Student as Customer? Discuss.

On Thursday evening we were treated to a superb evening of debate and discussion at the annual Library Forum. The topic was Student as Customer? and the setting was the rather comfy Nash Lecture Theatre at the Strand Campus.

As I was fortunate to attend and others won’t have been able to, I thought I would try and summarise the discussion and make my debut on the mighty Hyperion Blog! I was taking notes on my phone so I can’t claim to have faithfully transcribed the entire content but I did pick and choose what I felt were the key points.

The panel consisted of Sonya Campbell, Senior Service Development Manager, from Glasgow Caledonian University; Ben Hunt, President of KCL NUS; Alan Fricker, Head of NHS Liaison at KCL; and Dr Kirsten Schuster, lecturer in Digital Humanities at KCL. It was ably chaired by Robert Hall, Director of Library Services at KCL.

What became very clear, very early on, is that the word “customer” has a heck of a lot of baggage! Sonya showed us a series of voxpops from Glasgow Caledonian students talking about if they saw themselves as customers or not. As far as I could tell, this largely depended on whether they thought customers are treated better than students or not. Many students featured, saw “customer” as an empowering term that equalled better treatment, and they directly linked this with fees. Students who were less comfortable with being called a “customer” saw it as a pejorative term which put a barrier between them and staff. They preferred the idea of being part of the university as a community and felt “customer” created an oppositional relationship.

For Sonya, the very question is a red herring. Indeed, she argued that it is not the most important question we should be asking ourselves. They are whatever they call themselves and we can’t answer that question for them. Later in the Q and A session, Sonya touched upon the idea of “customer” framed in terms of the “customer is always right” mantra was part of a broader misunderstanding of modern customer relations. The private sector no longer views customer service as one sided but as a relationship with responsibilities on both sides.

From this point, Ben Hunt spoke about the dangers of consumerist language in education. He split the question into two essentially by arguing that there is a descriptive argument and a moral one. He was less concerned with the descriptive argument and focused on the idea of students as consumers in a marketplace. Ben linked this growing trend to rising fees and increasing pressure on universities to compete and measure and quantify what they do, to the detriment of education as a social good available to all. Ben pointed to research that suggests students who see themselves as consumers perform worse and argued that students should be partners, with staff and students working together collaboratively, not against one another. On a consensual note, Ben agreed with Sonya that the question posed was not the right question for enhancing student experience.

Again the question was questioned as Alan took centre stage to explain how the term “customer” is being used by Library Services. Alan argued that “customer” is a useful shorthand to cover everyone who uses our services, as not all our users are students. He argued that nothing else works so “customer” is purely a convenient way of including everyone who walks through our doors. In addition to this, Alan stressed that when we talk about customer service we use it to frame putting student/researcher/NHS staff at the centre of what we do. Libraries used to be designed for librarians; we’re designing them for our customers. It’s an impetus for putting service before process. We don’t say the “customer is always right” and we don’t talk about sales but a customer service ethos has driven our quality commitments.

As a librarian who teaches, there are certain aspects of the idea of student as customer that can be problematic and I felt Dr Kristen Schuster nailed my reservations. There is tension between students adapting to academia and teaching adapting to student engagement. As educators we cannot simply hand them a product; learning is a process. We need to be able to challenge students to grow and we do them a disservice if we just give them the answer. Kristen talked passionately about developing students’ information literacy and moving beyond just showing the resources available. Kristen linked the growing culture of consumerism with student expectations of being given easy, straight forward answers or facts. Sometimes our customer service ethos can make it feel like we have give students what they want immediately, but a good teacher knows this bypasses valuable learning opportunities. As Kirsten argues, we need to be continually negotiating this tension in our work.

In many ways, the questions from the audience mirrored my own and seemed to be trying to understand if the semantics of “customer service” were as important as the ideas behind them. One member of the audience asked “Would treating a student as a student rather than a customer change the experience?” For Ben, this probably would make little difference if being used in a descriptive sense but he maintained his argument we should be using the language of partnership. Sonya disagreed on the basis that no one is working in partnership so that language is disingenuous.

The second question from the audience returned to the issue of teaching “customers” and suggested that “customer service” feels like you are handing the student an outcome, rather than them learning something. Kristen felt this was a growing concern in academic teaching too as student expectations change but Sonya felt there was no contradiction between a modern customer service ethos and scaffolding learning opportunities within the library.

The final question from the audience challenged the idea that language isn’t all that important, saying it becomes significant because it is being used to change the sector, asking do we need a consumerist model to put students at the centre of what we do? Ben responded to this by noting that policy makers use this language and model because to them it is transactional and they want education to be transactional. Kristen developed this point, arguing we need to problematise the concept of education as transactional. Sonya added that when put in perspective, students aren’t asking “for the earth” or for anything unreasonable or major.

My feeling is that the “student as customer” argument is largely semantic. As one member of the audience said, it’s about showing “consideration” to the folks using our service, and the chosen term is largely irrelevant in our context. However, it is clear that the term has a lot of baggage and these are often proxy debates for deeper tensions and struggles within higher education. Education and teaching always needs to be transformational, not transactional, but we do that within a customer service ethos. As Alan said, the “label is incidental” and it’s the attitude that matters.


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