'Ethical' degrees get cool response

March 25, 2005

Academics have given a mixed welcome to proposals to embed ethics and morality into student courses.

The proposals, published by the Council for Industry and Higher Education, say that institutions should run their affairs and courses according to an ethical guide that is being developed by the Institute for Business Affairs.

Jenny Pickerill, a geography lecturer at Leicester university, said: "It sounds to me like an idea that is much needed. But my concern is that it contradicts all the corporate pressure we are under to churn out graduates.

"I doubt that there will be the funding or the time available to do it properly."

Matt Bentley, a marine biologist at Newcastle University, was equally cautious. "It would have to be thought out very carefully," he said. "My impression is that undergraduates do have a sense of moral responsibility, but it is not really well structured into their courses."

David Bailey, a senior lecturer in international business economics at Birmingham University, suggests that for many teaching staff whose courses already cover ethical issues, the requirement could be yet another unnecessary burden. "It is just another thing to be doing on top of everything else, when we are already very busy," he said.

The report calls for a debate to refocus the minds of university and college managers, staff and students on the "wider purposes" of higher education, beyond producing graduates with good degrees.

The Council for Industry and Higher Education, which plans to stage a conference in June to discuss the idea, proposes that the curriculum of degree courses be changed to include awareness of global, community and ethical issues. A chemistry course, for instance, could cover responsibilities of scientists.

The council's report argues that institutions should lead by example by acting more ethically themselves and by fostering a campus environment that can turn students into model citizens.

Steven Schwartz, the vice-chancellor of Brunel University, writes in the report that all higher education institutions need to "look at their own behaviour and extol the fact that they are communities that have regard to moral issues".

Lecturers' union leaders said the report made "hollow reading" in the light of the industrial relations policies of some institutions, including Brunel.

Paul Mitchell, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "Fine words have to be translated into action, and the paper includes some contradictions between best practice and reality in university governance."

Roger Kline, head of Natfhe's university division, said: "There's not enough in the report about staff. The guide ought to cover things such as reasonable workloads and working environments."

tony.tysome@thes.co.uk

Jenny Pickerill 'It sounds to me like an idea that is much needed, but I doubt that there will be the funding or the time to do it properly'

Matt Bentley 'Undergraduates do have a sense of moral responsibility, but it is not really well structured into their courses'

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