This paper seeks to evaluate the arguments for and against the proposition that students in higher education are “customers” and should be treated as such.
A critical review of the relevant literature from the domains of total quality management and marketing.
The debate is polarised, with advocates regarding it as self‐evident that students are customers and should be treated as such, while critics regard it as self‐evident that the incursion of the “customer” concept into higher education degrades educational standards and damages educator/student relationships.
Researchers should investigate whether the adoption of the terminology, systems and processes of the “student‐as‐customer” leads to a degradation or improvement of the quality of education and level of service delivered to higher education students.
Ways are recommended in which the careful adoption of the term “customers” to refer to students could retain positive aspects – promoting the legitimate interests of students in the higher education system – while avoiding such potentially negative aspects as the problematic idea that “the customer is always right”.
The paper points towards a “middle way” by which educational policy‐makers and managers can obtain the benefits associated with a “customer orientation” while avoiding the difficulties associated with a simplistic interpretation of the customer concept.
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