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Quality in higher education: the student's role.


One continuing area of interest in higher education is the continuing improvements in the quality of education. As a result, some universities have made an effort to implement total quality management (TQM) from industry with varying degrees of success. Two questions frequently arising in these efforts are the degree of emphases on the internal and external processes and the role of the student, often acknowledged as "the customer". The purposes of this paper are as follows: (a) illuminate the notable differences which exist between the applications of TQM in industrial and service firms and its relevance to understanding the role(s) of the student in relationship to the processes/systems of higher education; (b) establish an analytical framework for better understanding and appreciation of the system of higher education and to create a more relevant definition of the student's position in the process of higher education; and to (c) identify the real customers of the educational system so quality efforts can be directed toward optimization of the system.


In the 1980s the concepts of prominent quality management advocates such as Dr. W. Edwards Deming, Dr. Joseph Juran, Armand V. Feigenbaum, and Philip Crosby were scrutinized and applied to change industrial systems and the focus of management. Manufacturing applied total quality management (TQM) concepts to its operations, the quality of U. S. goods improved, and American business began reversing the erosion in its domestic market share. In 1987, the U. S. government encouraged and recognized the TQM movement by establishing the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award (MBNQA) (The Malcolm Baldrige, September 25, 2001).

Acknowledging that TQM concepts led to vast improvements in service quality and competitiveness, some universities, with the financial assistance and support of major corporations, attempted to directly translate TQM principles from manufacturing and service applications to those of higher education. Institutions attempting to use the TQM principles included the Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Wisconsin, Boston College, Babson College, Samford University, and the University of Massachusetts. Although the applications were the same, to differentiate education TQM from the TQM of industry, applications in education were renamed as total quality education (TQE) and continuous quality improvement (CQI). In 2001, the University of Wisconsin-Stout won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in the Education Category (Baldrige Award Recipients, August 15, 2003), making this university the first Baldrige Award recipient in higher education.

The TQM or facets of TQM continue to be broadly embraced and applied in higher education. However, in the opinion of the authors, too many of these present applications of TQM are faddish, representing bureaucratic biases rather than the established principles and concepts of the prominent TQM creators. They fail to appropriately focus on the process system. There has been an unquestioning and slavish allegiance to the original principle of customer-driven quality, and, simultaneously, a more liberal approach to the importance of the identification of critical processes to quality. Specifically, the misapplication of the customer focus that has resulted in the misidentification of the student as the "customer" has been a consistently identified obstacle in implementing total quality across numerous institutions. The authors challenge the views that students are primarily products of the educational process and that students are the primary customers, whose satisfaction is foremost in the development of a quality product. The purposes of this article are to: (a) illuminate the notable differences which exist between the applications of TQM in industrial and service firms and its relevance to understanding the role(s) of the student in relationship to the processes/systems of higher education; (b) establish an analytical framework for better understanding and appreciation of the system of higher education and to create a more relevant definition of the student's position in the process of higher education; and to (c) identify the real customers of the educational system so quality efforts can be directed toward optimization of the system.


Academicians sometimes tend to hold their profession above comparison to other human endeavors. The mistake in doing so is to miss the elemental understanding and insights that come from application of alternative perspectives that expose and allow them to question those ingrained and subliminal assumptions, biases, and stigmas from our analysis and understanding. In applying the value-added perspective to academe, it is important to incorporate the unique perspective of our academic endeavors: that students are simultaneously persons in, and a product of, a value-added process. This two-fold factor is precisely what makes the educational continuum unique in the application of TQM concepts.

In educational efforts towards improving quality in colleges and universities, students have been identified as input or raw materials to be transformed by the educational process into products. TQM terminology from manufacturing and service industries has been readily adopted. In doing so, students have been metaphorically identified as (1) input or raw materials to be transformed into a useful product by the educational processes of the institution, (2) customers whose needs or desires are to be met and who are to be delighted by the process, and (3) clients who seek a professional service. Each of these perspectives has had varying degrees of acceptance in academia, and each has certain strengths, limitations, and assumptions which accompany them.

Successful application of TQM to the educational process requires an analysis and understanding of the complex interrelationships that occur in the total system and evolve over a longer timeframe than is normally experienced in manufacturing or services. Evans and Lindsay (2002) stated that "When interactions occur among the parts of a system, managers cannot manage the system well by simply managing the parts; they must understand the horizontal, cross-functional processes and optimize the system." Gunn (1993) concluded that administrators have not realized that education is a system and that the output will remain unchanged until the system is changed. Some (Barnard, 1999) believe that a major obstacle to adapting the quality approach to higher education institutions (HEIs) is the perception of the instructor-student relationship. In examining each case, the basic input, process, and output model shown in Figure 1 will be used and expanded.



Although generally overlooked, the continuum of academic instruction leading to a diploma in higher education is analogous to a manufacturing or value-added process. While it may not be popular in educational discussions to compare the academic processes (system) to that of manufacturing, it is both accurate and appropriate within the concepts of TQM.

The educational system receives a person to be educated (the input), and, through a continuum of interdisciplinary requirements, value is added to that input resulting in a person who is educated in the basics of a discipline or liberal arts (the product). The objective of the educational process is to imbue in the product or person the elemental knowledge and ability to initiate performance in a chosen profession, enabled and empowered by the process to participate in his or her own lifelong development through a continued, self-guided learning process. An important factor is that every process must add value to the raw material. If it does not, then it only adds cost to the final product.

In TQM, if a supplier sends inferior raw materials, materials that do not meet established standards, then the material must either be discarded or re-worked, both of which add cost and no value to the final product. In universities, reworking raw materials requires that under-prepared students (i.e., students who do not meet accepted standards of the HEI), take remedial courses and/or participate in some other intervention which will bring the student (input) up to acceptable standards. This rework may take the form of increasing a student's knowledge and skills in certain areas such as statistics, or it may take the form of assisting the student in acquiring acceptable learning skills and strategies such as self-regulated learning and self-management. If a student is not reworked, then the student is discarded; attrition occurs either through voluntary withdrawal or academic failure. Seymour (1993) provides examples of both approaches by one university. In this university, the attrition rate in the freshman class was 20%, with more attrition occurring later in the students' course of study. This, in effect, was rejecting under-prepared students. To remedy the problem of attrition among minority students, a program was developed which was described as an "academic preseason." Results were impressive. In the first year, average first quarter GPA for participants increased from 2.2 to 2.6. In the second year, following some process redesign, the average participant GPA was 3.3 (Seymour, 1993).


Labeling the student as input to be converted into a final product places the student as a passive input which has been converted into a useful end product. It assumes that the process of learning is something that is done to the student, without his or her participation. The student has no input into the process that changes them. Therefore, the metaphor of student as input or product is not accurate because it assumes that the student is not a participant in the learning process, but rather passively sits in classes while he or she is "filled" or "packaged" with knowledge, as a box is packaged in a manufacturing environment. Seeing the student as an input to which value will be enhanced by the educational system composed of multiple processes and seeing the student as an end-product is appealing, but it is an incomplete view. The role of the student in the educational process includes much more.


A major component of TQM is customer focus. Originally, businesses decided what was quality and what was acceptable quality. Today, the battle cry of quality is that quality is what the customer says it is. The organizational goal is to provide a product or service that meets or exceeds customer requirements, to delight the customer. Focusing on the customer forces an organization to be specific about those it serves, and consequently, what its needs are (Marchese, 1993). With rare exception, HEIs quickly embraced some aspects of quality frameworks from advocates as Deming and Juran. One which higher education accepted very quickly with little dissent is that the student is THE institution's customer. While some advocated that a student is A customer, some of our colleagues indicated either explicitly or implicitly through their efforts and rhetoric, that students are THE customer.

Prior to discussing the student as customer, it is worthwhile to examine what a customer is. According to Bailey (2000), a customer is one who purchases a product or service and has the expectation that his or her preferences will be met regarding that product or service. Scrabec (2000) stated that the student is like a customer in that he or she pays for a service, and but that the similarity ends there. Customer identification was achieved by framing the question of "who are customers?" in terms of customer-supplier relationships (Evans & Lindsay, 1996). Juran (1974) discussed the distinction between internal and external customers. The point is that the customer should be identified for each transaction. (Johnson & Golomskiis, 1999). If that concept is accepted, instead of "Is the student a customer?", the question to be asked is "When is the student a customer?"


Interactions with the president or provost, deans or department heads, or with managers in all forms of student services are service situations where it is possibly appropriate to define students as customers. Services such as those performed by admissions, financial aid, public safety, food services, campus stores, career counseling, disability services, etc., can be easily measured by benchmarking against the "best in class," and TQM methods can be applied to these services. The student can also be considered as a customer, as defined by original quality efforts, in administrative and student support services such as housing, parking, admission, food services, and library facilities. In those areas, the student is a customer in the conventional sense and meets Bailey's definition of customer as one "who buys goods or services and expects his expressed preferences to be met with regard to the product or service being purchased"(Bailey, 2000, p 354). In the above cases the student (i.e., customer) pays for the service and is primarily a passive participant in the development of the product or service. He or she specify his or her preferences, satisfaction or dissatisfaction, but is not involved in the process of changing the product or service.

While much of the evidence supporting TQM in HEIs has been anecdotal and sparse, some measure of success using TQM techniques in HEIs has been associated with the above-mentioned areas and in the area of administrative tasks (Koch & Fisher, 1998). One continuing area of resistance to TQM in HEIs has been the "student as customer" approach. As soon as TQM was introduced into higher education, it became a problem. According to Ewell (1993), "at few points in "TQ conversations does discussion become so heated as around the word "customer"'.

Marchese (1993) discussed six (6) important ideas for applying TQM in education, and the first was customer focus. In his article, he differentiated between internal and external customers, where internal customers are students as learners, employees of the college, and "people down the hall who receive my work." His emphasis was that you do not do everything the customer wants. Marchese defined external customers as funders, donors, employers, and graduate schools.

There are some assumptions that are made when the student is treated as customer in the learning situation. One, a satisfied student is a higher quality product than an unsatisfied student. Research findings regarding job satisfaction and performance are inconsistent, at best. Thus, few studies have examined the hypothesis that job satisfaction causes higher job performance, and the findings of those few are inconclusive. More studies have examined the effect of job performance on job satisfaction. (Judge, Thoresen, Bono, & Patton, 2001). Further, there is little evidence that there is a causal relationship between student satisfaction and academic performance. Therefore, the premise that satisfied students are "better" students, for the most part, has little merit. A second assumption is that students have the knowledge to know what they want and what help them to accomplish their career goals. This may be the case to a certain degree for adult learners who already have experience in business, but it would be difficult to justify for many inexperienced undergraduates.


Viewing the student as customer has been contested for a variety of reasons. Meeting student desires becomes the motivating force behind educational programs, and resource allocation is sometimes directly related to the number of customers who register and attend particular classes. Some studies have suggested that those students' not accepting responsibility for their learning are not very successful (Armstrong, 1983). Classes become popularity contests; this is particularly true when student ratings of faculty are used as measures of quality of learning. In addition, because flexibility and customization are emphasized to meet customer desires, self-designed majors, re-scheduling exams and making exceptions to the rule, are all done to keep the customer happy (Franz, 1998). Another consequence is entitlement, where the student believes that he or she deserves a certain grade because they paid for it. Grade inflation and concomitant post-educational performance deflation are by-products. (Scrabec, 2000).

In TQM, the importance of delighting the customer is emphasized. While the objective of business is customer satisfaction, meeting the customers' needs, and delighting the customer (Evans & Lindsay, 1996), it is not higher education's job to delight the customer (Franz, 1998) even though some have supported that approach. According to Seymour (1995), the student as customer-as-a-driver for quality in education is one "that has low fit and high impact on a college campus." Based on the reported obstacles to implementation of quality in high education, the resistance of faculty to student as customer occurs frequently.


There are some explanations why the erroneous classification of students as customers may have occurred. Administrators, correctly viewing students as customers of institutionally provided administrative services, may assume that the same classification applies to the student in all phases and aspects of the educational process. In addition, adoption of TQM concepts by higher education has possibly lacked the focus, intensity, resource documentation, and the required preparation necessary to perceive the academic process as a system. Deming makes it clear that only a statistician should teach Statistical Process Control to TQM practitioners (Deming, 1993). This principle would also indicate that the best teacher of TQM concepts is a well-trained, experienced TQM practitioner-a factor often missing when institutions of higher learning attempt to implement TQM practices without the assistance of bona fide TQM consultants.


Rather than unquestioningly accepting the student as a customer, an appropriate question to ask might be "When is the student the customer?". Most of the documented success in TQM applications in HEIs has involved the administrative and student service aspects of university life, not the application of TQM in the classroom or in the application of learning (Owlia & Aspinwall, 1996). Such areas as administration and student services, library services, food service, counseling, application and admissions, financial aid, mail service, maintenance, and billing have improved through the use of TQM.

TQM's first application in higher education, at Fox Valley Technical College, resulted in improvements and increased satisfaction in such areas as placement of graduates, employer satisfaction with contracted training programs, and acceptance of college credits at receiving institutions (Narasimhan, 1997). Students who successfully complete a sophomore level business course become the input for the professor teaching a junior level business courses. In such cases, a student is the customer for certain services which are similar to those in industry, which can be easily measured and benchmarked. In addition to being a purchaser in industry, a customer defines requirements for the quality of the product or service. Unfortunately, allowing the student to set specifications for his or her education would degrade the educational service being sold (Scrabec, 2000). TQM, or any quality effort, should not allow students to dictate teaching methods, but to solicit suggestions for improving class processes. (Gilbert, Keck, & Simpson, 1993)


If students can be viewed as products of the academic process and are not simply customers in that process, what cogent relationship exists between them and faculty? As academicians, we see ourselves as providing knowledge and guidance by employing our professionalism gained over years of scholarship, research, and attainments in our own educational and life-long learning processes. In recent years, as long as students were being taught in the classroom, faculty have tended to perceive themselves in this limited role of statically imparting knowledge to the students as our customers. Now, the advent of distance-learning outside the classroom setting using computers and the Internet has brought (or should bring) an amazing revelation and refocus to higher education. Higher education is becoming what it has always surreptitiously been through the ages: the internal metamorphism by the learners themselves, brought about by their own agency through a number of educational resources, including interaction with faculty, content of the educational process, and the institutional environment.

Since the synergism of intellect, emotions, coping skills, spirit, and values can occur only within the individual student, it is becoming more apparent that students are in a sense the producers of their own education and are ultimately responsible for their own development and outcomes. Further, as students act and react within the educational process, their interaction causes changes within the very processes with which they interrelate. In response to their interaction, faculty must become facilitators, coaches, mentors, and advisors within the process, as well as disseminators of knowledge. Faculty members thus provide professional guidance. Adding value to students as clients enables faculty to synthesize their own personal and intellectual development. This facilitative relationship can more aptly be described in the TQM context as that of professional-to-client than as service provider-to-customer.

There are significant differences between customer and client. Differences include the duration and frequency of interaction and the degree of active participation in the processes leading to quality, the degree that the customer and client are changed by the interaction, the degree of impact of the interaction, and the duration of the change on the person and others. For the client-professional relationship, the process is interactive and on-going, and both the client and professional are changed by the interaction. Consequences of the exchange are frequently far-reaching and long-term, with immediate and intermediate results. The duration and frequency of interaction is generally greater for a client with a professional than is the interaction between customer and salesperson. The customer exchange is typically short-term and sporadic with short-term results where the customer and salesperson are unchanged as a result.

The primary characteristic of a client-professional relationship is that the client influences the method of interaction and the outcome because of the client's active involvement in the process throughout. The professional has some specialized knowledge that does not typically exist in the customer metaphor. In such cases, the client plays an active role in creating the transformation by adding value; it is not given to the client as the student-as-product approach infers. Additionally, the client should not be able to have undue influence on the professional because the client does not like the results.

While the client-professional comparison is not a perfect fit, we believe that it is a more appropriate fit than "student-as-a-product" and "student-as-a-customer". It is felt that the student actively participates and is changed by the process in which he or she is involved. Furthermore, the focus is on the quality of the outcome and the critical processes, not on pleasing the customer. In addition, the client-professional comparison does not support the invalid assumption that a satisfied student will result in a higher quality product. The intended result will instead be a higher quality, informed, skilled person who can contribute to society. It should also result in a person who has self-managing and self-regulating skills.

At an International Association for Management Education for AACSB (1999), business leaders encouraged colleges and universities to collaborate with business leaders in their community in order to make the college curricula more relevant. The Baldrige educational award winner, the University of Wisconsin-Stout, surveys its business partners regularly to provide advice on content and requirements of degree programs. Other customers include the "useful many" such as parents, family, graduate school, alumni, taxpayers, governments, and regents. This is particularly relevant, in light of the fact that 75% of educational revenues that American colleges receive are from donors and taxpayers (Winston, 2001).


The educational process is unlike processes of manufacturing and service industries. Many of the outcomes of the educational system are intangible, unlike manufactured products, and they are also unlike services provided in that the interaction is prolonged and influences the change agent and the person being changed. Both the student as a product and the student as a customer are perceptions that create a more passive learning role than should actually occur. Instead of treating the student as a customer, we believe that comparing the student to a client of a professional service most accurately reflects the full embodiment of the student's role in the learning process.

Our paper acknowledges that the success of such programs as TQM, CQI, and TQE in the educational setting has been limited. We believe that the limited success of such programs is due to (a) the incorrect focus and misidentification of students as THE customer, (b) the incorrect assumption that a satisfied student will result in a more skilled, knowledgeable student, and (c) the value-added principle that each process should add value to the product or service, and (d) the failure to see the organization and quality efforts as part of a total system.


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Louis F. Jourdan, Jr., Clayton College & State University

Chris Haberland, Clayton College & State University

Michael H. Deis, Clayton College & State University
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Title Annotation:Manuscripts
Author:Jourdan, Louis F., Jr.; Haberland, Chris; Deis, Michael H.
Publication:Academy of Educational Leadership Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2004
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