, students who wish to gain knowledge can attend classes, do the readings and study for the various assessment, and those that don’t care about learning anything can just drink their way through the semester and still get an A. This would be the rationale answer if students were my customers…but guess what, they’re not. The objection from me is when a student assumes they’re my only customer. Notwithstanding the hundreds of other students I have, there are many other customers; most of whom are far more important than students themselves.

Their future employer, their workmates, their corporate clients, their parents, the taxpayer that funds their education and the systems that enable them to receive an education, the government that allocates funding to support their education, the builder who put his or her sweat and blood into building the lecture hall they now sit in and tweet about the contents of the vending machine, the University that houses them while they study…all of these are my customers as well. All of whom I have a lot of respect for. By giving my students everything they demand in class, I disrespect a huge number of other customers who have enabled their education and could, one day, benefit from their education. If I just think about my students’ wants, then I’m not being customer focused at all.

Possibly the customer who is of most concern to me, as a lecturer, are my students’ future employers and the people my students will one day work with. I could be a glorified babysitter for my students and teach them nothing of any value, and hand out ‘A’s to everyone. Their future employers, who trust me and my institution to provide an education, are not exactly going to be satisfied. Indeed, future hirings from my classes may drop if this pattern becomes too widespread. If I don’t push my students to their very limits in class then how will they possibly stand up to the vicious world they emerge into once they’ve left the safety net of University? If I pander to their every whim, will they have a realistic opinion of their line managers when they’re expected to make a profit for their future employers?

No, students are not my customers. Students are more like a product to me…let’s say, a car. When they enter University they are a stock car with a standard engine, plain paneling and the most basic accessories to enable them to work. My job as a University lecturer is to supercharge those cars and have them ready to compete in the race that is to come. This process hurts. It is tough on the car. It might even mean stripping the car down to its most basic elements and building it up again. We do the same with students’ thinking sometimes. We challenge the way they think, we encourage them to critically assess what they know and creatively solve problems they face. Most students can’t do this straight out of high school.

I’m not a nice lecturer that hands out extensions, that listens to them whine or spends hours repeating myself because students couldn’t be arsed turning up to lectures. I’m a mean, mean man, but my students come out supercharged. And guess what, they like it. My students humbled me by voting me the Lecturer of the Year for my Uni, both years I have been employed here. Handing students an education on a silver platter is not only doing them a disservice, as they are unprepared for the cold light of life, but also disrespects the many, many other customers we have.

So no, students are not my customers. Students won’t get everything they want…they will get everything they need, and, if they fully engage with what Uni has to offer, they will be well prepared for when they walk out with their degree.