Current issues in academia: Calling students “clients” doesn’t fly

At the risk of raising a few eyebrows among my own students, I want to pass along another pointed opinion from the ranks of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). This time, Michael Morse, a professor at Trent University, wrote in the CAUT Bulletin Vol 59 | No 4 | April 2012 about why “Calling Students ‘Clients’ Doesn’t Fly“.

Prof. Morse argues that students or their parents are not the clients of the university. University serves society as a whole, not individual customers. This leads to an interesting association with the student protests going on in Quebec. In a comment on “Tuition hikes, student strikes and lessons in applied politics” for the Toronto Star, Prof. Pierre Martin of the Université de Montréal notes that the Quebec view of higher education used to be that of a “collective good for society as a whole rather than a personal investment made by individuals in search of future income gains”. But through increases in tuition, this culture is gradually shifting towards the latter view.

While Prof. Morse uses the example of a flight school to present education/training as a public good, my example is broader. Consider the road network in Toronto as government-funded infrastructure. It is so varied in its form and function, and more importantly its uses and benefits, that we accept that it is built and maintained from our tax money. Higher education is a critical part of this country’s infrastructure too. And its job is to get its users (students) through effectively for their own direct benefit but more so for indirect societal benefits (greater productivity, increased tax revenue, good decision-making, responsibility, civic engagement, …). I can think of additional parallels, e.g. regarding express toll routes (~fast-track programs, continuing education) or fees for out-of-town drivers (out-of-province/country students), but I want to leave these for another time!