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MBA students pay significant amounts to business schools to get their MBA qualification. According to the most recent research, the QS TopMBA.com Applicant Survey 2009, MBA candidates think more about the return on investment than the actual cost of the course when applying. But with costs as high as US$150,000, don't students have the right to see themselves as customers of the business school and not as recipient students, as one might in high school? Caroline Parry finds out.

The customer is always right, or so the mantra goes. But is that still true if the service provider makes high demands on the customer during the transaction? Is the customer still king if the service provider is constantly evaluating them to see if they are worthy of their product?

Whether an MBA candidate is a student or a customer has been a hot topic for several years, particularly in the US where a college education of any sort has comes with a high price tag. But it has never been more pertinent as recent MBA graduates face an unprecedented economic downturn and an uncertain job market.

 
Student as customer

An MBA has always been a significant investment for any student. With initial course fees plus books and living expenses, added to the loss of up to two years of earnings, it is a decision that few candidates can afford to take lightly.

 
While business schools know that MBA candidates expect a high quality education and excellent resources in return for their investment, for some that is where their similarity with the definition of a customer ends.

Lisa Bevill, Associate Director of Admissions at IE Business School in Madrid, believes that the 'student as customer' debate treads a fine line and is, perhaps, too simplistic a definition for what becomes a life-long relationship. It implies the concept that the customer is always right and should be treated as such. However, this is hardly the case with MBA students and we should not lose sight of this because the relationship between MBA student and school is more profound.

She adds that the during the admissions process the relationship is professional, respectful and open, and about exploring what each side can offer; but once a candidate becomes a student, the relationship is then focused in their personal development.

 
Students are expected to be - and themselves expect to be - challenged and tested so that they grow throughout the program and develop greater abilities for when they return to the professional world.

 
That the MBA experience should lead to a student-school relationship that lasts well beyond graduation is a strongly held view across all business schools; however Veronica Hope-Hailey, dean of admissions at London's Cass Business School, believes that schools should view this as creating customers for life.

 
She adds that during the program candidates are students in the lecture theatre and customers outside. She says that Cass takes its role of providing a high quality service very seriously but it also makes it clear to students that its approach to education is extremely rigorous.

 
Everything from the standard of faculty through to the equipment and resources on offer should meet the high standards that customers would expect but, when it comes to the teaching and the education process, they are students, she explains. We are taking mature people and charging them a huge amount of money, they deserve good customer service. We want them to have a great experience but they have to know that they are in the English university system, which is subject to external checks, and there will be no negotiation on marks.

Return on investment
The view of MBA candidates, many of whom fund their own education, often differs. While Aisha Barry, a second year student at Tuck Business School at Dartmouth, agrees that her MBA is an investment that will pay-out in the long-term through high salary opportunities, professional credibility and the alumni network: it is for these very reasons that she views herself as customer of the school.

 
I have expectations of how my MBA school will perform in the present and in the future and I expect to derive value from each, ongoing. As a result, I see myself as more than someone who is the beneficiary of knowledge. I am investing to gain access to knowledge and in the future assets of my degree program, including reputation, recognition and affiliation.

 
While, there may be differences between schools and students on their view of their respective roles; they both agree that an MBA remains a long-term career investment that will pay off over a lifetime. For that reason, both sides agree that feedback and co-operation are essential for evolving MBA programs for future students and crucial for maintaining the alumni network.


Transaction

According to Sionade Robinson, Course Director for the full time MBA at Cass, the recession has reinforced the importance of this for students. I think the dynamic in the relationship is changing. The student attitude used to be 'I am the customer, you're the supplier and I require a high quality education' but that has become a more transactional relationship with the school. They are much more interested in our brand now and the school overall, not just the MBA. It is a more rounded approach.

 
Bevill adds that the recession has also meant that students are more defined in their reasons for taking the program and are seeing past the short term gains. There is a stronger sense of humanity, empathy, and personal growth through the MBA experience.

 
During her time at Tuck, Barry has been involved in pilot programs for new course, focus groups and discussions with faculty about how the course, and she also had an active role in Tuck's Cohen Leadership Development Program, which aims to help students improve their leadership skills through professional coaching and practical opportunities.

Cass is also adopting CRM to ensure that its students are offered myriad forums for giving feedback; but also to ensure graduates stay with the school as they progress in their careers. I do believe that business schools and universities can learn a lot from CRM and professional services.

While many schools will feel uncomfortable applying business definitions to their students and MBA programs, the net result of collaboration and feedback (or CRM, as it could also be described) can only be a positive result both for students, who are seeking to take responsibility for their careers by studying for an MBA, and business schools, who have to evolve their courses to reflect the changing needs of students.