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					     Myths of the student:
   ‘consumers’, ‘customers’,
‘clients’, and implications for
 teaching in higher education

           Dr Paul Cooper
      University of Southampton
Two contrasting comments from those involved in
HE teaching / administration:

We must look at HE from „the consumer
viewpoint‟… „Higher education
increasingly involves students… in
large financial commitments. The
“commodification” of higher education
is here to stay‟
Len Shackleton, Head of London Business
„Resisting treating students as
consumers and fostering their sense
of being part of a “community of
learners” is key to a quality student
Prof. Paul Ramsden, Head of Higher
Education Academy
And two of many contradictory comments
from students…
 „I suppose you are buying your degree,
 even though you have to work alongside
 it. You are basically paying for it‟
 „I don‟t see myself as a customer. I know
 that we‟re supposed to see ourselves as
 customers now, but that tutor-pupil
 relationship still exists and it‟s still to a
 large extent like being back at school‟
So what’s the problem?...

 I maintain this inconsistency of
 views is a result of a fundamentally
 poor fit between both academic and
 quotidian understandings of
 categories such as „consumer‟,
 „customer‟ or „client‟, and those
 relationships inherent in educational
Features of client-professional
 invoking of specialist knowledge that is
  predicated upon extensive training
 unfolds within frameworks of standards,
  ethics, rights and responsibilities, and all
  in the context of a professional
  „occupational community‟
 involve clients placing a high degree of
  confidence in the beliefs, decisions, and
  advice of the professional on whose
  services the client has called‟ (all Bailey,
  2000, p.355).
Professional relationships also…

 …may often entail potentially very significant
  consequences for clients (2000, p.356). There will
  also be a degree of mutual respect in client-
  professional relationships, and a substantial
  absence of „customer clichés‟ such as „the
  customer is always right‟ and „the customer is
  king‟ (2000, p. 357). Client-professional
  relationships are predicated on a high degree of
  interaction, with clients „actively involved in the
  creation and enactment of the service‟ (2000, p.

  …whilst Bailey‟s analysis is mostly apt to
  HE, it has significant flaws:
 circularity: students can be regarded as
  clients, as clients are themselves regarded
  as analogous to students
 romanticises client-professional
  relationships (ie often not like this in the ‘real
 „no pain, no gain‟ conception of the client-
  professional relationship (this not accurate)
Also: Bailey fails to recognise the singular degree
to which specifically educational processes and
relationships have the capacity to influence and
to transform the lives and very identities of
individuals, and the extent to which this potential
renders experiences of education unique. The
extent to which educational processes require the
active input of both students and teachers
typically surpasses that of the input of „clients‟ in
any other form of professional relationship in
which one might ordinarily become involved
Students are also often uneasy with
Bailey’s client-professional model:
 ‘Like you, I actually research the idea of the client-
 service relationship but I don’t see (education) like
 that at all… Where I see the difference is that my
 parents (lawyers) provide a service, however the
 client is not really directly in touch with that. Yes, you
 go to court or organise a deal… but even so the client
 never gets to actually deal with the contract, other
 than sign it, and be assured by the lawyer that it’s
 done well. But (education) is different. You are
 actually trusting another person to educate you and
 therefore give you the knowledge to do what my
 father is doing now… So I don’t see any relation to
 any other current client-service provider relationship.’
 Larissa, PhD Student, Management
A viable alternative model…
  …must allow for the following features of
  educational relationships:
 High levels of reciprocity, effort & mutual
  commitment as expressed in students’ views
 Moral foundations as a basis for inalienable
  exchange (ie of ideas, skills, information etc)
 Long-term professional relationships
 Recent developments such as payment of
  tuition fees etc
 All the foregoing characteristics are
  accommodated in classical
  understandings of the economic
  category of „gift exchange‟
 For example, see Cooper P. (2004)
  „The gift of education‟, Anthropology
  Today, 20 (6), pp.5-9
Possible consequences if we
misrepresent educational relationships:
 The prioritising of „profit motives‟ over
  „educational motives‟
 Increasingly passive and demanding
 A rise in students‟ adversarial attitudes
  and a greater willingness to challenge and
  complain, perhaps including recourse to
  the law
 Rise in measures from universities such
  as „student contracts‟ to try to protect
  themselves & staff
Do we want universities to end up like the
below view of the NHS?...
 „The NHS chief executive, Nigel Crisp, has
 said that foundation trusts “should adopt
 the same marketing techniques as Tesco
 in their bids to win customers in the new
 choice-based NHS market”… In a system
 where, as a CEO recently told his
 managers, every part of the business must
 generate a surplus, patients will come
 second to profits.‟