Act like a customer, become a customer

We’re not clients, not customers – we’re students

“I’m paying for it, why should anyone care if I don’t go to class?”

It’s a point I hear often – probably one I made at one point, myself. But I’ve come to realize something. The more you act like a customer, and not a student, the more likely you are to be treated that way, and I don’t think that’s something any student really wants.

The students at Cooper Union fought for something we've never really had: access to free education. In their campaign, they acknowledged their unique position as students, not customers. (Michael Fleshman/Flickr Commons)

The students at Cooper Union fought for something we’ve never really had: access to free education. In their campaign, they acknowledged their unique position as students, not customers. (Michael Fleshman/Flickr Commons)

It’s true, the student’s relationship to the university has become increasingly complicated over the last 20 years, with the rise in tuition and what is often seen as the commercialization of education, but it’s important to remember who you’re paying and why you’re paying them, and what their intent truly is.

No matter how unsatisfied students are at times, it’s still pretty tough to call any Canadian university a “degree mill.” The balancing of priorities between money-making and education is still tipped in our favour.

Take university president salaries, for example. According to the Canadian Association of University Teachers almanac, the highest paid university president in Canada made $557,000 (including benefits) in 2012. By comparison, TRU’s president Alan Shaver took home $200,000 in the same year, according to the report.

But what I think is a more important comparison, some university presidents in the United States are paid upwards of $3 million.

I often see the U.S. as a place Canadians can look to see what would happen if our own problems got much worse, and I think that’s a useful exercise here. As government funding for post-secondary dwindles, we’re going to be forced to look at other options, and if we don’t consider the U.S. examples, we might just make the same mistakes. The university’s financial health must always be carefully balanced against the students’ education-first needs.

A recent address of the subject is the documentary Ivory Tower by documentarian Andrew Rossi. While the film makes a lot of points about the state of the American post-secondary education system and student debt load, what stuck with me most was the story of Cooper Union.

For the last 155 years, the Manhattan college offered free tuition to students as part of the mandate of its founder, Peter Cooper. The school charged tuition for the first time this year. Its administration pointed to unmanageable debt following the construction of another building in 2009, but its students organized and rejected the proposed changes and staged an occupation in the president’s office, which lasted for 65 days. They held up Cooper Union as the last bastion of institutions that prioritized education above all else, and they saw the pit of debt that loomed beneath them and all future students.

Seeing the students of Cooper Union reminded me what university was supposed to be about. None of us should be here to simply exchange money for credentials. That’s not why Cooper Union students were there. They were there to learn, to grow, to gain valuable skills they’ll use for the rest of their lives, and until now, they were able to do it without attaching a ball and chain of debt to themselves or lining anyone’s pockets.

A scholarly pursuit that is merely a means to an end is a hollow experience. While the more obvious fight for the student might be a battle against increasing tuition, the more useful fight is the one for a more valuable education.

Despite the fact that there are financial transactions between school and student, a student shouldn’t feel like a customer and a student shouldn’t act like a customer either. It’s up to both parties to ensure that the relationship remains something completely different.