University Customers and their Experience

I’ve been meaning to write about this and it has crept up a few times recently in the twittersphere so maybe it’s time to put my few thoughts down.

As someone who has spent the last 6 years working in academic libraries and has a particular interest in user experience these two words have started to grate on me: customers and experience.

Firstly let’s consider the word experience, specifically in the context of universities. Every time I hear the phrase ‘university experience’ I twitch slightly. In my mind it conjures up all the wrong impressions of what going to university is (should?) be about. Maybe I’m being old fashioned but I still feel that going to University should be about education. About learning, gaining skills, meeting people, expanding your thoughts/mind and yes experiencing new things. But more and more I am seeing a shift of the focus from education to the ‘student experience’ and I’m not sure I like its implications. Perhaps I am conjuring up images of ‘buy someone an experience for Christmas’ presents. Here, pay £9,000+ a year and you too can experience what it is like to go to university. It sounds like something you might expect from a day out at a museum ‘experience what it was like to sit in a medieval dungeon’ take photos, put them on your social media page.

Universities have webpages specifically aimed at defining the student experience and what they can expect – we provide you with accommodation, bars, gyms, sports clubs, societies, friends, and of course, lectures and tutorials. It feels as if this ‘experience’ and these features are more important than what is surely the main aim of undertaking any course – to learn. So something now irks me about this promotion of the ‘student experience’ over the quality of the courses. It seems this is perhaps an inevitable result of universities’ shift to being more and more business-like.

So then let’s consider the university, and consequently, the library ‘customer’. I’ve seen a change over the last few years. Working in an academic library now is a very different environment than it was six years ago. Obviously, perhaps, as there have been big changes in technology with RFID adoption increasing and a push towards self-service as just one. But the other thing I have noticed is a change in attitude, from both sides. This is probably not entirely unexpected, as prospective students are increasingly seeing this wonderful university experience marketed to them and with the prices they now pay why wouldn’t they expect all that is promised to them?

Then from the library side, as the fees increased, so did pressure on services. Would they be expecting more, how did we need to change our services to match this expectation? Everything suddenly needed to be faster, better, more high tech, easier. In general, I agree with these things, I love efficient services, not wasting time, utilising new technologies and making people’s lives easier and I think it is important that we are continually striving to improve in these areas. But, why are we doing these things? Why are we creating packs of resources or fully linking reading lists up to the online resources so no research is required and everything is accessible at the click of a button? They certainly do make students’ lives easier, but how far can we go before we are potentially taking something away.

Now, I believe in access to information, I believe in educating people to understand information, evaluate it, access it and use it. I also believe that this is a core role of the academic library (and not just academic ones but this is my current focus). I’ve spent a number of years trying to find ways to improve access to e-resources and information that are paid for by the university and making these user journeys as simple as possible. But I do still draw a line at getting it for you. Handing someone something doesn’t help them in the long run. This is where the term ‘customer’ makes me nervous. If we are seeing students (and other users) as ‘customers’ then what does this mean for the services we offer and are we managing their expectations appropriately? You want me to look up whether we have a book for you? I could, or I can accompany you to the nearest OPAC, show you the interface and explain how you can search for that book/journal/resource yourself.

If our users expect to be considered customers what does that do to their demands? Do they expect everything to be handed to them? There seems to be less tolerance of access limitations, outrage if the desired book is already out and a little bit of the ‘customer is always right’ attitude creeping in. Obviously librarians are working constantly to try and ensure that adequate numbers of books/ebook credits are available as and when the students need them, but sometimes this is just not possible due to budget constraints, increasing student numbers and time. Often the fact that students now are paying a lot of money for the pleasure of attending university is cited as a reason they should be considered customers, but what about our other users? The academics and researchers who rely on the library for its resources so they can carry out their work and the general public who can access reference materials or use the library space for study?

I do wonder, with the shift towards a more ‘business-like’ university idea, are we just expected to feed the customers what they want to get them through their time with us, or should we maybe be demanding more from what we offer?

Would we doing them a disservice by giving in to these ‘customer demands’? Sure, we can package it all up for you and give you everything you need to pass. Or maybe we can teach you the skills to do it for yourself. Skills that you can pass on to others, skills that allow you to evaluate not just a few research articles, but any information, of which there is so much out there.

It’s just a thing I think about.