Should Higher Ed Treat Students As ‘Customers’?

A survey of 608 undergraduates at higher education institutions (HEIs) in England indicates that when colleges and universities treat students as customers, they may be encouraging lower academic performance.

Students were asked to indicate their agreement with “learner identity” statements such as “I always try my best on assignments” and with “consumer orientation” statements such as “I think of my university degree as a product I am purchasing.” The survey found that the less students exhibited learner identities, the greater their consumer orientation. In turn, the greater their consumer orientation, the lower their academic performance.

The survey was conducted to determine the long-term effects of the 1997 Dearing Report, which drove a movement in the U.K. to treat students like customers and intensified HEI focus on student satisfaction.

However, HEIs that implement changes to satisfy students with higher consumer orientation could "further risk academic standards," the authors warn. "These students may have a propensity to see their degree as something that can be bought, not something that requires effort.”

“The student-as-customer approach in higher education and its effects on academic performance” was written by psychology professors Louise Bunce and Amy Baird of the University of Winchester and Siân Jones of the University of London’s Goldsmiths College. It appeared January 14, 2016, in Studies in Higher Education, and it is available at dx.doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2015.1127908.