Purpose - This paper seeks to evaluate the arguments for and against the proposition that students in higher education are "customers" and should be treated as such. Design/methodology/approach - A critical review of the relevant literature from the domains of total quality management and marketing. Findings - The debate is polarised, with advocates regarding it as self-evident that students are customers and should be treated as such, while critics regard it as self-evident that the incursion of the "customer" concept into higher education degrades educational standards and damages educator/student relationships. Research limitations/implications - Researchers should investigate whether the adoption of the terminology, systems and processes of the "student-as-customer" leads to a degradation or improvement of the quality of education and level of service delivered to higher education students. Practical implications - Ways are recommended in which the careful adoption of the term "customers" to refer to students could retain positive aspects - promoting the legitimate interests of students in the higher education system - while avoiding such potentially negative aspects as the problematic idea that "the customer is always right". Originality/value - The paper points towards a "middle way" by which educational policy-makers and managers can obtain the benefits associated with a "customer orientation" while avoiding the difficulties associated with a simplistic interpretation of the customer concept.