The phenomenon of unintended side effects and the student experience 

Caring about the student experience is a good thing. Being transparent is a good thing. When such principles loose their dimension of common sense and are used to justify bureaucratic obsession with protocols and micro-data there are adverse consequences as this Guardian article discusses.

Pressure to bump grades and academic workload

I am not here to satisfy you: the NSS and our institutional knickers

Paul Johnston:

A fascinating post.

Originally posted on Julie Cupples:

The neoliberal endeavour to convert university students into consumers is underpinned by a survey culture that is constantly attempting to measure a thing called ‘student satisfaction’. It’s part of the way universities compete with one another and manufacture what is termed the ‘student experience’. In the neoliberal academy, students, faculty and staff are constantly surveyed, a phenomenon that a New Zealand academic has recently described as a tyranny that may “degrade student achievement” and “harm staff” (Heinemann 2015). If you borrow an interloan, ask IT to fix a software issue on your computer, or order sandwiches for a meeting from the preferred corporate supplier, you’re then likely to be sent a survey to assess the level of customer satisfaction with the service. It’s tedious but fortunately most of them can be quickly ignored and deleted. But the survey that seems to produce a bizarre level of managerial emphasis and…

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Seeing Students As Customers De-Values Their Rite Of Passage 

I want to suggest that there are some genuine downsides to the crude idea that students should be seen ‘as if ‘ they are customers.

My suggestion is based on the assumption that a student’s higher education experience is more than the mere consumption of a service and  constitutes a transformational rite of passage.

Through this journey the student leaves their old self behind and becomes someone different and new.

Thomas Armstrong wrote an informative article in the American Institute for Learning and Development titled Marking our passage from one life stage to the next that discusses this theme.

Central to the idea of rite of passage (see the work of Van Gennep 1873-1957) is the notion that a person crosses a threshold (a concern with liminality) from the familiar safe and comforting into the unfamiliar risky and uncomfortable.

Making this transition into the unknown is often an unpleasant but necessary experience.

It seems to me that the idea whereby students are treated as customers cherry picks some ideas from the commercial world and grafts them onto the educational world.

This grafting airbrushes out of the picture some important things. Students  will judge the satisfaction of their experience from within the limitations of their current understanding. Thus of course many things in their transformative journey such as ambiguity, intellectual demands, uncertainty will be unpleasant. The value of the transformation is yet to be understood .

The instinctive human reaction is to therefore ‘avoid’ this unpleasantness, demand clarity, structure and instruction as to what to do and how to do it.

Now as a customer if these things are not provided then the service is deemed to be poor. Whereas as a student going through a rite of passage these things are essential for the transformation to have value.

The old self believes studying for a degree is simply the aquistion of subject knowledge, whereas  the new self realises (only afterwards) it is the aquisition of a new sense of identity, a deeper wisdom and a humility about the certainty of knowledge.

Treat the student as a customer and you will of course increase temporary satisfaction but you eliminate transformative value. It could be argued that say a £9k course fee means you should be treated as a customer, a retail ‘shopper’ however what this really results in is a terrible return on investment when viewed in the context personal growth over the course of a lifetime.

When is a customer not a customer?

The banner unfurled by Hull City fans proclaiming they are ‘Supporters not customers‘ says something very important about one of marketing management’s most cherished metaphors. The customer.

Ever since Kotler (1999) suggested that marketing principles apply in each and every aspect of organisational life; commercial, public and third sectors, we have been told that we are all customers now .(cf (Hackley ‘We Are All Customers Now…’ Rhetorical Strategy and Ideological Control in Marketing Management Texts. Journal of Management Studies 40:5 July 2003)

Casting people as customers and participating in the discourse of customer centricity has real world consequences however. Call supporters ‘customers’ and your next step is to create a ‘customer base’. The next step is to appropriate/extract value from that customer base. The customer is a resource to be exploited despite the relational and appreciative rhetoric that companies so often use.

As Gummesson (2008 ) in Customer centricity: reality or a wild goose chase?, European Business Review, Vol. 20 No. 4,p. 315-30. points out though. Privileging the interests of one stake holder group (the soccer club in this example) is increasingly mistaken.

So perhaps we may all soon be called passengers, patients and students again and be treated accordingly rather than as mere customers.

What do Adidas mean by relentless and aggressive story telling?

The Adidas story in Marketing Week caught my eye this morning and of course that was partly the intention.

It also got me thinking more deeply about the article (my elaboration likelihood was huge), I was puzzled at the use of language.

It’s well known that stories are powerful ways of communicating. Think Nordic sagas, religious parables and so on. The world of management refers to them as crucial ways to engage audiences and paint vivid visions. Great leaders tell good stories. 

What however is a ‘relentless and aggressive’ story? What is inferred (cf Grice, Sperber and Wilson, Clark) by this choice of words? what does such language symbolise about the speaker?

If stories are meant to engage why on earth would you want to communicate in a relentless and aggressive way? Isn’t this the style of communication that is typical of despots and dictators rather than someone proposing the value of their products for customers to review and select? Is this an example of old fashioned marketing monologic rather dialogic communication (cf Ballantyne and Varey)? 

What does this language indicate about the mind set of the speaker and the social norms of the business world they inhabit? Is aggression and relentlessness lauded as a way of behaving in that business and in that market sector?

Research I recently conducted on sales interactions revealed that the customers sense of value is associated with the respect and politeness that is given by the seller to the buyer. Relentlessness (a mistaken word for tenacity perhaps?) is viewed by customers as hectoring and intrusive, aggressiveness is deemed to be impolite and immature. This way of communicating is the sign of the junior and the inexperienced rather than the mature and wise.

What is the point of describing your work as relentless and aggressive? I can only presume that is how the buyer of advertising services offered by the pitching ad agency judges their suppliers? In other words the buyer believes ‘relentlessness and aggression’ are good attributes thus the ad agenciy’s pitch is based on fitting in with an assumed way of behaving that is deemed the right way to go about business. The language of of relentless aggression signifies the cutting edge of competitive attitude, it is militaristic in tone and indicative of a macho managerialist world view. 

But…ironically isn’t it so anti-marketing ? A marketing campaign that isn’t marketing? Spooky! 

Sure take your competitive situation seriously, sure fight it out to the best of your ability, sure keep at it when the going gets tough. 

It may even be the case that a target customer for Adidas is an aspiring athlete who is deemed to be successful by relentlessness and aggression or sees themselves as relentless and aggressive. Smudging customer insight about attitudes and behaviours into a way of talking to your customer is probably a mistake however.

Talk of relentlessness and aggression in this way seems all about how YOU want to communicate with customer not communicating on issues that matter to them. Why assume a relentless and aggressive approach to story telling is an appropriate way to engage with customers and invite them to hand over money to buy your brand and its products? 

Stop trying to give people the impression how hard and driven you are and start thinking about conveying the value of your products to your customers would be my suggestion. 

Selling the Christmas Service


When I saw this banner outside our local church this morning it got me thinking.

I find the way ‘management speak’ has seeped into every aspect of our lives fascinating and disturbing at the same time don’t you?

The curious thing about a dominant discourse is just how natural and obvious it seems. So much so that we stop talking about the world in alternative ways. This means that we all make sense of the world ‘as if’ it always ever should be explained through the words of ‘management’.

Why do we do this? Is it to symbolise that we ‘belong to the management club’? Is it to give the impression that we have professional management insights that the lay person doesn’t have? Is basically to announce that we are compliant and have no desire to be different?

Don’t misunderstand me I have no issue with the sentiment on the banner outside the church. I am simply curious as to how managerial language is so easily used without any sense of where it comes from or how it shapes our world.

Business management has done a great marketing job. It has sold it’s approach and language successfully around the world. We have Philip Kotler see Kotler, P (1972) A Generic Concept of Marketing. Journal of Marketing, 36, (April), 46-54 to thank for this. Oil company, retailer, school, hospital or church we all ‘do marketing’.

So here we have a banner that tells us about a ‘family focused service’. Nothing wrong in that eh? But why interject ‘focused’? That is management speak, a word that infers deliberate managerial attention, a word from market research. Why couldn’t they simply announce they are holding a family service?

We are then told we are having a reflective service. As if a spiritual service would be anything else! Reflection is also a hot management idea soon to be usurped by ‘mindfulness’ (which spookily has spiritual origins). Reflective practitioners (cf Donald Schon) are claimed to be better practioners. Does this mean that reflective members of the congregation are better than non reflective ones? I wonder how that might be measured.

Maybe the church has got something though! What if we are so inured to management speak that it is the ‘new normal’. This means that in order for the church to communicate it has to use language that resonates with it’s intended audience. An audience so uncritically immersed in the discourse of managerialism it doesn’t ‘hear’ any other messages. Now that’s something to run up the flag pole isn’t it.

Is Black Friday a corporate social responsibility issue?

Is Black Friday a Corporate Social Responsibiity issue? I wonder how long it will before our police forces charge for their presence in the same way they charge UK football clubs to cope with hooliganism.

Raises some interesting questions about the impact of tapping into materialistic drives and the manipulation of festive occasions to exploit rampant consumerism based on a sense of scarcity (cf Cialdini)

The idea that a spiritual festive period originally conceived to mark the return of light to the world (cf Mithras) is being turned into a base feeding frenzy is ironic.


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