Because neoliberal techniques involve “the commercialization of education”, it is quite logical that students easily transfer the marketplace “customer” model to their perceived relationship with the university. This has resulted in a situation where increasingly more higher education institutions (HEIs) are customer driven and embrace “a tendency to serve (as opposed to challenge) the students”. HEIs concentrate on professional work-based (as opposed to academic) practice to serve the “prevailing economic growth agenda”.
Quite in line with one of the central presuppositions shared by neoliberalists, according to whom “the individual is a rational optimizer and the best judge of his/her own interests and needs”, Desai, Damewood, and Jones contend that because students as consumers of professional output have needs and wants, “these should be better understood and met in order to provide an improved educational experience”. A number of authors agree with Desai et al (2001) and suggest that “a key to successfully implementing the marketing concept and adopt customer orientation in academia is to assess students perceptions of the institution´s commitment to understanding and meeting their needs”. Existing literature also suggests that HEIs should start “paying more attention to being student-customer oriented because students know best what they want to get from higher education. Thus, students should therefore be relied on to drive up quality”.
However, the debate is rather polarized. Because no professional, whether in the field of education, medicine or law, “has ever been willing to embrace guidance from outside groups or other structural levels, except their peers”, there are a number of those who claim that student-customer orientation does not contribute to professionalism: “treating students and recruiters as customers makes the school to look like an upmarket training provider, rather than a university”. There is also a claim that education is one of the areas where customer orientation “with its short-term financial benefits and negative consequences does not belong” because of the risk that it would result in the academic values of education “to decline, decay and ultimately demise”.
Hussey and Smith (2010) state that there are areas in which the “customer” analogy is inappropriate and even damaging “because a student will get neither education nor qualification if they do not work sufficiently hard. ” According to them, “a teacher or lecturer should not be likened to a salesperson who must acknowledge that the customer is always right. ” Franz (1998) warns about “comparing the university to a shopping mall, where students shop around for classes and majors and where the goal of the educator is to attract, delight and retain the student-customer. ” If a HEI decides to embrace the customer-oriented logic, it will result on a situation where teachers would cater to students´ wishes, “yielding to their complaints, and caring more about the students´ concerns for advancing their careers than about what they actually learn”.
However, because 1) neoliberalism puts the “market-driven” program in the very center of the fierce competition, 2) education is considered to be a service like any other, and 3) “proponents of neoliberalism hold positions of incredible power in university think-tanks”, the universities´ responsiveness to the market interests of their customers “can be considered as a supply-side lever”. Taking into consideration the fierce competition on the market of higher education, it is understandable that there are economic advantages for HEIs to adopt the customer-oriented approach, or – as Olssen and Peters put it – “to demonstrate their relevance to labor market conditions and prospects” (2007). Thus, it is not surprising then that many HEIs are turning to student-customer orientation, in which the driving forces, as Bailey and Dangerfield (2000) have pointed out, “are the demands for increasing student enrollments, the pressure to satisfy the students’ desires for higher grades, and the use of student evaluations as the primary indicator for teaching effectiveness. ”
The use of the ‘student-as-customer’ metaphor was intended to encourage academics “to engage in continuous improvement in order to enhance service encounters”. However, according to Gross and Hogler (2005) “when institutions use the ‘student-as-customer’ metaphor the teaching becomes less discretionary and more routine. ” Faculty and administrators, fearing a drop in university rankings, “enforce a range of rules and regulations pertaining to quality control issues affecting student satisfaction”. As a direct result, these processes “mediate the academic leaders’ autonomy and expertise to ensure the students achieve the required learning outcomes”. Ramsden et. al. (2007) identified that teaching quality “may be moderated by the perceptions of the academic environment which is partly determined by the academic leadership practices. ”
According to Zell students “are not interested in their own intellectual pursuit but attend universities to advance their own careers or get a pay increase, desiring high results for little effort. ” (2001). Clarke (1982) reported finding that students “most enjoy the teaching method from which they learn the least. Paradoxically, the quality of the product in education depends heavily on the hard work of the customer!” With the focus on meeting the needs of the students to the exclusion of other stakeholders “staff can no longer adequately fulfill the requirements of other aspects of the academic duties”. As a result, “quality education becomes a cause of concern if the service is entirely driven by what the students want and ultimately define”.
According to Schwartzman (1995) universities may be acquiescing to students’ requests that are unrealistic, irrelevant, or not fully developed because “the customer is always right” and warns that “this response may buy immediate satisfaction at the expense of the long-term best interests of the student and university”. This approach provides “a short-term fix of instant gratification of consumer wants” and does not facilitate “long-term quality education, nor does it consider that students are not the only customers”.
In an attempt to provide quality education, the feedback mechanisms such as student evaluations, degree graduation rates and graduate exit surveys “circumvent the intended outcome”. Whilst it is important to address the needs of the consumer, “a service can only be effectively provided if the provider is true to their purpose or mission”. When a university embraces grade inflation, the assessment process “fails to provide the appropriate checks and balances in terms of ensuring that the students have achieved the requisite level of knowledge”. Further, the student as customer trend is “resulting in ‘truth in advertising’ ligation against universities when students sue higher education institution for not receiving what was promised in their prospectus”.
Academic leadership has been undermined “by the emphasis placed on meeting student-as-customer demands”. This in turn has had “a negative impact on job satisfaction and increased stress levels in the higher education work force”. This is a concern for the higher education sector as longitudinal research identified that “job satisfaction for academics in universities is dropping at a significant rate”.
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