Last summer, I had solar panels installed on my roof and could reclaim the VAT. To do this I needed a VAT number, available from the tax authorities. On the first letter I received from them, I was labelled ‘client’. This annoyed me and made me think.
The tax authorities are a kind of debt collection company. Are defaulters the clients of such a company? No, they‘re not. The client in this case is whoever places an order, and for the tax authorities that’s the Dutch state. That’s to whom the service is provided, not to the citizen.
What about a university like ours? Who are our clients? What is our product?
You can reason in two directions - if you just think about education. We provide education. We put knowledge into the minds of students and if there is enough, we give them a diploma with a BSc, MSc and/or engineering degree. So you could consider the knowledge with the title as the product, since the tuition is paid for it. Hence, viewed like this, the student is the client. Seen this way, it makes sense to have lectures evaluated by the students and take their satisfaction as a measure of the quality of our product.
But it doesn’t add up. As proven by the ‘binding study advice’ (beautiful contradictio in terminis). Surely as a producer, you would be crazy if you pointed paying customers who want to continue buying your products the door?
Our product specifications are actually drawn up by the employers of TU Delft engineers. They set the bar. The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science listens to them, and we perform accordingly and enjoy the ease with which our engineers find employment. They go like hot cakes. And this shows what’s what: the employers are our customers, the engineers our product. Viewed like this, we come to our second direction in our reasoning. That the knowledge and the students are our raw materials. Tuition fees are a means, a symbolic amount that mainly serves to make study delays painful and thus keep the price of the product low. The ‘binding study advice’ serves to select good raw material. The diploma is the golden label that is stuck on the product at the exit when it passes quality control.
The baker doesn't ask the cakes if the oven felt pleasant, right?
In order to test the quality of a given course, we would therefore have to ask the same employers whether our engineers appear to have mastered the subject sufficiently when they enter the company. If so, then the lecturers have done their job well, regardless of the quality of the language in which the course was taught. Regardless of the audio-visual means (including the charisma and beautiful eyes of the lecturer). Regardless of the atmosphere in the classroom. Regardless of the average examination grade. In short, regardless of everything a student could perceive. All these aspects are of course useful for giving a good education, but they are not a measure of its quality. After all, the quality of the product is not measured by the quality of the processes and the means by which the product is created, but by the product itself. The baker doesn't ask the cakes if the oven felt pleasant, right?
Incidentally, our alumni are also perfectly capable of assessing the product quality since they have experience in holding the title of engineer and can assess the adequacy of the knowledge gained here. Their feedback could be very useful, despite the few years’ delay in getting their feedback. And I think we already get their feedback, as employers, through the Ministry.
The Works Council wants to review the student evaluations and their use. What do the staff members think, and what will result from the negotiations with the Executive Board? We'll see ...
After working there as a scientist for 20 years, Dr Menno Blaauw is now the Integrated Management System Programme Manager at the Reactor Institute. He is also a member of the Work’s Council.