The student as customer

I spent most of my time this spring visiting Ontario institutions.

When I visit, I share the idea of growing a community of higher education collaborators that use digital tools to reach across institutions and connect. I share stories of excellence and compassion. I share the values of our organization fixed on access and the empowerment of educators and learners: the people at the core of our collective success.

And, I always make a point of sharing the story of the Student Experience Design Lab (SXD Lab). There is a lot I can say about the Lab and the way it works, but my colleague, Chris Fernlund does a wonderful job of that in his post “We Do Design”. There is something else that interests me about the Lab: its mandate.

Purposeful learning for a meaningful life. This is the mandate that emerged when a group of students considered what might drive their work in problem definition for higher education. What kinds of questions would they explore? Anything that has the potential to contribute to the growth or promotion of purposeful learning for a meaningful life. 

A recent post by Ben Williamson called “Edu-business as usual – market-making in higher education” lays out, in detail, the deliberate commodification of higher education. Williamson uses Pearson as an example of a private company that is actively making, managing and maintaining the concept of higher education as a marketplace: “In these important ways, Pearson is participating in making an increasingly competitive HE market in which it is itself a competitor…”

Pearson is only one example. Williamson’s description fits many private sector companies seeking to stake a claim in higher education.

A commodified higher education system means a purely transactional relationship between student and institution. Money in — job out. But the students we work with don’t see their education as a means to an end. They are looking for an authentic learning experience, in which they are an active partner, which leads to a life of fulfillment, productivity and contribution. An alumni salary survey three years out does not capture that sense of fulfillment.

The idea of purposeful learning for a meaningful life sits in opposition to a higher education system that sees students as customers rather than citizens. I think it is quite possible that, now, more than ever, young people will recognize the feeling of having their futures commodified. And they won’t like it.

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