Monday, January 24, 2022

Are students customers?

In this week's Chemical and Engineering News, this letter: 
In response to the letter to the editor in the Dec. 13/20, 2021, issue (page 7), I would respond to Ronald Hites with the following: You appear put out that your university asks students at the end of each semester to complete a survey on your ability to instruct in the specific subject matter and that the students are “customers.” Well, when someone pays for a service—such as for university education—you are a service provider, and that makes the person paying for your service a customer. Just like when you pay for the 15 min to see a physician. For the 15 min that the physician is with you (if you are lucky enough to garner 15 min), you are their customer. Frankly, I think it is long overdue to treat the service provider as being just that—a paid-for service provider. I wish I had been afforded the opportunity during my days in the university to rank some of my “service providers’ ” abilities. Many were brilliant in their fields but were lousy at teaching. Hopefully your university actually reads and reacts to the results of the survey to improve the overall quality of the “product” being sold.

Francis Walker
Tecumseh, Michigan.

I'm a bit of a traditionalist, so I do not consider students to be "customers", or at least, I believe that it is a bad idea for a provider-customer relationship to enter into the university professor-student relationship. That being said, I cannot help but think that as tuition increases, the likelihood of such transgressions is likelier... 


  1. One thing that really surprised me in my transition from a small undergrad college to a big R1 grad school was that undergrad teaching was considered a very low priority. My labmate got into the habit of dismissing his gen chem section earlier and earlier every day, until one day the course director found out he had spent only 15 minutes teaching what was supposed to be a 50-minute class. There were no real consequences for him other than a brief scolding and a warning not to do it again. My graduate alma mater is consistently in the US News top 10 graduate programs, and I frankly don't think it's a very good place for an undergrad to attend. The professors are all Important Famous Bigshots who aren't really there to teach.

    1. Virtually this same idea was drilled into my head from my more modest undergrad school where even most of my profs came from some of the biggest/famous universities. They ultimately said if you want to be a chemist, stay at a small school so you can actually learn and not get lost in a sea of hundreds of students, then go to grad school working with a top name.

  2. KT, I concur with your experience. I went to a small campus of a large state university, where the emphasis was on teaching and there were no graduate students. The largest lecture class size was probably 50 - 75 students, I'd guess, and those were classes that many majors took (like intro physics, calculus, etc). The professors taught all courses and labs (although my first intro chem lab was taught by a senior student, who I believe negotiated this to get experience before going off to grad school).

    A couple of engineering students that I knew who went to a lot of career fairs said that recruiters typically accounted for a lower GPA at our campus, because they knew that the grading and expectations were tougher.

    I was in undergrad in late 90s - early 2000s and the professors then did not generally countenance a "consumer" attitude from us students. I clearly recall two professors cancelling class when too many students came in with a bad attitude (once for too much chatting going on after the start of the hour, and once after a midterm test in which many of us did poorly and we didn't seem to care about it).

    All in all, I'm glad I chose to do undergrad at this campus.

  3. I've graduated from a UK institution with nearly 80,000 dollars in loan debt that I'll be lucky to pay off in the next 30 years. I sought to have a certain degree of control in an education environment where there is very little choice left to the student (In the UK, you enroll on a degree programme and don't have a lot of choice in which classes you take in STEM subjects). The workload expectations for the course were much higher than the upper limit for work agreed to by the university and the students' union. When bringing this up to the programme director we were told to suck it up because that's what we signed up for. Said director disliked engaging in discussion around these boundaries and would immediately disengage when the topic of tuition was brought up saying "A chemistry degree is worth it". The workload was especially difficult on my coursemates who were working in addition to studying due to the high cost of the degree. Note: before 1997 there was *no* tuition in the UK and until 2010 it was a third of its current cost. Also the workload requirements were eventually reduced after staff complained that their workload was higher due to our increased workload. I feel that in a scenario where the amount that students are shelling out for an education is acknowledged - especially in fields where university isn't really optional - the viewpoints of those students will be better acknowledged too.

  4. I see the customer-provider relationship as somewhat useful, but should not be the full scope. The purpose to go to a university is to learn material (I see social aspects as nice but not necessary). As a Grad Student I got my reviews and went over them with the lab director, even mentioning one particularly bad review which was written by a normally happy student who happened to be mad on that particular review day. Teacher reviews are useful to the school to gauge capability of imbuing students with knowledge, and I wonder how and to what extent these are integrated with other factors. For an R1 university like I attended in Grad School, I suspect that teaching capability is towards the bottom of the importance hierarchy. I don't know of any teaching support programs that were in place to support the faculty, whereas I as a student had visible access and frequent reminders about programs.

    As someone who went through grad school and now works in industry, I wonder if I could have gotten the same analytical skills by working at the bench for 6 years and how useful my time in grad school was. Universities used to be about teaching future faculty, but now a faculty position is a minority job track. CJ, have you thought about how to better stimulate growth in industry such that it could compete with academia for training?


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20