May’s ASQ “View from the Q” post by Julia McIntosh explores the link between quality and education, a theme that emerged in discussions at this May’s World Conference on Quality and Improvement (WCQI) in Dallas. As a college professor, this is a subject I think about all the time.
Here’s the issue: higher quality in education should yield a stronger, more capable workforce. But there are some disconnects here in practice. As Julia remarks, “students in the U.S. are praised for poor performance or for ‘just showing up’… as a result, they expect to be celebrated for mediocrity, rather than for quality.” This doesn’t bode well for effectively constructing a long-term pipeline of new talent.
From the quality perspective, what can we do to improve education? I’ll address this from the perspective of post-secondary higher education, those critical (usually four) years between graduating from high school and landing that all-important entry-level job. My recipe has three ingredients, explored in this three-part post. First, we need to shift our collective consciousness.
#1 Higher education is NOT a service industry. But it’s become big business, so it’s natural that administrators have picked up on the jargon of corporations. I read articles all the time that talk about how students are customers, attending classes where they are provided good customer service by their professors and the universities. According to this analogy, the degree is the product that the student can hold for perpetuity… a token of supposed capabilities that can be exchanged for jobs and money… an “investment in their future earnings potential.”
In March, the Chronicle of Higher Education provided a great explanation of why this position is fundamentally flawed:
Students who believe that they are mere customers are selling themselves short, as are the faculty members and administrators who apply business-speak to the classroom. Students are not customers to be served. They are far more important than that.
Customer service implies participating in a system of transaction or exchange in which one side provides a service to another. While plenty of money changes hands, universities don’t really sell a product, not in the sense that “customer service” implies, anyway. At most, I think we might argue that students are purchasing a well-structured opportunity to learn or obtain (we hope) meaningful credentials. The “well-structured” point is critical. When I hear students explicitly define themselves as customers, it’s often in the context of perceived bad teaching, a sense that the structure surrounding the learning opportunity is somehow deficient.
It’s not just that students want simply to buy a degree. Students place reasonable desires—faster grading, fewer lectures, more lectures, more preparation, clearer grading standards, etc.—into the framework of commerce. It’s a way of reversing the power dynamics. A customer holds a special place in our society. They have the right to complain, pressure, and go over the head of the worker to the management.
To me, the notion of “student as customer” in the traditional sense is absurd, because education is about a co-creative experience. Education is about exercising your critical and analytical thinking skills, learning about yourself and what you’re good at (and what you enjoy), and learning how to relate to others. It’s about gradually, and through practice, becoming better at all of the above. It’s about discovering new meaning in yourself and in the world. It is as much a product of the people around you, getting educated at the same time, as it is the subject matter you’re exploring. It’s a transformation that happens within you — and is not a service that can be provided FOR you or TO you. You’re in charge of how well that education will “work” — if at all.
It’s kind of like trying to recast the church in the language of corporate jargon. Is your priest or minister your service provider? What is customer satisfaction if you attend church? Do you really have a right to demand it? If you don’t agree with everything your religious advisor says, or how they say it, do you have a right to complain (because they’re not meeting your needs)? Of course church is different than college… spiritual advisors don’t try to grade you, nor do they hold that all-important “degree” for you to advance to the next level. To be able to move forward in life with a solid spiritual foundation. You can achieve salvation, you know, but only if you get at least a 2.5 GPA and don’t fail any of your primary doctrine courses or commit sins that are too big.
You get in what you put out. If you sign up for a gym and never exercise, or go there and don’t use the equipment, are you going to be dissatisfied as a customer? Probably not, because you know that you have a critical role to play in how well the gym works for you. You are paying a certain number of dollars a month for the privilege of being able to use the facilities, and benefit from the resources (physical and intellectual) provided by the environment.
Ironically, if we regularly used a framework like SERVQUAL to assess the quality of higher education, we’d be focusing on more of the right things: competence, courtesy, credibility, security, access, communication, knowing the customer/beneficiary, physical evidence of service, reliability, responsiveness. This does not reduce the concept of customer satisfaction to just how happy the consumer is upon delivery of the service, but integrates the nature of service delivery and the critical role of the customer in co-creating the experience of satisfaction.
The current educational model makes achieving high quality in terms dimension like SERVQUAL’s difficult, if not impossible: using this as a framework, a student who discovers they really shouldn’t be in college (but should be working in a bakery or a hair salon instead, to achieve their personal goals) would be evidence of a high quality educational environment. Abandoning pursuit of a degree to pursue interests or a lifestyle that’s ultimately more satisfying to an individual… well, I don’t know of many colleges (or students!) who would consider that indicative of a high quality education.