2018, Cilt 8, Sayı 3, Sayfa(lar) 512-521
When Students Become Customers; The Changing Relationship Between the Student and the Academic: A Case Study from Social Sciences in Turkey
Izmir Bakırcay University, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Department of Sociology, Izmir, Turkey
Keywords: Higher education in Turkey, Neoliberal university, Commodification of higher education, Student as customer
The definition of higher education is going through a rapid transformation where higher education is seen as a strategic commodity with a
high profit potential. Actors involved in an increasingly commodified higher education arena are taking different positions in this changing
context. Neoliberal ideology is taken as the basis of the transformation of higher education. Academics taking the role of service providers
are losing their professional positions where students are being regarded as customers in the Neoliberal University. This implies a change
in the relationship between institutions, academics and students which will be analyzed throughout this paper. The paper takes the point of
view of academics, bringing in results of a qualitative PhD study conducted with 28 academics working in public and foundation (private)
universities located in the cities of Istanbul and Izmir. The case presented in this study will be analyzed as part of the discussion on the
changing nature of higher education in which academics are increasingly being controlled through their relationship with their students
and the effects of the increasing demands of the students taking the role of customers. This analysis is a part of a broader discussion on how
the academic profession is changing under the context of the Neoliberal University.
It is possible to speak of a transformation of universities
throughout the world. This is referred to as commercialization
of higher education or the rise of academic capitalism
(Rhoades, 2007; Jessop, 2017). The idea of the University
built on the philosophical contributions of Humboldt, Fiche
and Schleiermacher, which is later taken as the Humboldtian
Model has been influential throughout the world since 19th
century (Charle & Verger, 2005). Krull (2005) summarizes Humboldts
For Wilhelm von Humboldt, a modern university rested on four
pillars: (1) The integration of teaching and research, including
the obligation to foster the creation of knowledge as well as
its preservation and transmission; (2) the complementary
principles of Lehrfreiheit (freedom to teach) and Lernfreiheit
(freedom to study); (3) the demand for Einsamkeit (solitude)
and Freiheit (freedom) in the autonomous pursuit of truth; and
(4) the introduction of the seminar system as the backbone of a
community of teachers and students (p. 99).
This model is built on the unity of research and teaching and
here higher education is considered to be a public service
where universities are to be managed by the state (Shills,
1992). Even though this model is linked to the state authority,
higher education is seen as part of the pursuit of knowledge
and truth, which should be kept away from the demands of
rulers (István, 2001) and the bourgeois interests (Tekin, 2003).
This type of university is also concerned with raising good citizens
for the nation state (Tekeli, 2003). The unity of research
and teaching, the autonomous position of the university, the
pursuit of knowledge and truth only for their own sake and the
aim towards raising good individuals are considered to be the
characteristics of the Humboldtian model.
After World War II (WWII) there has been a big increase in student
enrollments in higher education throughout the world.
This is referred to as the massification of higher education and
scholars have mentioned that higher education has moved out
of its elite status (Atalay, 2017). The pressure created through
higher numbers of students combined with neoliberal policies
towards cutting public expenditures on higher education, have
been the driving forces behind the transformation of universities
(Altbach, 1995; Pedro, 2009). Humboldtian University
is losing its relevance to the contemporary developments of
In the neoliberal era, the services which were previously
offered by the state are becoming commodified services which
are either privatized for consumption (Ünlütürk Ulutaş, 2011)
or organized in business terms through New Public Management
Strategies. New Public Management aims at increasing
the efficiency and productivity of public services through
using the strategies of the market system (Willis et al. 2017:
3105). New Public Management (NPM) strategies involves the
public sector looking at the business model for guidance in
achieving efficiency and productivity.
Another aspect of neoliberalism which is relevant to our discussion
is the construction of the neo-individual referred to as
the homo-economicus. In neoliberalism, homo-economicus is
seen as a rational individual who is a calculator of pleasure and
pain. This is a mechanistic individual who tries to achieve maximum
output with minimum effort, motivated by the results
of her actions (Adaman & Madra, 2015). Human action is only
evaluated on the basis of its consequences, the output put
forth (İnsel, 2000). This is accompanied by the thinking that,
since humans have the obligation to make best possible rational
choices and are motivated by their actions, they have the
responsibility to invest in themselves. This forms the notion
of human capital. Any activity that increases the capacity to
earn income, to achieve satisfaction [...] is an investment in
human capital (Read, 2009: 28). Here the individual is seen to
be the carrier of a potential which must be developed through
investment. This investment brings a return that becomes
materialized in earnings, securing a persons life chances
Higher education is organized as a product, delivered for its
exchange value (Naidoo & Whitty, 2013) and becomes a form
of capital (Lawson, Sanders, & Smith, 2015). With the neoliberal
notion of homo-economicus, individuals are expected to
invest in themselves. Education gains strategic importance in
this regard. Education is a form of human capital and educational
choices have respected rates of return. Individuals have
to invest in themselves by making the right choices where
education is seen as an investment commodity (Sahota, 1975;
Ercan & Özar, 2000). With the discourse of human capital, students
become persons who make strategic choices, including
educational choices, in order to increase their life chances.
Higher education becomes an important form of investment
in this regard (Anwaruddin, 2013). However, while higher
education is gaining strategic importance, financing and management
of academic activities have become problematic in
the neoliberal era. This results in the transformation of higher
Today we see another type of model gaining importance
throughout the world. This new model is referred to as the
Neoliberal University (Anwaruddin, 2013; Mandell, 2017)
and the University of Excellence where business principles
become significant in the management of higher education.
Concepts such as Total Quality Management (TQM) gain particular
importance (Nalçaoğlu, 1999; Erdoğan, 2003). In this type
of university, research and teaching activities are standardized,
closely surveilled and the output is carefully assessed through
performance systems. There is a constant reference to quality.
Cost accounting principles are applied to higher education
(Parker & Jary, 1995; Newfield, 1997). Neoliberal University
operating on business principles adopts concepts such as,
TQM, efficiency, cost accounting from the business world.
Activities in higher education are monitored to be evaluated
in an input output ratio assessment. Higher education with
its legacy of the pursuit of knowledge and truth is becoming
another commodity subject to cost effectiveness measures
under the Neoliberal University.
Turkeys Higher Education
Turkish higher education has been a public service and universities
have had strong bonds with the state policy (Günal
& Günal, 2011). Whenever there was political turbulence,
universities were greatly affected. In coup détat of 1960, 147
academics have been discharged (Yamaç, 2009). After the coup
detat of 1980, 95 academics have been discharged (Tekeli,
2010). A very important institution has been founded after
this coup. In 1981, Turkish Council of Higher Education (YÖK)
has been established as a coordinating body in higher education.
All higher education institutions have been bounded by
this central state authority (Kılıç, 1999). This institution has
implemented policies which are interpreted to be operational
for the neoliberal transformation of higher education in Turkey
(Coşar & Ergün, 2015). The law amendment proposed by YÖK,
that made the establishment of foundation universities possible,
can be seen as a very significant policy change in Turkish
In 1984, Bilkent University has been founded on the grounds
of the law amendment implemented by YÖK (Erguvan, 2013).
Even though, this law has permitted the establishment of universities
by non-profit foundations, some scholars have argued
that, these institutions can be regarded as private universities
due to their operational structures (Arslan & Odman, 2011;
Vatansever & Gezici-Yalçın, 2015). Fırat & Akkuzu (2015) state
that for most of the foundation universities in Turkey, the
investment is less than the revenue from tuition. They argue
that these universities cannot be regarded as non-profit institutions
and that they are directly connected to private sector
capital and that the term foundation should be regarded as
Even though it is possible to say that the establishment of
private universities has significantly changed the structure of
higher education in Turkey, it is important to take into consideration
a policy shift in the handling of public services which
is the New Public Management Strategies (NPM). Application
of NPM strategies in Turkeys higher education becomes most
evident in the draft law proposed in 2013 by YÖK, the central
state authority in higher education. There are five basic principles
and aims in this draft law: 1. Diversity, 2. institutional
autonomy and accountability, 3. performance evaluation and
scientific competition, 4. financial flexibility and diversity in
resources, 5. quality assurance (YÖK, 2013). These aims may
be seen as the reflection of neoliberal rhetoric in higher education;
the market principles are being implemented through
We can also refer to a rapid massification of higher education
in Turkey. The number of students admitted to higher education
was 64.498 in 1975 (Çetinsaya, 2014: 44). If we look at YÖK statistics, the number of all students (including vocational,
undergraduate, graduate) for the year 2016-2017 is 7.198.987
(YÖK, 2017). We can talk about a significant increase (11.162%)
in student numbers in approximately 41 years. The number of
higher education institutions has also risen over time. There
were 18 universities in 1975 (Günay & Günay, 2011), whereas
in 2016 there are 181 universities of which, 111 are public, 63
are private and 7 institutions are private vocational schools.
15 private universities were closed after the coup attempt of
July 15, 2016 (Karataş-Acer & Güçlü, 2017: 1912). It is possible
to state that today, financing of Turkeys higher education is
still a public enterprise. The number of students enrolled in
public institutions in the year 2016-2017 is 6629961 whereas
total number of students in private universities and vocational
schools is 569019 (YÖK, 2017).
Looking at developments such as the establishment of private
universities, the financing of higher education towards
self-steering universities, new YÖK Draft Law and the adjustment
to the Bologna Process, scholars have argued that after
1980s it was possible to see the neoliberal transformation of
higher education in Turkey (Hız, 2010; Ulutürk & Dane, 2011;
Balaban, 2012; Coşar & Ergün, 2015; Vatansever & Gezici-Yalçın,
2015). In the light of this transformation, for our Phd study, we
have set out to understand the effects of this transformation
on the academics from social sciences working in Istanbul and
Yalman (2011) states that the fact that in this transformation,
the performance criteria have been based on natural sciences,
including medicine and engineering, has marginalized social
sciences. There are basic differences between the research
and teaching activities in social and natural sciences (Huang &
Chang, 2008). When higher education is evaluated in terms of
outputs, social sciences become problematic in terms of identifying
its return value. Critical thinking will be hard to identify
as an output (Newfield, 1997). Today the quest for quantifiable
outcomes and immediate results become significant in higher
education (Evans, 2007). We see many social sciences departments
being closed throughout the world in this regard. It is
also possible to see market values of departments by looking
at which departments are preferred in private universities (Atalay,
2017). For example, there are no geography departments
in private universities in Turkey. This can be seen as a threat for
the future of social sciences.
Taking the aforementioned arguments into consideration, the
study has been conducted to understand how these developments
are affecting the teaching members1
working in social
sciences in Turkey. Faculty of Letters, has been selected as
the representative of social sciences for sampling purposes.
Academics working in archeology, anthropology, geography,
philosophy, psychology, sociology, history, history of art and
history of science in public and private universities located in
Istanbul and Izmir constituted the studys population. Academics
have been identified and listed by looking at universities
websites. It was seen that there was a total number of 1075
academics, out of which 906 were working in Istanbul and 169
were working in Izmir. The list itself, provided an important
point. It was seen that the academics working in the selected
fields in Istanbul were mostly employed in private universities
(520 academics). Moreover, almost 46% (240 academics) of
the listed academics were seen to be working in psychology
departments. Istanbul, with the highest number of private
universities in Turkey, constituted a big academic labor power
market for social sciences founded in private universities;
especially for the department of psychology. Only 15 academics
working in the selected departments of private universities
were employed in Izmir.
The problems of the study can be summarized as follows: With
the commodification of teaching and research, implementation
of various higher education control strategies by the institutions,
are the academics losing control over the academic
labor process, over their working conditions and can this be
interpreted as part of the process of proletarianization of professionals?
During a time of transformation in Turkeys higher
education, this study focuses on the conditions of academic
work from the academics point of view.
Since the main aim of the study was to develop a deeper
understanding of the working conditions (labor process) of
academics, this study was designed as a qualitative study and
the sampling technique used was the purposive sampling
technique accordingly. The study has not sought statistical generalization.
Purposive sampling technique has been preferred
where predetermined criteria has been used in accordance
with the purpose of the study (Guest, Bunce, & Laura, 2006;
Punch, 2011). Maximum variation sampling was mostly used in
making initial contacts. This was where different positions from
different institutions and departments were regarded as categories
for variation. In order to get an idea of the workload,
student per teaching member ratios were calculated using
data provided by YÖK. Institutions have been ranked using
these ratios. Academics, especially the ones working in Istanbul,
have been contacted through email using addresses listed in their department websites. Snowball sampling technique
was used in establishing contacts with academics who were
thought to be in positions which would be very significant for
the study. Snowball sampling technique2 was also used during
the field work conducted in Istanbul between 06/03/2017 and
Academics working in private universities were mainly targeted
since they were considered to be in the center of the commodification
process. Academics working in public universities
provided a case for comparison. Accordingly, semi- structured
in-depth interviews have been conducted with 28 academics,
out of which 19 were working in private universities and
nine were working in public institutions. With the preliminary
assumption that, working in more precarious conditions,
academics working as assistant professor3 were also targeted
in the study. 16 academics with the title assistant professor,
7 with associate professor and 5 with professor have been
The study has been conducted with academics working in 17
different universities, out of which 11 were private and 6 were
public institutions. Major differences have been observed
between these institutions, that led to a classification of these
universities as type A, B, C and D. Type A university is a private
institution built on big monopoly capital. The foundation
behind this type of university has big holding revenues from
many business ventures whereas, the main source of income
for type B and C universities is the tuition fee4and accordingly
the students themselves. Type B universities have been established
earlier then type C universities and receive students with
higher university entrance exam scores5. We can say that they
are more preferred by students. Type D university is simply a
Interviews have been recorded, transcribed verbatim, and
coded. Codes have been analyzed in themes designed according
to the labor process theory which was the theoretical
framework of the study. One of the themes of the study was
control. This category was used to understand how academics
were controlled through various higher education mechanisms
such as performance assessments, technological control,
direct surveillance and monetary reward mechanisms such as
the academic incentive and higher education actors such as
the board of trusties, head of departments and the students.
It was seen that students were perceived as customers especially by private universities and this perception affected the
position of academics. In the following section a discussion on
the status of the student as a customer will be carried out and
the findings of the study will be rendered in the framework of
|As I made my way to my office at 7.30am last Thursday,
I noticed an A4 poster stuck to the lift door. Then I noticed
one on the wall. And one on the notice board. Then one on
my classroom door. In fact, they were tacked to nearly every
available surface along the corridor. And they all bore the same
statement: All Im asking for is a little respect seeing as I pay
you £9,000 a year (The Guardian, 2015).
In this newspaper article written by an academic, we see an
example of a relationship established between the student
and the academic. This type of relationship may be referred to
as a customer and provider relationship where the customer
reminds the provider of the monetary value of their work.
With the commodification process within Neoliberal University
we see higher education losing its meaning outside a
system of market relations (Rosh White, 2007: 594). As mentioned
earlier university education has become a necessity for
ones future chances, especially for job prospects (Svensson
& Wood, 2007). This places strategic importance on higher
education while academics lose their significance in higher
education, operating on business principles. Higher education
institutions adopt market terms and positions within institutions
are redefined: the language of line managers, customers
and products begins to displace the academic language of
deans, students and courses... (Parker & Jary, 1995: 324-325).
Higher education is becoming a product, an investment capital
and the students are becoming the customers. The idea and
rationale behind higher education is changing and we see market-
like mechanisms prevailing throughout the world.
The discussion revolving around the status of the student
involves the view that students are customers since they are
paying for their education: ... students are only satisfied when
they have gotten what they paid for: a quality education in a
field of their choice with an accompanying credential that is
valued in the labour market (Mark, 2013: 3). The customer
position may be interpreted as an active role. They are seen
to be actively involved in the co-production of the product
of higher education. We may see in scholarly discussions the
notion that, the nature of higher education as a service that is
comparable to other services. Guilbaut (2018: 297) states that
higher education is similar with a gym service where customer
involvement is deemed necessary to yield successful results.
Svensson & Wood (2007: 22) advocate the uniqueness of higher
education as a product comparing it with a car sales service.
The ownership of a degree requires the customer to be
assessed through exams and grades by the supplier, whereas
a car dealer has to sell cars to anyone with means to buy.
These comparisons are stated by authors who do not defend
the position of seeing the student as a customer. However, it is important to note that these comparisons involve a market
rhetoric as well. We see the notion that higher education is just
another service/ product which should be organized in market
terms. This can be interpreted as an indicator of the commodification
process of higher education. Brennan and Bennington
(2000: 21-22) remind us of the different philosophical positions
behind the idea of higher education. It may be seen as a
provider of job skills whereas just as we have discussed before,
it may be viewed as a vital vehicle for knowledge production
which will contribute to the betterment of humankind. As the
latter standpoint is becoming obsolete, the discussion itself on
the subject is revolving around the concept of higher education
as a service comparable to any other.
When regarding the student as the customer, customer satisfaction
becomes a necessary goal. There is a greater emphasis
on students satisfaction where, academics are losing their
central role in academic endeavors (Bay & Harold, 2001;
Pedro, 2009). Academics may be disregarded during the
decision making processes in higher education institutions
(Altbach, 1997; Evans, 2007). The authority has shifted from
the academic to the student (Roberts & Donahue, 2000). The
changing conditions of academic work are solidified in various
higher education strategies implemented by universities.
There is an increasing competition in the higher education
arena (Enders, De Boer, & Weyer, 2013), where a global higher
education market is formed (Lynch, 2015). Higher education
institutions have different legacies and accordingly resources
available to deal with this competitive pressure (Naidoo &
Whitty, 2013). This creates different coping mechanism that
are reflected in higher education strategies; the strategies
employed by institutions in the delivery of higher education.
These different strategies may all depend on the market mechanisms
for operation but they can be regarded as differing in
intensity. We can say that this may be true for the competitive
pressures in and outside a country. There may be attributes
specific to a country and there may be different experiences
within a country. This study focusing on the Turkish academic,
provides a case from Turkey.
In this study, it was seen that there were major differences
between public institutions and private institutions in terms of
the role of the student as a customer. It was seen that the academics
who felt the student pressure were mostly from private
universities. This difference can be seen in the experience of
a participant who is a teaching member in a public university
while teaching part-time in a private institution:
I am teaching at this school and the student profile is very
different from here [public institution]. There... for example...
there is a smart board in there, that we do not have here.
There are power outlets near the smart board and they have
plugged their phones to be charged. While I was lecturing, one
of them [student] got up from her seat very calmly, unplugged
her phone, sat down in her seat and started doing something
on her phone. It was as if I wasnt there and wasnt lecturing. If
this have had happened here in public [university], my reaction
would have been huge... I decided to ignore this. The attitude of the student towards the hodja6... there is no student- hodja
relationship there. Sadly, there is a customer and worker relationship...
(p. 17, Assoc. Prof. Female, D).
This may be interpreted as an indicator of the importance of
the commodification process. When students have a central
role in the profit making process of institutions, the academic
is seen to be losing control over the teaching process. Musselin
(2013: 26) states that with the commercialization of higher
education, academics have become more aware of student
wants and sees this as a customer-centered approach. In
private institutions academics are seen to comply more to
the wills of students. This may be true for an academic from
a public university teaching in a private institution. She adapts
to the institutional atmosphere. A participant from a private
university stresses upon this topic:
the concepts of hodja and student arent conceptualized in
the minds of these students. They are like, I have paid for this
and I will pass this course
students see this place as a commercial
site. Accordingly, a student can go directly to the management
and complain about you, like she [the instructor] did
this and I dont like this and so on (p. 15, Asst. Prof. Female, C).
Especially in type B and C universities, where the main source
of income is from tuition, it could be seen that students have
the right to directly go and complain to higher authorities in
that institution. During the field study in Istanbul, it was seen
that there was a box posted on which write to the rector
is written in the entrance of one Type C university. This box
resembled a customer complaint box. In another case, we see
the parents as customers considering they are the ones usually
covering higher education expenses. Our vice rector gives his
personal phone number to all parents. He says call me and talk
to me directly (p. 8, Prof. Female, C).
Students may complain to the management on various subjects
including the way the lecturer looks at him/her:
[students complain about things like] Just like he glared at
me. When they [students] make noise in the classroom I try to
change their seat and they are like, why he tried to change my
seat, is this a high school? What can I say to this person, she
is putting on nail polish during the lesson and you cannot do
anything about this. They see you as a waiter, yell at you like
you are their waiter. Here is so much noise in the classroom but
you cannot shut them up
the management takes their side
(p. 19, Asst. Prof. Male, B).
The student who does not like the way the instructor stares at
him/her is seen to complain on the topic. We see the academic
in a passive position, submitting to the wants of students even
when it jeopardizes the quality of the lecture.
The students also expected and at times demanded to be able
to contact teaching members anytime through e-mail:
E-mailing and other stuff has changed. They [students] can
write to you in the middle of the night and furthermore say
things like, I wrote to you but did not get a response. It is just
like we have to answer them in the middle of the night or at the
weekends (p. 6, Prof. Male, B).
It should also be noted here that the university management
may expect this demand to be met:
I have heard this for example: a teaching member was late
in answering a students e-mail, he was approximately a week
late. Rector said, this student e-mailed you, why havent you
answered the mail
This is mostly about being a private institution.
There is this state of mind, since the students are paying
this much money in a year (p. 10, Asst. Prof. Male, A).
Participant 11 (Asst. Prof. Female, C) states that students may
call the teaching members at night:
Making them [students] understand that they cannot call me
at 12 pm has taken a lot of time. I tell them not to call me at
12 pm unless someone dies. They can call you; they are a bit
childish here [in this institution]. This is also about you; they
cannot call me I am kind but firm. They can call easygoing hodjas
at 3 am.
Besides establishing constant contact with the students, another
outcome of the student as customer approach may result in
the standardization of course material. Rosh White (2007: 599)
shares the findings of her study: Also, roughly two thirds of
the students interviewed felt it is acceptable to challenge or
query a grade. Many of the participants have drawn attention
to this situation. The coping mechanism was usually seen to
be the standardization of assessment and evaluation. Participants
in our study state that they have started using multiple
choice questions in orders to cope with the increasing number
of students challenging their grades. For example, Participant
25 (Asst. Prof.) says
In order to gain time, I have started formulating my exams as
multiple choice questions. I have been decreasing the number
of open end questions. This is advantageous for me in two
regards. One is that it is easier for me to read the exam papers
and two, it is easier when the students challenge their grades.
Teaching members involved in this study, coming from different
disciplines in social sciences, are standardizing their assessment
due to time limitations and the grade query, even when
it is harder for them to conceptualize their course material in
Student evaluations are an important source in establishing
control over the teaching members. Naidoo & Whitty (2013:
217) argue that since students are increasingly seen as customers,
student evaluations may be regarded as customer
satisfaction surveys. Lust (1998: 39) referring to the findings
of a study state that students are seen to prefer instructors
who give them higher grades and who make the lessons more entertaining. Participant 20 (Assoc. Prof. Female, B) says: Who
is a good instructor in the eyes of the student? She is the one
giving them high grades; that is very clear. Participant 14 (Asst.
Prof. Female, C) state that student evaluations are very important
for the university management: Students will be positive
about the instructors who give high grades and who can be
easily manipulated. I think this is true. I am a very amiable
instructor so my evaluations are always high. We can see that
the academics are aware of the wants of students.
Schneider (2013: 123) referring to the results of a survey state
that, 40% of the faculty agreed with the fact that they gave
grades which were higher than what the students actually
deserved in order to get better evaluations. This resulted in a
grade inflation. Another coping mechanism the faculty used
was dumbing down lessons. Accordingly, Participant 15 (Asst.
Prof. Female, C) states that the student performance is low in
her institution; that she prepares her lessons and then later
on spends time trying to make the material easier for her students.
Rosh White (2007: 602-603) says: Being a customer
rather than a learner is a disengaged position. It is also a
position that relies on others to satisfy and to deliver (goods or
services). Brennan & Bennington (2000: 25) state that higher
education is a unique service that requires a lot of effort on
behalf of the student. We see in the case of Participant 15, that
the effort on behalf of the student is taken over by the academic.
The teaching member is seen to be dumbing down her
lessons. As Bay & Harold argue (2001: 6), regarding the student
as a customer means there is a not only a shift of power from
the academic to the student but a shift of responsibility from
the student to the institution (academic).
Participant 19 (Asst. Prof. Male, B) says that in order to please
the student, the university management do not want the academics
to be disciplined towards students, that the academics
are expected not to give them assignments which will require
a lot of effort on the students part. He also states that even,
taking attendance becomes problematic:
They [management] say take attendance, it should be over
70% and we do take attendance. Then half of the class fails.
And then they say why do you punish the student. Never mind,
just let the student think that you are taking attendance. Anyway
no one [student] is intimidated, they do not show up to the
classroom. So it is all like a pretend game. Everyone except the
hodja; the administrative personnel and the students, seem like
they have a deal. You are like a puppet, a puppet.
Here we see that the management expect the academic to
pretend like he is taking attendance whereas students who are
regarded as customers do not suffer the consequences of not
Participant 20 (Assoc. Prof. Female, B) states that, the student
achievement level in her institution is low and that she is having
a hard time reaching out to them and stoop to their level.
So she is very critical about student evaluations:
They ask questions like, has the instructor been just, has she
been on time, is she an expert in her area?. It is very weird to ask this population such questions; there is a big gap to be
filled. They ask, is the instructor a master of her lesson, of her
lesson topics?. This is very absurd I think, since this is not in
their capacity. For example, I may be the first hodja they have
ever seen. They may be a freshman and they might compare
me with [instructors from] other lessons.
Evaluations become problematic in this regard. Svensson &
Wood (2007: 20) state that higher education aims to equip
students with the ability to critically assess even the situations
which may contradict their short term self-interests. However,
just as Participant 20 pinpoints, a first year student may not
have enough educational experience to develop this critical
outlook. This creates a troubled teaching experience for the
academic. Parsell (2000: 328) argues that the notion of student
as customer, promotes an academic culture of blaming others
for academic failure.
The study showed that student evaluations were mainly used
in private universities where students paid tuition. A teaching
member from one public university states that her university
tried to implement student evaluations but decided not to
pursue this endeavor:
They tried that [evaluation] one year. They gave evaluation
forms to students and the results were hilarious; at least for
our department. One of our hodjas was always absent, he had
a drinking problem. It turned out that the best academic was
him. Students came to the conclusion that he was the best academic
since he did not show up for his lessons. So we reached
results which were very far from objectivity (P. 3, Prof. Female,
Bay& Harold (2001: 3) argue that even though students know
what they want for the short-term, this may not be true for
their wants in the long term. Taking student satisfaction as the
major source of academic evaluation may be detrimental both
for the student and the institution.
Student evaluations may be an important source of feedback
for the academic. However, it was also seen that student evaluations
were not always used by the university management
in this manner. Participant 13 (Asst. Prof. Female, C) states that
even though student evaluations are a part of her performance
evaluation, she is not informed of the results. They are only
seen by the management. Similarly, Participant 24 (Asst. Prof.
Female, B) says:
There are two types of student evaluations. One is the evaluation
the university does; students are obliged to evaluate
instructors before they learn their grades. The other one is
the evaluation that the department does. I did not know that
the university did an evaluation, I wasnt informed. One day a
student came [informed me] and I was like, is there an evaluation?
Where are the results? We dont see them, no. Though
the evaluation carried out by the department is used as
as a feedback
but as a threat.
We can expect that when evaluations are used in this way, it
may create a hostile relationship between the academic and
the students. Student evaluations become a source of threat.
As it was stated earlier, another mechanism was observed
during the study. Some institutions did not conduct student
evaluations. This did not mean that the students were not
regarded as customers. An informal complaint mechanism
was used by these institutions: There is no official student
evaluation. If a group of students go [to the management]
there is no such evaluation. They dont look
to see whether the instructor performs well in his lesson... the
academic is laid off (P. 19, Asst. Prof. Male, B). Here we can
see that customer satisfaction becomes the only institutional
aim. Likewise, Participant 26 (Asst. Prof. Male, C) says: If there
is a complaint, the dean or the rector directly wants to see the
hodja and asks about it. If they dont think he is right, they
might open an investigation. This informal complaint mechanism
may be seen as an important source of control, bearing
the consequence of job loss for the academic.
The results of the study point out to the fact that when students
are regarded as customers by their institutions, their
relationship with the academics become problematic and at
times antagonistic. We may take into consideration the teaching
experience of an academic from a public university, who
does not feel the student pressure:
... when I am teaching, I feel like I am on stage. I think it is very
pleasant when a plenty of young and intelligent students, who
have been chosen with an exam are listening to you for hours.
That is why I think, being an academic is the best job in the
world (P. 17, Assoc. Prof. Female, D).
The philosophical roots of the Humboldtian University, which
has formed the conception of higher education until the
Neoliberal Era are being abandoned as higher education is
being viewed as another commodity, organized and presented
through the use of business principles. As higher education is
becoming commercialized, academics as the main source of
teaching and research are losing their significance in academic
endeavors. They are submitting to the student demands which
arise from the new positon students are filling; the position
of customers. Public cutback on higher education funding,
together with the privatization of higher education institutions
leads to a higher education service where students become
the main source of funding.
With the commodification of higher education in the context
of the Neoliberal University, we see the transformation of
national higher education systems. We can refer to the transformation
of Turkish higher education after the formation
of YÖK in 1981 and the law amendment that permitted the
establishment of private higher education institutions. In this
study, in-depth interviews with 28 teaching members from 11
private and 6 public universities located in Istanbul and Izmir
have been conducted to understand the effects that this transformation
has on academics. A significant finding of the study
was the fact that students were being regarded as customers
especially by private institutions and that this created a form
of control over academics who have participated in the study.
A clear difference in the position of students was observed
between private and public institutions. Especially in type B
and C private institutions where tuition was the main source
of income, students were seen to be regarded as customers
and this affected their relationship with the academics. For
example, students were seen to demand constant contact
with academics even beyond working hours. They were able to
complain about the academics when they did not like the way
the academic glanced at them. They could interrupt the lesson,
paint their nails during the lesson, make noise and refuse to
have their seats changed. By not objecting to these circumstances,
academics were seen to held a passive stance in these
situations even when these affected the way they delivered
their course material.
The study showed that academics are becoming more aware
of the wants of the students where higher grades, absent
instructors are preferred; institutions demand from the academic,
attendance to be disregarded and student performance
assessment to require little workload from the student. This
also involved standardization of assessment in order to cope
with the increasing number of students who challenged their
grades. Student evaluations which may be seen as customer
satisfaction surveys, meant that first year students with very
little higher education experience, would evaluate the competence
of their instructors. Some institutions conducted these
surveys but did not share the results with the academics or
did not use these surveys whereas they relied on the direct
student experience; firing an academic whenever there was an
informal verbal complaint from students.
As Emery, Kramer & Tian (2003: 43) state How one is evaluated
determines how one performs. Lust (1998: 40) asks whether
we can regard the decline in academic standards in higher
education together with the rise of consumerism just as a
coincidence. In this Turkish case, we see the academics becoming
aware of the importance of giving higher grades, simplifying
the course material, establishing constant contact, decreasing
the workload and disregarding the course attendance. This
shows us how higher education will become problematic when
students are regarded as customers, whose demands should
be met at all times. If the students are seen as customers, this
brings us to the question asked by Rosh-White (2007): The
customer is always right?. When students become customers
in private institutions and even in public ones through the
implementation of NPM, we may expect a restructuring of academic
activities. Lust (1998, p. 40) asks another question which
may be relevant here: And, if the customer is always right
should the students expect to determine the curriculum?.
Students are a vital part of higher education. Their experiences
and demands are very important for the delivery of this unique
service that has an important historical legacy. However, when
their position becomes the central focus, just as the scholarly
discussion points out, higher education becomes another
product which may be delivered in accordance with customer
satisfaction. It is important to approach this transformation
with caution, bearing in mind that higher education has a legacy
of the pursuit of knowledge and the betterment of humankind.
Seeing it as another product to be bought and sold, organized
in accordance with customer demands, bears the danger of
rendering the concept of higher education obsolete. This may
also disengage the historical positions of teacher and learner,
the positions that complement each other and may create
an antagonistic relationship between higher education actors.
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