Issues in Education (Reflective Blog 3): Are students customers?

Posted: October 24, 2011 in Education

In this reflection, I’m not going to take sides. Rather, I would like to start from the end with the beginning in mind and hope to give a different take on this controversial topic by looking at roles, rights and responsibilities.

Clearly, the view that ‘students are customers’ has crept in surreptitiously into the education sector, much to the chagrin of educators. There has been much contempt and dismissal of this notion, especially amongst senior academic staff (Lomas, 2007), to treat ‘students as customers’ since education is viewed as an unique service activity that is markedly different from both business and government.

As I see it, the reluctance to adopt this view is evident of educators’ unwillingless to relinquish power and control in the domains of learning and put the ball back into the court of the students. In quite a myopic way, viewing ‘students as customers’ would mean treating the students as they themselves would like to have been treated as customers – their rights acknowledged and satisfaction fulfilled.

Whilst educators in schools and universities tend to look upon themselves pompously as personalities of free inquiry, free expression, open discovery and dissent, they are often not prepared to walk the talk in real life. In his article, Macfarlane (2011) distinguishes between negative and positive rights vis-à-vis the role of students and academic freedom. If we are prepared to dig a little deeper and ask ourselves honestly how much of the former rights associated with academic freedom have we really accorded to the role of students, the answer would be, not surprisingly, little: Do students really have the freedom of speech to speak up against a curriculum that is shoved down their throat? Can they partake in the decision making process of time-tabling, assessments, review and attendance matters? Are they able to find their own voice in a ‘market’ that constantly drowns theirs with politicized notions of being a globally and environmentally responsible citizen?

In short, the bottom line is that even when students are viewed in their roles as students themselves (as opposed to the role of customers) do the education institutions really provide the conducive environment for them to fulfill the responsibilities that such a student role entails?

And if we look carefully again at the above questions, we would find implicitly embedded within them are the roles, rights and responsibilities of customers. In other words, no, students are not treated as customers even though we would like to think that way. It seems that students are treated more as passive consumers of the information and not as customers of the education process since most of the time, most of them would imbibe whatever is taught to them as gospel truths, unquestioningly follow rules and regulations and unthinkingly accepts their place in the education sector.

So, to conclude, this topic has opened up a Pandora box for me as an educator and I wonder how much of the role, rights and responsibilities of a student would I want to champion and advocate without rocking the boat too much since I myself am now at both ends of the education spectrum – an educator and a student.

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