Are students customers in higher education? Should we care about the answer?

S. Campbell-Perry, E. Williamson

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution

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The question surrounding whether students are indeed customers is both controversial and infinitely complex as the sector argues over this topic it attempts to keep pace with a heightened consumerist market place (Saunders, 2014). As a result higher education (HE) has become engaged in a discussion about how best to satisfy its students whilst delivering a high quality educational experience. The sector has also been confronted by significant fiscal changes which have resulted in a reduction in central funding. However, this has been largely offset within UK universities (with the exception of Scotland), by the ability to generate income through the introduction of ‘top-up’ fees which was introduced in September 2006. Debates over the provision of customer service have caused friction between colleagues and an inconsistent experience across the university for the student. In addition this understanding of the student as customer(SAC) may be interpreted differently across the university, resulting in an inconsistent approach, where administrators, faculty, and students each have their own interpretation of their roles in relation to the metaphor. Millward (2016) recognises this state of inconsistency of approach within her research into formal student complaints and identifies an existent culture of defensiveness and protectionism across the UK HE sector as HEIs struggle to deal with students who actively feedback their dissatisfaction with their student experience. However there is a very real question that appears to be largely unanswered. Do students feel like customers? Finney & Finney (2010) in their research on student understanding of SAC identified a gap in understanding of whether US students perceived themselves to be customers. This notion of SAC was found to have credence within Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU), despite a vast difference in the funding structure for Scottish students in relation to their American counterparts. The researcher interviewed 64 students whether they were customers of GCU. The responses indicated that over 70% felt in some way that they were customers of the university and these themes and there implication will be discussed in the presentation. Whilst the debate may continue to rage over what students are labelled as, there is an understanding that in the increasingly competitive market place requires the student experience to be excellent as a means to increase future (paying) student numbers (Douglas et al., 2015). With these external factors in mind HEIs have been focused on the development of relevant service models which understand and support an excellent student experience delivered in a cost effective manner (Onsman, 2008). The use of ‘Converged Service’ models within the HE sector has been established within UK HEIs since the 1980s and has had resurgence in interest in their use during the last decade (Melling & Weaver, 2013). Evidence from this recent research has shown that converged service model types have evolved and are also perceived to be 80% effective at delivering high levels of student satisfaction in a resource efficient manner. A Converged Service Model Framework was developed which identified 5 new models of converged service and these results will be disseminated within the presentation.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationINTED2017 Proceedings
Number of pages7
ISBN (Print)9788461784912
Publication statusPublished - 8 Mar 2017

Publication series

ISSN (Print)2340-1079


  • student support
  • student experience
  • students as customers
  • service models
  • convergence


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