Our Students: Products or Customers?

by | April 14, 2012

I was part of a discussion about our students.  I was in a great session at SGHE Summit Conference facilitated by my good friend Brian Knotts (@brian_knotts) titled the Future of ERP. The discussion began with a suggestion from me that our higher education institutions need to find ways to become “open, candid and people centred”.  I suggested that if we could incorporate the social media concepts of activity streams and ranking (“likes”) we might be able to break down the silos that have been built over the decades.

That led to a vigorous debate about various topics spanning from risk management, educational quality, academic policies, compliance rules around privacy and finally to the value delivered by higher education.  A tread that developed centred around our students.  A good number of the conservative (my opinion only) folks in the room steadfastly stated that our students are products of the education system that we deliver.  As such, there was no need to engage in social media practices because student = products.

I was completely floored by this prevailing belief … students are products??  Really??   I always thought of them as customers or clients and absolutely believe they are individuals not things.

Whether we like it or not, there is a fundamental shift in higher education and it is centred around students and choice.  Students are in the drivers seat not faculty or administration.  If we continue to treat our students like products, they will go elsewhere.  And that elsewhere is the place that treats them like customers and focuses educational activities around what they want.

This does not mean we need to compromise educational quality or academic policies.  It does mean that we need to listen to our students and deliver education in a manner that engages them.  Social higher education puts the student at the centre of all activities.  This is a fundamental change from the prevailing approach of focusing on our faculty or the administration as the primary customers our higher education organizations and students as products.  Can we make the change? Do we have the courage to do it?

Here are a series of short opinions about this topic.  Enjoy!


I am very interested in your opinions and thoughts on this topic.  Please contribute with your comments.

7 thoughts on “Our Students: Products or Customers?

  1. Dawna Mackay

    As a Registrar and student service professional I wholeheartedly agree that this is the focus we must take. So happy to see this kind of discussion at an IT table. It can only make us all stronger!

    1. Leo de Sousa Post author

      Thanks Dawna. It was very interesting how some of the product folks held on to policy and the supremacy of faculty at higher education institutions. The sooner we put students first, the more viable our institutions will be.

  2. Anthony Lower

    I tend to take the POV that the student is a customer and their desired educational outcome is the product. It’s our job to help deliver the product by providing the infrastructure, technical or otherwise to help the student do their best. That means top-notch customer service in every facet of the student’s educational experience.

  3. Ric Phillips

    Of course students aren’t products. That’s a no brainer. You just have to think of other complex service institutions – do the courts think they ‘produce’ criminals, are hospitals producing patients.

    But, I must confess, I can easily understand why some might view students are products.

    Universities are organised (still) around the economic imperatives – and production methodology – of 19th Century industry. If you haven’e seen Sir Ken Robison’s brilliant RSA Animate illustrated talk on this – then it’s time to live under a more centrally located rock and go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U

    Process is the metaphorical culprit in the students-are-product thinking. What is it that we move in neat little batches though our educational processes year after year with mechanical precision and regularity – students.

    The still-prevailing prototype for the process-production metaphor is the Henry-Ford-mass-production assembly line.

    I am sure to those who see students as products, that which is on the conveyor-belt is obviously the ‘product’ of the process. What is on the higher education conveyor belt. Well, the students of course. Ergo they are the product.

    It’s a mistake in my book. But, it’s a perfectly rational mistake. And because of that it will be difficult to change the minds of those who see it this way.

    But don’t worry if it irks you. History will take care of it. The economics of education is inexorably changing and the need to apply mass-production techniques to achieve social equity in education is weakening rapidly.

    That students are products is an idea that will surely die out one retirement (or redundancy) at a time.

    1. Leo de Sousa Post author


      Thanks for the brilliant comment. I particularly liked the video and sent the link off to BCIT’s President. (I referenced you in my email to him).

      BCIT is in the middle of a strategic planning process and this video is a great example of why we need to think differently. I was chuckling about the separation and “don’t copy” bit especially when we almost always work in groups and sharing ideas and building on them is how work gets done!

      Thanks for taking the time to share this.

  4. Roy Falletta

    They are actually both so you cannot discount the role they play as products. The OUTCOME (the graduate) is a product of the process that the institution creates.

    The processes that the institution creates must then focus on the student as a customer (both primary and secondary) to ensure that said processes create the best possible product (the student graduate).

    This needs to be reflected in all institutional processes not just the ones primarily directed toward students. The proper process support of other customers i.e. Professors, support staff, administration facilitates an environment where those customers now have the opportunity to improve their direct student processes.

    So you are not wrong in your assertion. At the base level, the student is the customer/consumer but the processes created have to be designed to create the best possible product. This is an important differentiation as at times, the customer may want something that will not provide the best outcomes and as such, the supplier needs to find a way to shift that particular paradigm.

    Shifting that paradigm can happen in many ways as you well know but must include some consultation. While the supplier is generally regarded as the expert, consultation on the issue at hand can change the customer paradigm, the supplier paradigm or just the method in which the service is delivered.

    This particular phenomenon is exemplified in Health Care where the Docs and the Nurses feel they are the only ones that can determine what the customer needs to dictate the outcome so quite often – against all service intuition, the customer gets ignored.


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