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The Student as Customer, British Style

This is a guest post by John Lea, a principal lecturer in education at Canterbury Christ Church University, in Britain, and author of Political Correctness and Higher Education: British and American Perspectives (Taylor & Francis, 2009).
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John Cleese (left) as the hotelier Basil Fawlty.

John Cleese once said that the main difference between Britain and the United States was that Americans understood customer service. This difference was behind the creation of his classic character, Basil Fawlty. Of course, believing that the customer is always right and keeping the customer satisfied are not straightforward matters, particularly when that customer is a student.

The idea of the student as a customer has been given new impetus in Britain by a government push toward an American-style marketization of higher education. In September, the first students arrived on campus who will be expected to pay (in many cases) the full possible cost of their university education—up to 9,000 pounds per year (roughly $14,000).

However, the consumerist trend in Britain has been under way for some time, most noticeably in the increased attention being given to the National Student Survey (NSS) in the past five years. Unlike in the United States, where colleges can choose to take part in similar surveys, the NSS is required and is fast becoming a significant surveillance stick with which the British government can hit underperforming universities.

In essence, the NSS is an annual assessment of the effectiveness of each university’s performance, as measured by the satisfaction of its final-year students, in response to a series of questions about their experience. For example, students are asked whether their instructors are good at explaining things; whether they have received detailed comments on their work; whether their courses are well organized and running smoothly.

For those who, like myself, spend a lot of time looking at the question of student learning, the survey is not without an obvious irony: Clearly some students could be very satisfied with their university experience but have learned very little. Happy in their ignorance, perhaps?

For these reasons many British universities are now experimenting—alongside the NSS—with their own student-engagement surveys, which ask questions about students’ contributions to the learning process. For example, one might ask: How often have you come to class without completing readings or assignments? How often have you worked with classmates outside of class to prepare assignments? Have you participated in a community-based project as part of a regular course? To our American colleagues, those questions may seem familiar. They are based on what might be considered the British survey’s American equivalent, the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).

As part of this discussion, perhaps we can learn something from Carl Rogers, an influential American psychologist. For some, his thinking may have been a promiscuous use of therapeutic terms best left on a Freudian couch, but for others he opened doors in educational development. He emphasized that educational encounters can mirror successful therapeutic encounters by transforming the patient/student into the autonomous person/learner. This must be understood as a process, and to be successful it must be one in which instructors do not see themselves first and foremost as instructors but as facilitators of others’ learning.

For some, Rogers’s legacy might be a misguided one of helping students to feel good about themselves (even though this may well aid their learning), thereby playing into the hands of those, on both sides of the Atlantic, who have decried “the dangerous rise of therapeutic education.” These critics protest what they see as the replacement of the pursuit of knowledge with positive identity affirmation, or, in pedagogical terms, the replacement of curriculum content with curriculum process.

There is another side to Rogers, though, one that could unite rather than divide, uniting everyone who wishes to see students not as passive recipients of knowledge and teaching, but as autonomous learners or scholars engaged in a joint enterprise of producing knowledge. This is surely the true significance of process in curriculum terms. It is also surely in keeping with Wilhelm von Humboldt’s original  exhortation concerning the establishment of the Humboldt University of Berlin: “The relationship between teacher and learner is … completely different in higher education from what it is in schools. At the higher level, the teacher is not there for the sake of the student; both have their justification in the service of scholarship.”

The British NSS is troubling because it has inadvertently helped to bring about the opposite of this key idea at the heart of the Western university, encouraging students to see themselves as dependent on the performances of their instructors rather than being inducted into a scholarly engagement with knowledge, an engagement in which, increasingly, students should see themselves as co-producers of knowledge, and independent thinkers.

But the NSS is troubling for a simpler reason as well: its customer-orientated questions are asked at the end of an undergraduate degree, at the very point when one might have hoped that students would have moved beyond such a depiction of their experience. The place for a satisfaction survey is surely at the end of the first year, at the point when it is understandable that they would still be dependent on their instructors and their teaching, and when they are still being informed of the accepted knowledge of their chosen discipline.

Any survey after that must surely start reflecting how they have moved on from the comfort and safety of the textbook to the frontier of disciplinary knowledge, and asking them to reflect on what contribution they themselves have made to the learning process and knowledge production. In which case perhaps the most intriguing questions to ask in a final-year survey would be: Do you still need your professors? Can you set your own learning outcomes? Can you accurately mark your own work? At least the American NSSE is a move in that direction.

As currently constituted, the NSS keeps students in a prolonged state of dependency, and, echoing that old Rolling Stones song, tries to keep academics concerned with just how white their shirts can be. Fine perhaps for the first-year experience, but isn’t this pretty useless information—which won’t fire anyone’s imagination—by the end of the final year? What’s needed is an engagement survey, not just a satisfaction survey. To paraphrase President Kennedy’s line, isn’t it time we all tried to shift the emphasis and ask students not what their university has done for them, but what they have done for their university?

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