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.