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Monday, February 19, 2024

Are Students our Customers

Over the last two to three decades, the language in higher education has changed. When I was looking for higher education as a student, the talk was about quality of education and the affordability of education. But the language today is branding, return on investment, etc. I keep hearing that students are our customers and we must keep our customers happy. And in this situation, the customer delight is all about placement or more bluntly, return-on-investment (that too in short term).

I am too old fashioned to appreciate this.

To me the relationship between the student/alumni and an educational institution is not transactional. It is not that one pays some money and one gets some education in return. There is a relationship that is life long and the relationship is one with no expectations or in some sense, huge expectations. When I was looking at my flight options from Delhi to Cancun, Mexico, I could change flights in multiple cities in North America or Europe, but I chose to spend several hours in Washington DC, since my alma mater, University of Maryland, College Park is nearby and I would like to meet some alums and faculty members there before hopping on to the next flight. I can't imagine visiting Kanpur without dropping by in IIT Kanpur campus. A transactional relationship does not last this long.

People whom I have taught decades ago still keep in touch, still ask for advice and I still reply. In which business, the organization will spend time to help someone who was a customer 25 years ago. We do this because we are not a business.

And how do you compute return-on-investment anyway. And how much return is good enough?

Quality education has many consequences, a higher salary is just one of them. You pick up certain skills which may not immediately provide you returns in terms of first salary but will help you in life. It enables you to take better decisions in all spheres of life including dealing with family and friends. You become part of an alumni network which often provides certain level of support in various situations. What monetary numbers are you going to put for these benefits to evaluate your RoI?

A student who considers himself as customer will invariably demand better facilities (which is ok) but a student who considers herself as a learner is more likely to demand better education.

But, of course, it is not just students and parents who think of themselves as customers, even some universities consider students as customers. They also realize that the RoI computation by these customers is strictly based on first month salary after the program. These universities will in their curriculum put focus on those skills which are immediately in demand, and they don't care if the knowledge of these graduates will become obsolete very soon. On the other hand, good universities will want to ensure lifelong success of their students which means a very different approach to education. Learning how to learn becomes important. Skills like Critical thinking become important. More focus on basic concepts is needed.

Whenever I say things like these, the question that I often get asked is this. "I want to be a learner and not a customer. But how do I evaluate that there is better learning in a university. If metrics like higher return-on-investment are not indicative of better learning, then what is." Well, I have answered it in many blogs in the past. The bottomline is "faculty." And the best way to find out is by looking at their profile, and by visiting the campus and talking to some of them and their students.

To close, I will repeat what I have said in the beginning. I don't consider myself as a past customer of IIT Kanpur or University of Maryland. I have a lifelong relationship with my alma maters and not a transactional one.

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