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Are students customers?

Mary Holmes

Classrooms by Felipe Gavronski

Many of our students pay a lot of money for their education. The current pandemic is raising all sorts of questions about what they might get for their money when classes are delivered online. These are important questions that concern university teachers as much as students, but many of us have long had doubts how universities have been turned into businesses. The defence of the public university is an important, but often complex task. So here I just wanted to share some thoughts I had after a brief discussion with students about whether they were customers. I just wanted to think about some of the problems with that argument.

  1. Saying that students are customers assumes that education is something you have to buy rather than a right or a public good that should be freely accessible to all.
  2. What are students buying? Is it a degree, is it a service? If teachers are providing a service is the customer always right? How then can teachers tell students what they need to do to improve?
  3. To see students as customers undervalues the work and effort students have to put in to achieve a degree. As Jon Hearn says, teaching is more like being a coach than selling something to a customer. We both have to work together to achieve results.

How we might work together under remote or socially distanced conditions might be challenging, but it is working with students that made me want to teach and, with the help of students, I intend to find a way forward together.

Mary Holmes is Professor of Emotions and Society @ University of Edinburgh, email

Published by

Sophia W.

I teach in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh, and am interested in the politics of everyday life, in China and elsewhere.

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