Students as customers: 6-point checklist for the feedback you deserve

In January, Times Higher Education reported that Liverpool Hope University has banned the notion of students as ‘customers’.

I fear that’s missing the point.  Students don’t swan about campus the whole time as if it’s a supermarket or a restaurant.  But they do recognise the right to get a good level of education and they do realise the need to complain if they aren’t getting what they have a right to.  A student wants to be satisfied that although they leave university with debts from fees and loans, they will have also left university with a quality experience that was worth every penny.

Do You Want Fries With That - photo by wickenden

Students ARE customers, whether an institution likes it or not.

Gerald Pillay, Vice-Chancellor of Liverpool Hope University, expressed a moral duty to care for students.  When using a term like ‘customer service’, Pillay felt it suggested a financial reason for care, rather than a desire for the individual to excel.

Strangely, looking at Liverpool Hope’s ‘Student Charter‘, it still states:

“Students should expect high standards of professionalism and customer service from all staff and should complain if those standards are not met.” [my italics]

Whatever the case, the charter is spot on.  It reinforces the notion of the student as customer among other things.  Universities need to see both a consumer and academic side to a student’s education.  While there is certainly an academic community of discovery, it is bound with an economic element.  Students are fully aware that they are paying toward a service.

As the National Student Survey has shown, a major concern you have as students today is that you don’t always receive sufficient feedback from tutors about your course or the work involved.  Of course it’s a concern.  You don’t expect to buy a flatpack cupboard and find no instructions.  You’d be appalled if you paid for a service that didn’t provide the quality that you’d paid for.

So why can’t the idea of a student be given a more complex description?  Why is it difficult to envisage a ‘customer’ within a ‘community’, chasing ‘academic excellence’.  The hero in a movie can be ‘brave’, ‘handsome’, ‘a loving parent’, ‘holding down a regular job’, as well as a bunch of other qualities.  Nobody rests as a 2D, unchanging entity.

Universities are large places with many staff.  You expect a variety of services over the years; not just one.  However, your fees are still not the full amount it costs a uni to keep you.  It’s not reasonable to demand your fees back if a couple of things go wrong.

But it is reasonable to expect fair treatment, decent communication and feedback, as well as the opportunity to excel while you also have fun.

That’s not asking for too much.  But don’t jump the gun and blame academics as soon as things don’t go your way.  Your tutors have many tasks and responsibilities to juggle, so they are unable to keep an open door at all times.

Use this checklist of 6 steps to move things forward when trying to arrange meetings and feedback from tutors:

  1. Make your voice heard – Unless the lecturer is a memory master with great discipline and focus, it’s no use asking for a feedback session once, briefly, just after a seminar.  You can’t guarantee your tutor will have a diary to hand and they’ll probably have other things on their mind at that moment.  By all means ask them straight away, but remind them if you don’t hear back.  Try to gauge a convenient moment when the lecturer is most likely to listen properly to your request.
  2. Chase requests and comments up – As above, remind them that you want some feedback and suggest convenient times and dates for you to come over.  Suggesting possible dates should focus the matter a little better.
  3. Put it in writing – It pays to keep a log of correspondence.  Making a verbal agreement may not be enough, and you’ll have no proof that a conversation took place.  If you e-mail instead, you can show how many times you’ve requested a feedback session and you can expect the tutor will be where they are meant to be if a time is agreed in writing.
  4. Don’t give up – Continue to remind the tutor of your intentions.  Explain the importance of your requests for feedback.  When facing a complete brick wall, stress how concerned you are that your work is suffering through lack of communication between yourself and academic staff.  Ask them why they aren’t providing you with the time you need.  They may have good reason and a better way to take matters forward.
  5. Move on – When the going gets tough, you could ask for representation from a different tutor (if possible).  I’ve known situations where several tutors teach the same modules (mainly large mandatory 1st year modules) and a student has swapped their allocated tutor for tutorials and feedback.  However, this may not be applicable in many cases.
  6. Take it further – When only one academic is involved and feedback is lacking, you could explain your predicament to the head or course, or head of school and ask for their advice.  Alternatively, speak to your Student Services or Students’ Union for advice on how to take matters further.

5 comments

  1. If only the quote from ‘Student Charter’ was acknowledged by the staff at my university, :sigh:.

    Maybe someone could email this article to all academic institutions!

    Would have been great if i had this advice few years back.

    Once again, great stuff!

  2. University is a business and so is education if we wanted real results wed want class roms of no more then 5 students with dedicated teachers, if we want that we have to go private.

  3. @MC, the National Student Survey addresses this kind of issue, which universities do take seriously. After all, they clearly want to attract new students, not worry them off with poor marks on feedback. But with a bit of action (and the 6-point checklist), I think feedback issues can be addressed directly by students in most cases. I say most…It’s when this fails that you do have to seriously worry!

    @Tyrone, seminar and tutorial sizes seem to vary wildly between modules and institutions. My smallest class was 8 and my wife’s smallest class was 4 (at different universities). The largest classes had 20-25, and could be 4-5 times that number in lectures (usually the big 1st year modules).

    Because learning at uni is more independent, seminar/tutorial size didn’t bother me too much, but larger sizes did occasionally inhibit discussion and exploration of ideas. Larger groups can also make it difficult for tutors to commit to lots of 1-to-1 sessions with students. They only have so many hours in the day.

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