Monday, 20 September 2010

Is A Student A Customer?

Andrew Croskery, from County Down, has applied for a judicial review of the university grade he received from Queen's University in Belfast. His basic claim is that he reckons he would have got a better grade if he had received better tutoring. His attitude seems belie some telling assumptions about what he thinks university education and being a student entails.

Obviously disappointed at his performance is he seeking to displace the blame elsewhere? Let's begin with some basic facts. University education is not School education. A student is an adult learner who takes responsibility for their own learning. The tutors research, design and deliver lectures and provide seminar activities as platforms to help the student develop their understanding. If they have puzzles and need clarification then pondering on them and proactively seeking guidance is what they need to do. If we look at the term 'Student' it has specific connotations. Notice university students are not called pupils. The etymology of the word comes from the latin 'studere' which means to direct ones zeal at something. Notice there is no reference to being spoon fed and taught as a pupil might be. Students are provided with a 'field of study' into which they must immerse themselves taking responsibility for engaging with the subject. Tutors cannot do the learning for the student. Andrew Croskery seems to have decided that he is a customer rather than a student.

This is a hot topic in higher education. It is a misguided and mischievous metaphor.  Using the term 'customer' for everyone from patients, passengers, to to pupils has a managerialst genealogy. It is to some extent a helpful metaphor in helping universities think about the service they deliver, and it should also be connected with 'customers' thinking about their responsibilities too. Mr Croskery was awarded a 2:2 because that was standard of the work he submitted it was not awarded to him because he wasn't a very good customer. There are issues with student as customer metaphor. and interesting unexpected side effects form the culture of student experience too.

In a recent Times Higher Article it was noted by Paul Ramsden that universities were not responsible for satisfying students. At first blush this might seem ridiculous and arrogant however the point is well made in the sense there is often a difference between what a students feels they 'want' and educationally what they need. Higher education is transformative process that confronts people with challenging and demanding situations which by 'choice' they would not necessarily put themselves through. To whinge about not receiving tutorship is immature. The opportunity to seek out additional guidance is available to every student. It may not be given with the speed of a fast food restaurant (realising you are not the only student in the world is also part of growing up!) It may not be at the drop of hat at a time and place of your choosing and it will be there if it is sought.

Paul Ramsden is a noted and informed writer in this area. Paul was a prime mover in the 1990s of introducing the notion of 'student experience'. Something that like many sophisticated concepts has been hijacked and misrepresented since. A notion that has been adopted by managerialst conceptions of customer centricity. His fascinating article in the August edition Times Higher is titled No Thinkable Alternative
and he finished the article with the following quote:
"The rationale for university teaching is not satisfying students, distrubuting information to them nor changing them, as some condescendingly say. Rather, it is enabling students to change for themselves...What will inspire our students and our colleagues is the belief that reasoning out problems for yourself is the greatest gift that higher education can offer"

Lets hope the judicial review sends Andrew Croskery back with some simple facts of adult life, and a reminder of the value that the gift of his 2:2 experience has given him for the rest of his life. I say this a former 'desmond' student myself.

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