Monday, 23 June 2008

Shopping For A Degree? Try Our BA in Consumerism

A colleague of mine opens his introduction to first year students with the announcement that they all have "his permission to fail". This is part of the 'bucket of cold water' that is needed to wake students up to the fact that need to take as much responsibility for their learning as the lecturers and tutors.

Once again we are seeing the undigested lifting of a managerialist notion called 'The Customer' and squeezinging it into an alternative context. The issue of whether students should be regarded as customers or learners is receiving alot of attention as students (and their parents) believe that they are 'buying' a qualification rather than the opportunity to study for one.

I feel that I'm qualified to criticise the unthinking and frequently half baked understanding of both the Marketing Philosophy and Higher Education Philosophy that we see around us having spent a significant portion of my career in Competitive Strategy roles at board level in commercial organisations and more recently as a lecturer, (students learning) researcher and consultant (managers learning).

Frequently Marketing is mistaken for customer worship i.e. giving customers whatever they ask for just because they believe they think know what they want. It is also a 'commercially' conceived notion whose dark side is manifested in rampant consumerism and waste. Often the fact that it is deeply concerned with value, what is valued, how it is valued and who values it is missed.

Higher Education is frequently mistaken for 'teaching' a mere extension of high school but in a bit more subject detail. Educationalists do themselves a dis-service by failing to 'market' themselves effectively because the underlying purpose and rationale of transformative adult education is not explicitly expressed in ways that the 'educationally inexperienced' can appreciate.

The problem with the term 'Customer' is that it is a generic idea, a level of abstraction or categorisation that is too large for specific meaning. Students are a particular type of user of services, in the same way that patients are patients, passengers are passengers, and sports fans are sports fans. These labels are in fact the peitomy of 'marketing' because they more precisely define the consumer and user in ways that the term 'Customer' can't!!

Having participated in an organisation wide initiative to introduce the principles and practices of CRM (customer relationship management) in a university it is daunting to see how superficially and tritely many people see the idea. Lets look at students as customers comes the mantra! and lets get everyone who has cared for the student experience for most of their professional live 'customer orientated'. Something might be broken so lets fix it before we find out what it is! Students are now customers is the simplified utterance of the simplistic mind. The term 'customer' in the educational context is simply a 'metaphor' and like all metaphors it has helpful parts and unhelpful parts.

Helpful because it sensitises people to the needs of others and the possibility of competitive alternatives, unhelpful because when left unchecked it reinforces the irresponsible mindset of the consumerist that drives a whole raft of unhelpful behaviours and ignores anyone asking the question 'what part do I play in this situation'

Students (and having been one and being one yet again too I feel I have a valid opinion)have a particular and unique role. Yes they can expect good guidance, and a good learning experience. No they can't set the agenda for what is learned and how to learn it because they lack the knowledge and experience to make a qualified judgement.

So, forget 'customers' To try another metaphor,what if students prior to their qualification (undergraduate, masters and doctoral) can be thought of as auditionees in a talent show. Imagine the stage...some performers are uniquely gifted and don't even know it, some are utterly deluded about their capability. If the consumerist bandwagon gathers greater momentum then more and more of the deluded performers will be arguing with the adjudicators about their ability to judge their performance...and of course Nellie Frump singing to her mirror in the bath is better than Madonna simply because she thinks so and has no idea what the standards are.

Would The X Factor, Britain and Americas got Talent charge for an entry? I don't think so, because then the people with the None Dancing Ferrets might think they have a right to win!!

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