The evolving interpretations of customers in higher education: empowering the elusive


Peter Redding, University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, Western Avenue, Cardiff CF5 2YB, UK. E-mail:


Students within higher education are increasingly referred to as customers. And there have been increasing pressures for academics to respond to them as such. Universities, especially their management, have been adopting the vocabulary of quality management systems that may be more commonplace in industry. In recent decades, there has been a fierce debate among academics as to whether this approach is appropriate in the academic sector, and whether students are customers, consumers, clients, etc. This paper explores the debate and the central ideas that have informed it. Despite the largely semantic debate over the definition of customers, universities have attempted to empower the multiple stakeholders, using a variety of tools. The paper goes on to discuss how the nature of students is evolving with the move toward widening access, and how the concepts and tools surrounding quality systems must also evolve.