Business Tools, business model and the metaphor of “student as customer”

An interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week entitled “The Unintended Consequences of Borrowing Business Tools to Run a University.” You can find it here, but it may be behind a paywall.

More than a few interesting statements, but let me highlight a couple:

“Techniques borrowed from the business community can significantly improve an institution and what it provides. Focused on administrative functions like housing and dining, technology infrastructure, health services, and facilities management, those strategies can enhance the services we offer students while reducing operating costs. Ideally, the resulting improvements allow institutions to reach a crucial goal: greater affordability for more students and families. Business tools also provide important insights into many issues that face the academy, such as how to academically support students through graduation and improve their lives on the campus.

However, when management philosophy and operational concepts are extended across the academy, do they truly improve the learning we offer our students? Do they enhance our ability to prepare students for successful, meaningful lives in this rapidly changing world? Might they even compromise what makes a college or university distinctive? Could they threaten a pluralistic learning community, where all members have a chance to thrive?”

Whole books can (and have) been written on the concept of university (or higher education broadly) as business, with the continuum from despair to delight. I’ll be brief: Of course higher education is a business–people pay (students via tuition and the state via allocations) for a service, people are paid to provide this service, and none of us would be here without higher education as a business.

And of course higher education and the university is MORE than a business–or at the least a very special type of business arrangement. Later in this same article, the author notes that one of the primary goals of a business is to “delight” the customer, yet one of the primary goals of education is often to challenge the “customer” (student). (And the idea of student as customer is a concept worthy of additional comments).

Sure–we are a business and we have to operate financially as a business–we can’t spend what we don’t have, we can’t spend more than we have, and we can’t cost more than the market is able to bear. And at the same time, we are always more than a business as we are always focused not on “delighting” the customer or simply enhancing the bottom line–we are focused on student learning, student growth and the creation and dissemination of knowledge.

Our ongoing challenge, especially these days, is being able to balance our need to educate with the resources we have available.