Students as customers – what would service researchers say?

A marketing logic is becoming more common in universities, as higher education is becoming increasingly competitive and marketized. Universities develop strategies for differentiation, compete in rankings, and seek to attract the best and brightest students. As a result, concepts that are familiar to us service researchers, such as value, experience, and customer orientation, have become popular in the field of education. There are even increasing tendencies to refer to students as customers. In this view, universities are seen to provide service to their customers.

However, the creeping of marketing thought into universities has faced a lot of criticism – often for good reasons. Critics have pointed out that education is not something that can be measured through customer satisfaction. Studies have also shown that a consumerist approach can promote passive learning and threaten academic standards (Naidoo, Shankar & Veer 2011). Learning is demanding. It requires hard work and questioning one’s prejudices and preconceptions. In other words, it’s not a night at the Ritz-Carlton. This got me thinking whether we should ignore what marketers can say about education, or could service and marketing research have something more to give?

Education as a service

University administrators and policy makers can surely gain from looking at education as a service, but a broader and more nuanced understanding of modern service research is needed. Here’s two examples of how current service thinking relates to important developments in universities:

  1. Finnish universities are required to plan and monitor the promotion of equality and diversity. Among other things, this means that the university – as a physical and social space – has to ensure equal and safe access and treatment for its students. During the past years, service researchers have explored questions of service inclusion, and showed how service design methods can be useful in pursuing these goals (Fisk, Dean, Alkire et al. 2018). A wide range of tools and methods, such as customer journey maps, empathy maps, or cocreation workshops, can help universities in becoming aware of structures and processes that hinder equality and diversity (see e.g. Vink and Koskela-Huotari 2021).
  2. Universities are also expected to engage in tackling societal and environmental challenges. Two good examples of commitments here at Hanken are the UN Principles of Responsible Management Education initiative, and the Climate University collaboration between Finnish higher education institutions. Instead of value in the traditional marketing sense, these commitments represent a social dimension of value, or transformative value, in service research terminology(Blocker & Barrios 2015). In this perspective, education as a service can facilitate social awareness and inspire action. This is, in fact, very compatible with some fundamental pedagogical ideas and philosophies. The European university tradition, with its heritage of bildung and the education of civilized, critically thinking individuals, resembles this view of agentic and reflexive consumers in current service thinking. 

“Education is, and always has been, a service with transformative outcomes”

Education is, and always has been, a service with transformative outcomes. Universities enact change in society through each individual student that passes through their doors. From a service research perspective, viewing students as customers means much more than measuring satisfaction or value. It means ensuring them equal access and treatment. It means providing them with the capabilities to build a better society, as informed citizens, entrepreneurs, employees, and employers.

Hannu Tikkanen
Doctoral candidate


Blocker, C. & Barrios, A. (2015) The Transformative Value of a Service Experience. Journal of Service Research, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 265-283

Fisk, R. P., Dean, A. M., Alkire, L., Joubert, A., Previte, J. & Rosenbaum, M. S. (2018). Design for service inclusion: creating inclusive service systems by 2050. Journal of Service Management, vol. 29, no. 5, pp. 834-858

Naidoo, R., Shankar, A. & Veer, E. (2011) The consumerist turn in higher education: Policy aspirations and outcomes. Journal of Marketing Management, vol. 27, no. 11/12, pp. 1142-1162