Students as partners – moving beyond the customer concept in student services

University Life 102The debate of whether students are or are not ‘customers’ of their University is a well worn one, so it was of great interest to see this report published today via Universities UK which put the matter to rest once and for all, and the result was…


According to the press release:

“Around half of undergraduates say they regard themselves as a customer of their university (47%), while the other half say they would not (53%)”.

Depending on which camp you’re in, this is probably either unexpectedly high or unexpectedly low, but the more interesting part for me was the following finding:

“A strong theme throughout the research was that students want a more personal relationship with their university than the type of engagement they appear to associate with being a ‘customer’.”

Whilst the concept of value-for-money was also clearly important in the report, this was balanced by the desire for a relationship that was far deeper than a ‘consumer/vendor’ relationship, such that students:

“…value a personalised and collaborative relationship, rather than a superficial consumer transaction. While students have clear expectations of their university, they also expect to shape their own experience.”

Perhaps the word ‘customer’ will always carry too many connotations of transactional service in the minds of many, and following on from that, perhaps the ‘are students customers’ debate has been primarily an argument over nuance rather than a fundamental rejection of students having a right to value-for-money. Perhaps there is a better way of describing the relationship, one which acknowledges the financial aspect and the need for value for money, but that also moves beyond a simple transaction for goods or services to include the efforts required by the student as part of the relationship. Perhaps we could instead consider a student as:

“…a person who takes part in an undertaking with another or others, especially in a business or firm with shared risks and profits.”

No, these aren’t my words, they are the Google definition of another word – partner.

To me, this provides a far better description of how the relationship should be – an investment by both parties, even if one party has a more significant personal investment, but one in which the risk – and the benefits (not necessarily profit) – are shared.

Now this partnering concept isn’t totally new, Healy, Flint and Harrington go into great depth on the topic, but through a primarily pedagogical lens. On a more personal level, I’m curious to look at the overall student experience and how the combination of all services offered to students as part of their University life are perceived.

I do wonder however if this is an idealised relationship, and whether the half of the students surveyed in the UK report who did perceive themselves as customers would agree with this definition – perhaps some of them do see the University relationship as one of a more transactional nature rather than as a partnership. Then again, perhaps much of the difference in opinion hinges on the individual’s definition of the word ‘customer’. Whatever the case, considering a spectrum between ‘customer’ and ‘partner’ for our students and what this means in practice may be a far better topic of discussion than the simplistic ‘are they or aren’t they’ debate that so often prevails.

Footnote: The image in the header was taken (under CC licensing) from a photo album called University Life from a Chilean photographer called Francisco Osorio – some great photos in there capturing ‘student life’ from another part of the world.