Leader: Adding mitres to mortar boards

June 11, 2004

Universities should not need lessons from the business community on pursuing the public good. But when the Council for Industry and Higher Education, with senior representatives from both sides of the fence, expresses concerns about mounting utilitarianism and calls for greater attention to the "key virtues" of universities, the message cannot be ignored. There may be wry smiles on campus at the idea of vice-chancellors as 21st-century bishops speaking out on moral issues, but plenty will agree that universities have been losing their way.

The CIHE would be the first to acknowledge that there is no going back to the arm's-length relationship of yesteryear between higher education and business. The needs of a modern economy and universities' stretched finances demand constant interaction. But the traditional values of higher education must pervade everything universities do, and their attractiveness as partners will be much reduced if that independence is compromised. The question raised, but only partially answered, in this week's report is what more universities should be doing to restore a sense of purpose among students and researchers. Most academics welcome ethical codes of conduct as protection against their own managers, should the need arise. But the CIHE does not pretend such declarations can be a panacea. Other fields in which codes operate (not least in journalism) suggest that their value is overrated, although they can help to create a climate in which moral and ethical questions assume greater priority.

Changing the mindset of graduates is even more of a challenge. Students have seldom looked to their university for a moral lead, and it is neither practical nor desirable to infuse all courses with ethical teaching.

Politicians, teachers and parents could all help by talking up the wider benefits of higher education, rather than always focusing on the financial benefits to the individual. Universities must look at their own relationships with the private sector, but they cannot isolate their students from attitudes that are shaped by wider society.

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