Musings on Education, Part 1: Why education is not a business and students are not customers
I started teaching my MBA course on business responsibility this term with a case study on the Thunderbird School of Business in AZ and the controversy over their privatization efforts. Thunderbird has joined with a private education company to delivery a new undergrad business degree. They have made their undergrad degree a “business”.
I thought this was a nice fresh case discussion challenge for my students:
“Why isn’t your MBA degree a private business? Wouldn’t it make sense to have an MBA degree delivered by a business…an education business? After all, it seems silly to have a non-profit, government-funded university teaching you how to run a for-profit business, no?”
Well, the discussion didn’t really get very far. My students knew something was wrong with the logic, but couldn’t really make sense of why.
And I started to wonder why it is that education is increasingly being treated like a business and our students increasingly being called “customers”.
Which led me to think about my 22 years of teaching and designing programs in colleges and universities and what I was really doing all those years.
And this led to some rather startling insights. Here they are:
1. The students we have in our classrooms are not our customers. Instead, we have three other customers:
A. The parents, teachers, counselors, and everyone else who encouraged the students to go into higher education.
Many students are in my classroom not because they want to be, but because they know of no other way to a better life than what they have been told. In some cases, pleasing parents is the only reason the students are in my classroom. So, the customer I am to please in many cases is not the student, but their parents.
Government pays for a big part of higher education because it knows that education can create a better society. So, my customer is, at least partly, the government and society in general.
C. The student’s future self: 5-10 years from now.
Students don’t even begin to really understand what they have experienced and gained in higher education until many years in the future. So for a third time, my customer is not the student sitting in front of me right now, but their future self.
So, if the person sitting in my classroom is not my customer, then who is this person? Which led to my next insight:
2. The students in my classroom are the raw material of other stakeholders’ needs. They are the seed that will grow into a tree that others will approve of…including their future self.
And this raw material – this seed – does not even know it is not the customer.
Which led to my next insight:
3. Students are not aware they are the raw material for other people’s wishes.
They are not aware of the system they are going through.
They are not aware of what education is and how it works.
They are not aware of who and what they really are.
They are not aware that they are not my customer.
Which led to my next insight:
4. How can education be a business when the student is treated like a customer but they are not the customer?
Which led me to conclude that if education does become a business, it would be a very, very strange animal indeed.
It would be an organization where the raw material – the seed – is treated like a customer when it is not the customer…but believes that it is the customer.