‘Students as Customers’ & Safe Spaces – What’s Happening to Higher Education?

‘Students as Customers’ & Safe Spaces – What’s Happening to Higher Education?

Written by Geoff Fisher

I recently saw an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal by the new US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, titled “Treating Students as Customers”, and while I have many questions about life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and the like, this triggered questions that have been continually popping into my mind lately revolving around how the role of universities has changed in recent years and what role universities will play in years to come.

Through my work at ISP, I’ve come to realize that, especially in the case of some business schools and their MBA or EMBA students, the students aren’t traditional students as I’d come to expect. These ‘students’ have paid a small (and sometimes large) fortune to attend these schools and receive their degrees, and the schools rely on the students to relay their good experiences to other prospective students in order to bring in more students and generate more money. A pretty straight forward business model, which is fine on the surface, but where this model can lead to issues in education is when the university/faculty is unable or unwilling to demand a certain level of behavior from the students and the quality of students’ effort and work is compromised because the university just wants to keep their customers happy.

(It’s important to note that this certainly isn’t the case with every school I’ve worked with. Some schools and their faculty, in fact, have established and maintain a balanced relationship where students are held to high standards of behavior, effort, and output, and they receive a quality education because of it. The question here is: how do these school do it and what can others learn from them?)

While DeVos’s op-ed focuses on revamping the current student loan system, the title and premise of “treating students as customers” confirms that, in the US at least, we’re treating students as customers and we want it that way. Fair enough, but is that the precedent that we want higher educational institutions and their educators to set? Does this approach lead to a declining quality in students and future members of the workforce?

In response to DeVos’s op-ed, David M. Perry, a professor at Dominican University and freelance journalist, wrote a piece detailing how this approach of treating students as customers isn’t doing anybody any favors. He sums up his thoughts nicely, saying, “When we tell (students) they are customers, they take on the attitude that a university is selling them a credential with a financial pay-off, rather than an opportunity for them to work, learn, and grow. No wonder there’s a wide perception (without, to my knowledge, evidence) among faculty that ‘students these days’ are more entitled and less willing to work. The ‘customer’ rhetoric sets up a clash between university employees and students, rather than joining us together in common purpose.”

Another semi-related and interesting take on this expansive topic comes from Malcolm Gladwell, author of five books on the New York Times Best Sellers list and staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996, and host of the podcast Revisionist History (the no. 1 podcast on iTunes). In some of his books and especially in his podcast, he’s dissected the higher education system in the US and ruffled plenty of feathers along the way, but his opinions and ideas are worth taking a look at if you’re interested:

Malcolm Gladwell: get angry at America’s best colleges

‘Malcolm Gladwell Is Making Enemies In Higher Education. That’s A Good Thing.’

‘Malcolm Gladwell’s Fascinating Theory On Why You Should Be A Big Fish In A Little Pond’


Switching gears a bit, the other concept that I’ve been trying to wrap my head around is the idea of safe spaces on university campuses.

In early 2017, violent protests forced the cancellation of an event at the UC Berkeley campus featuring ‘alt-right’ speaker Milo Yiannopoulos. Neither the protests nor the event were specifically focused on safe spaces, but Yiannopoulos is a known controversial figure with the tendency to incite strong feelings on sensitive subjects, and the protestors at Berkeley evidently felt that their campus was no place for him to express his views.

This got me thinking – students at UC Berkeley, one of the most liberal and ‘open-minded’ universities in the western world, are now protesting (and forcing the cancellation of) a speech by someone just because they don’t like his views?

I’ve always thought of and viewed college campuses as the epicenter of free and liberal speech; places where any and all viewpoints are welcomed and argued for and against; institutions that encourage dissenting perspectives and teach the ability to debate. Had I been wrong all along or was this some new phenomenon taking place, not only in the US but in other countries as well?

According to the Oxford dictionary, a safe space is “a place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm.” Sounds positive, right? Well, maybe not so much…

If we allow so-called safe spaces, aren’t we deliberately separating people with dissenting opinions and causing further division, rather than forcing people to come together and be exposed to perspectives other than their own? Aren’t we encouraging people to keep their potentially “controversial” opinions to themselves, rather than teaching people how to engage in productive discourse?

Much has been said and written arguing both for and against safe spaces on college campuses, but the central criticism is essentially that they erode free speech. I can’t help but think there’s some legitimacy to this criticism and that, as with the approach of treating students as customers, isn’t this a dangerous precedent that threatens to debilitate the world’s universities and their ultimate purpose?

While I have many questions, they boil down to one elemental theme – what’s happening to higher education and what will the universities (and their students) of the future look like?

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