Climb the income ladder but avoid those snakes

April 22, 2005

In today's business climate, it is crucial for universities to implement an ethical framework, says Steven Schwartz

For better or worse, today's higher education institutions are deeply immersed in the world. Committees that once debated whether academic gowns should have blue or yellow trimming now find their agendas filled with topics such as branding, licensing and stock market listings. There is nothing wrong with this. Almost everyone agrees that universities and colleges must be businesslike, and they need the resources arising from commercial profits. But profits do not override everything.

Recognising this, 90 per cent of FTSE 100 companies have published ethical codes. These cover everything from conflicts of interest and bribery to accurate accounting and freedom of information. Universities also have policies on these matters, but few have pulled them together into a coherent framework.

To help universities think about ethical issues, the Council for Industry and Higher Education, with the support of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is developing a "how to" guide for institutions that wish to adopt a consistent approach to ethical issues. The guide will not be prescriptive - its purpose is to suggest how institutions might make explicit what is often implicit, to highlight some of the ethical dilemmas facing institutions and their staff and to show how others have addressed them.

For example, in response to a survey of 2,200 medical scientists, 410 admitted to holding back the publication of their results to give their commercial sponsors time to safeguard their property rights. In some cases, doctoral students are being prevented from publishing their theses because their supervisors have signed confidentiality agreements with companies.

This is not illegal, but it shows how a traditional academic value - the free expression of ideas - can conflict with the commercial need to protect profits. In such situations, staff might welcome some guidance.

Here is another problem facing some academics. Is it permissible to accept money for putting one's name to an article ghostwritten by a pharmaceutical company? How are academics to know whether this is acceptable if their institutions have not discussed it? Similarly, is it permissible to withhold publication of results that reflect negatively on a commercial partner? A Stanford University study suggests that this is already happening - 98 per cent of research papers sponsored by drug companies report that the products studied are effective. In contrast, only 79 per cent of papers not commercially sponsored report positive results. Surely academic staff would be better able to evaluate such potential conflicts of interest if they knew how their institutions viewed them.

Ethical guidance would also benefit other areas. Competition for students has made institutions increasingly concerned with their reputation, particularly as reflected in league tables. But attempts to rise up the rankings can work against social justice. For example, instead of offering bursaries to students in most financial need, some award them to those with the highest marks. This moves institutions up the league tables but leaves less money for poor students.

There are ways to resolve this, but first the ethical dimensions of the conflict need to be clarified. Ethical codes allow institutions to bring their performance in line with their rhetoric. For example, practically every university mission statement contains at least some reference to transparency. Yet, when the admissions review I led last year recommended that institutions publish the entry qualifications of students, employment outcomes and dropout rates, some objected. In these institutions, values seem to have become disconnected from behaviour. By making the connections explicit, a code of ethics would help institutions to align their values with their performance.

As a first step in drawing up a guide, which is being developed with the Institute of Business Ethics, Universities UK, the Standing Conference of Principals and other organisations, the CIHE has surveyed institutions to determine practice and needs. The results of the consultation, which includes a summary of the survey, will inform a national conference to be held in June. The "how to" guide will be launched in autumn. This will represent an opportunity for an institution to remind its stakeholders of the relationship between its values and everyday behaviour. For this reason, an ethical code is part of good governance. Businesses need and have them; higher education institutions need them, too.

Steven Schwartz, the vice-chancellor of Brunel University, is chairing the CIHE ethics project.


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