Customer-Driven Education: Who is the customer?

Don Bowyer • 15 November 2018 •

Much of the business world moved toward a customer-driven model through the 20th century. Toward the end of that century and into the current one, many universities began pushing to adopt a similar model. While this seems like a sound idea, it is obviously important first to identify who is the “customer” of higher education.

Many people assume that the student is the customer, but I argue otherwise. While the student is certainly an important stakeholder in higher education, and may well control much of the decision process in terms of when, where, and whether to pursue postsecondary education, there are several ways in which the student does not function as a customer:

  1. Customers are typically free to purchase goods and services without restrictions, while universities actually restrict admissions based on the qualifications of the prospective student.
  2. Customers typically pay directly to purchase goods and services, but tuition in higher education is often subsidized (or paid entirely) by external agents, whether government, philanthropy, or family.
  3. Customers typically do not have to demonstrate their merit to continue as customers, but students must earn certain minimum grades to be able to continue in higher education.

Given the above, I don’t believe that the student can be called the customer. It makes more sense to me that the actual customer is Society, defined broadly as not only local, regional and national communities, but referring also to humanity, posterity, and the “human condition.” Most universities expect their faculty to engage in three broad activities: teaching, research, and service. Teaching activities benefit Society at least as much as they benefit students (see below). Scholarly and creative activities contribute to the sum total of human knowledge and culture, while also frequently driving business research and development. Service activities support local, national, and international communities. Viewed from this perspective, the educated student represents one of several “products” that higher education provides to Society.

This concept of serving Society is well-matched with the stated goals and missions of the typical university. For example, here are the mission statements of two prominent institutions of higher education:

  • “The mission of Harvard College is to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society (emphasis added). We do this through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education.”
  • “The mission of the University of Cambridge is to contribute to society (emphasis added) through the pursuit of education, learning, and research at the highest international levels of excellence.”

As the educational level of a population increases, higher education provides a variety of direct benefits to society. These include lower unemployment, lower crime rates, lower social welfare costs, higher voter participation, higher volunteer rates, and a stronger tax base that better supports enhanced public services like fire departments, libraries, etc. A report from the Milken Institute included this observation: “Education increases regional prosperity: Adding one extra year to the average years of schooling among the employed in a metropolitan area is associated with an increase in real GDP per capita of 10.5 percent and an increase in real wages per worker of 8.4 percent…”

Even the prototypical capitalist Adam Smith wrote about the value to society of an educated population. Referring to the “inferior ranks of people,” Smith wrote that the State: “…derives no inconsiderable advantage from their instruction. The more they are instructed, the less liable they are to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition, which, among ignorant nations frequently occasion the most dreadful disorders. An instructed and intelligent people, besides, are always more decent and orderly than an ignorant and stupid one.”

Beyond providing Society with the quantifiable benefits discussed above, the scholarly activities pursued in institutions of higher education also yield immeasurable benefits as a result of research in the humanities, social sciences, and arts. This includes research and creative activities that add to the sum total of human knowledge and culture. While this research is rarely funded through external grants and contracts, and is frequently maligned as not having quantifiable outcomes, scholarship that leads to a better understanding of our world, and our own place in it, must surely have intrinsic value.

To bring a more local perspective, I would point out that Sunway University, the leading private non-profit university in Malaysia, fully recognizes its obligation to Society. The university mission statement is: “To nurture all-round individuals and devote ourselves to the discovery, advancement, transmission and application of knowledge that meets the needs of our society (emphasis added) and the global community.” The Jeffrey Cheah Foundation, the governing body that oversees the Sunway Education Group, has provided 402 billion RM in scholarship support to deserving students. There is no question that Society is the long-term beneficiary at Sunway University!

For The Edge Malaysia (29 October 2018 • page 72)
https://digital.theedgemalaysia.com/theedgemediagroup/books/tem/2018/20181029tem/#/72