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The difference between students-as-investors and students-as-clients

By Annie Fergusson - posted Monday, 22 February 2016

What’s the difference between being a client and being an investor? A client is typically aware of the service or product that they wish to buy at the point of transaction.

Let’s use the example of a car. A car buyer sets out their needs and requirements for their new vehicle according to the types of commutes or journeys and passengers that they are likely to need to accommodate. And off s/he goes into the marketplace to buy a vehicle according to their personal preferences.

The risk of a dodgy set of wheels is always there but thanks to things like warranties, insurance, test-driving and online reviews it’s relatively easy to make an educated purchase that will see you driving to the beach merrily over summer.


Being an investor is a different experience to simply making a purchase. An investor isn’t buying a product or service: they are buying the likelihood of returns at a future point in time in accordance with that individual’s appetite for risk.

Take superannuation as an example. Superannuation investors aim to invest their money and time to guarantee higher financial capital at the time of their retirement.

In this sense, an education bears the same hallmarks of superannuation investing: that is, putting time and money and, additionally in the case of education mental effort, into a pathway that the student is hoping will provide future returns. Education as an investment is thus based on an increase in professional skills, income and mobility in today’s complex labour market. But the capacity to distinguish between a high-risk and a low-risk investment is no simple task for the investor- student.

Universities invest heavily in the student-as-client experience. Every month there are new hires within Australian universities for student experience initiatives, student mobility programs, academics who can compete amongst world university rankings, property management professionals who turn campuses into desirable learning spaces and technology-driven professionals who are grappling with the new ways that information and learning are handled.

But have universities in Australia really embraced the idea that students are investors? Or are they in the same business as used-car salesmen? Higher education providers in the business of getting clients are playing a different game than those that are offering an investment service.

In the demand-driven system, universities are fast learning that they can’t have their cake and eat it too. As Andrew Norton writes:


there is also a direct correlation between the extent of the diversity of the student population and the need for the provision of tailored support services to meet particular needs. Universities that have a focus on the “campus experience” will invariably have demands placed upon them in their capacity as “landlord” for students occupying on-site or off-site student accommodation.

So what happens when a student gets treated like a client but actually thinks they are in the investment game? There is no refund for an education product or course that does not drive a student through the new labour market, although there are a number of cases where students have won legal cases against universities that have not delivered on the learning outcomes that they use to enroll students in courses.

This was recently highlighted in the Australian context in the damning 4 corners investigative report on Degrees of Deception. The notion that student participation rates or satisfaction surveys might indicate an increasing relevance of a university education is misguided. The Graduate Destinations survey and pathways survey are in fact much better indicators of how a university education has served as an individual’s investment in their labour market potential. In my own market research of students.

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About the Author

Annie Fergusson is Founder & Education Systems Designer at airEDU.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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