I am the customer

Jack Heinemann

Looking through an old pile on my desk, I found a piece I wrote for the UC student newspaper in the 1990s which I paraphrase as: “Why you don’t want to be my customer.” The terminology of ‘students as customers’ was taking firm hold back then. Now, though it is still contested, among a large proportion of academics at universities the language of business is part of the culture and its bias unconscious.

I still think that students don’t want to be my customer and that they are not my customers. They may be paying fees (and they are far from the only generation to do so), but that doesn’t mean that they are right. Paying fees does not make you a subject expert or the best judge of the pedagogy that produces the best learning outcomes.

The research on this point is already clear and covered elsewhere. As quality teaching measures became de facto synonymous with student evaluation of teaching surveys, the learning environment eroded. It continues to do so. The resistance to these trends in the academy has been light. We grumble, but frequently when pressed will make the Freudian slip that we are good teachers, look at my survey numbers!!

Meanwhile, it serves us pretty well to offer learning environments that large numbers of students reward, because they also tend to correlate with lower effort from us. The more I understand my students to be my customers, the less I have to do to make them successful. The upside is that there is competition to make the learning environment more dynamic and fun, which might have some balancing effect. But there is very little, if any, research to demonstrate how much engagement of this kind improves learning outcomes. This is mainly because the introduction of novel experiences is measured by student appreciation rather than its effects on achievement.

This essay, though, isn’t for students. It is for my academic colleagues. My message is that I’m not discouraged or prepared to settle as a teacher, even though my institution rewards me if I do. What I want to say is, despite your employment relationship, you are the customer in your relationship with students.

The effectiveness of me as a teacher will be measured in the quality of the society my former students support. For as long as I am a member of that society, I will benefit from – or pay the price of – my efforts as a teacher. My students are not my customers; I am theirs.

In your future dotage (or now, as applies), when you grumble at the mistakes made by the tax department, the Council, your doctor, accountant, computer helper, parliamentarian, chemist, fellow voters, and articles in the paper (special edition, with larger type), remember how you took your foot off the peddle just a wee bit when you were teaching.

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