What’s in a word? In the extraordinary and bizarre 1982 Falklands War between Argentina and the United Kingdom, simply saying a name for the contentious islands was a declaration of allegiance. No one who called it “the Malvinas” supported Britain, and none who called it “the Falklands” supported Argentina.
The recent move to calling university students “clients” is not so politically contentious, but no less charged and ominous. A client is a person whose own interest is served through the purchase of a good or service. Save perhaps for people who take general interest courses, usually retirees, no university student is a client and neither are their parents.
Consider the case of a civilian jet pilot trainee at flight school. We would never call such a person a client of their program because their training does not exist to serve their interest, which is fundamentally irrelevant. Whether the trainee enjoys the experience or likes the teachers is essentially beside the point. Such happy outcomes are a pleasant and coincidental side effect, but have nothing to do with training pilots, save to the extent that they facilitate the learning process.
The aim of that process is not to create a subjective feeling among the students, least of all “customer satisfaction.” The standard for success is achieved through student competence. A flight school succeeds only when it educates competent pilots, and in no other way.
That is because “the client” is anyone but the student. It could be the airline, or the FAA, or the flying public; it could even be society as a whole. The “customer satisfaction” that matters in flight education is theirs, not the prospective pilots’.
If some object that flight instruction is a highly-specialized skill, and so not a fair standard of comparison for university programs, then we need to take a harder look at the skills university education does and does not provide. And we need to renew our faith that those skills matter, despite their apparent intangibility.
The measurability of pilot skill is effectively negative, expressed in low numbers of mishaps to total flights. The positive content of the training, the process that actually produces good safety records, is difficult if not impossible to measure. In this way it is no different from classics or biology.
The point of the analogy is not only that education is ultimately immeasurable and unquantifiable, but even more that its results are determined in the social fabric as a whole, not in the minds of the students or their parents. The clients of a university are the citizens of the body politic, not the students themselves. To treat students as clients is to misunderstand and distort the purposes of education at their very root.
If we value university education as much as we value flight school — and why shouldn’t we — then we need to be clear and resolute about whose interests we serve, and how, and why.
Michael Morse is a cultural studies professor at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.
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