The customer (sorry, the student) is always right

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
Donald was clearly perturbed. "Client," he muttered. "Since when was I a client?" A few of the others thought they might well take exception to the label, too. "What's wrong with student?" someone demanded.

It was clear that no one in the class was prepared to fill in their Client Satisfaction Survey until we'd cleared some semantic hurdles. We chatted for a bit about the changing college ethos: the idea of education as a business with clients, and a growing acknowledgement that college exists not just for the fresh-faced teenager from school, or for the full-time course, but for the adult returner, and for lifelong learning often in the form of the short customised course.

"You can look on education as a kind of commodity," I suggested. "You come in, pick up a package, and then go out again. The connotations of the word 'student' perhaps makes it unsuitable in this wider context."

They were singularly unimpressed by this bit of collegespeak. "We like being students," Donald said firmly. And the rest of the class backed him up. The word "student" was out of favour in further education at the moment, I explained. "You're a customer, a client, or what seems to be most popular just now, a learner."

That did it. A look of disbelief fluttered across 18 faces and then there were hoots of derision. After a few jokes about that one they finally bent their heads over their forms, succumbed to the terminology and started to sketch neat crosses in their chosen boxes.

Our Client Satisfaction Survey attempts to elicit information under three broad areas; information and guidance; courses and teaching, and college facilities. The questionnaire, produced from Scottish Office guidelines, offers statements about provision and invites the student to mark boxes that range on a continuum from "agree completely" to "disagree completely" or "not applicable".

It is an important piece of research for us. Last year's responses were very favourable: for example, more than 82 per cent of respondents graded help from teaching staff in the "very good" and "good" category.

Perhaps, luckily, there is no discrete section that attempts to quantify the "feel-good" factor.

Donald's grumblings illuminate a problem for the image-makers and the spin doctors in further education. Our full-time "learners" want to be "students". As we embrace a business discourse, we may endear ourselves to industry and to government, but we risk alienating the people who come through our doors and commit themselves to one, two and sometimes three years with us. They want the name "student" and everything in the culture that goes with it.

It is an odd line in customer care when a business contemplates a path that takes it further and further away from what many of its customers want.

Nobody disputes the aims of offering those who come to college first-class courses in first-class surroundings. A businesslike partnership between the individual and the college makes good sense and keeps colleges on their toes. But since language carves our world for us, changing the discourse changes everything. There is a danger of jeopardising the very special relationship the individual should have with his or her college.

It has never been easy for colleges to engender a sense of belonging, or to capture the hearts of its students whereas universities seem to find it easy to nurture the loyalty of their graduates.

Of course, it is not difficult to see why. An FE college houses a much more fluid student body, with an increasing part-time, day or block-release attendance pattern. Because traditionally our students attended their local college, there seemed perhaps less of a need for the social-pastoral provision that many universities provided.

However, as colleges begin to attract applications nationally and internationally, and as competition for numbers increases, more needs to be done to engender a sense of place and a sense of belonging. Student unions do sterling work in this, but responsibility lies also with colleges.

Recently, an exchange lecturer who came to us from Wisconsin was surprised that there were so few opportunities seized upon to celebrate the students' commitment and successes.

Her own college found many more opportunities to bolster the students' confidence and successes, either through extra-curricular activities and outings, or with year books, graduation balls and regular discos.

Most of these students, it should be noted, were self-funding and part-time, often taking time out from study to work and build up finances.

It is clear that students want to feel they belong, to feel that they have a special place and a special status while they are with us, whether that is full-time or part-time attendance.

Further education can polish up its act, spruce up its buildings and adopt the discourse of the marketing man, but it still fails miserably in what Americans call the "touchy-feely" area.

We have to make sure our students feel extra-special so that they can demonstrate to the world they are extra-special. Stripping from them the label of "student" may well be semantic suicide.

Anna was still simmering one Monday morning after an encounter with a university student in a disco. He had said that her Higher National Diploma was not worth anything compared to a degreeand that she was wasting hertime.

Anna had put him in his place, explaining forcibly the value of a skills-based course both to her and a prospective employer.

At the time I thought it a pretty strange and rather in-depth conversation for a disco, but perhaps they had subtitles - like the disco scene in Trainspotting. You cannot, however, help feeling that in future, Anna is going to be at a distinct disadvantage. Somehow subtitles such as "So what do you do?", "I'm a learner, actually" just don't have the same street cred.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in media communication at Dundee College.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today