On Campus

UBC focus group shows lack of vision

Customers are always right. Students aren't.

UBC Vancouver (Simon Hayter)

The University of British Columbia announced this week that they will be creating a giant focus group to help guide university decisions. “The results of the surveys,” we are told,  “will help UBC design new programs, make changes in courses, update communications and improve service to students and alumni.”

Clearly, the Canadian academy has crossed a line. It wasn’t very long ago that any university would blush at such shameless consumerism. Today, it seems, we are proud of it.

But wait, I hear you saying, what’s wrong with universities finding out what their students and alumni think? Why not take their views into account? To a certain extent such an objection is reasonable, but UBC is not just getting input on superficial matters like what flowers to plant or what their web site should look like; they are seeking input on courses and programs too.

And that’s where we have to draw a line of our own. Courses and programs should be the domain of the highly-qualified experts that the university hires to create and maintain them. That is, professors. The university has a duty to ensure that those courses meet the highest possible standards of academic rigour and integrity. A giant focus group of current and past customers does not accord with that duty, because it, by its nature, panders to the broadest possible market.

If there is any doubt that this kind of commercial approach is what UBC has in mind, consider what their tech partner Vision Critical says about the software that UBC is using to gather their feedback. Vision Critical’s materials are meant to “Invite customers, and engage them in meaningful conversations that place them at the center of your business decisions.”

This kind of focus group is another step toward seeing students as customers rather than, say, students. And unlike students, customers can reasonably demand satisfaction if they are unhappy. And everyone in the university world knows the kinds of complaints that such customers will make: this course is too hard; this requirement is too strict; my failing grade should be raised. And so on and so on.

Universities are like businesses in some ways. They have to make payroll; they have to advertise. And, yes, sometimes they have to take student demand for courses and programs into account. But unlike Yahoo or Banana Republic (two other Vision Critical clients), those business decisions must always be secondary to a higher direction: the preservation and encouragement of knowledge.

But customer surveys won’t point the way.

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