I recently heard it argued by a self-styled thought leader that intensifying student demand for better “customer service” will be the next major disruption to higher education globally. While it is true that there have always been students more inclined than most to view their education as a commodity and their tuition simply as a fee for service, it is doubtful their numbers are yet anywhere near a majority. Nor is it likely they will become so. After 40 years of teaching I can say that I have not known a generation of students less driven by crude self-interest or more passionately committed to the greater good than those we are seeing in our classrooms today.

Academics have of course always been firm in rejecting a consumer model for the activities in which they engage, but for reasons that are largely misunderstood in public discourse. When professors bridle at the language of customer service, it is not because they are indifferent to the quality of the learning experience they provide, but rather because the commercial model omits so much that is critical to the cultivation of mind, spirit, and body that is the purpose of advanced education.

A decade ago the Canadian economist Douglas Allen drew attention to the fact that some of society’s most important and enduring institutions are not premised on standardization and wage labour, but instead on custom, personal connections, and patronage. And even though today universities are increasingly held accountable for measurable outputs, they remain deeply rooted in that latter world – and they do their most important work sustained by it. This is especially true in a research-intensive university like Queen’s, where students at all levels benefit from knowing and being mentored by world-class researchers. There is a subtle but critical difference between this situation – in which teacher and student may be operating at different levels, but there is a presumption of partnership in pursuit of greater understanding – and a transactional approach in which a ready-made intellectual “product” is being passed along to a consumer.

While the onset of the pandemic in March of 2020 – and the resulting shift to virtual learning – occasioned a certain amount of understandable dissatisfaction amongst students everywhere about the nuts and bolts of instruction, it seems that at our institution what students lamented more was the loss of “the Queen’s experience,” the unique broader learning environment, including clubs, student government, and other extra-curricular activities that constitute the custom and culture of a Queen’s education. Even if we focus only on student satisfaction, then, there is a dimension to the pursuit, conferring and receiving of a Queen’s degree that is not easily quantifiable and constitutes a significant challenge to the simplistic application of a commercial model.

At the heart of that challenge is the premium placed by students on their membership in a community, which naturally speaks at some level to the needs of the self but which ultimately also brings benefit to others by helping to create a society that is just, diverse, and consequently rich in opportunity. That is why there is good reason to avoid loosely applying the notion of customer service in a university context. An institution like Queen’s does indeed exist to serve, and the individuals who are members of this community certainly are critical beneficiaries of that service. But those individuals also share in the university’s obligation to serve society at large, and the eagerness with which students in particular have embraced that responsibility – fighting for social justice, lobbying for action on climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals, for example – is one of the most invigorating aspects of university life today.

Originally published in the 2021 issue #3 of Queen's Alumni Review

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