Few institutions have ethical criteria for international activities

Staff and academics with little ethical guidance make decisions on behalf of institutions 

September 13, 2018
Prison cell
Source: iStock

Most international educators have made ethical decisions about cross-border collaborations on behalf of their institution without any clear guidance or knowledge of the consequences. 

According to an informal poll of about 60 practitioners, 60 per cent said that they had made an ethical decision in the interest of the institution, but just over half (54 per cent) said that they were unaware of official processes at their institution for making ethical decisions about international activities or collaborations. 

Another 17 per cent said that they did not know if such guidelines existed, while 29 per cent said that their university did have processes in place. 

The informal survey was taken during the session “Ethical Challenges for Institutions in International Collaboration” at the European Association for International Education’s annual conference in Geneva. 

One of the presenters, Suzanne Alexander, previously director of the international office at the University of Leicester and now an international education consultant, said that the process of making ethical decisions for institutions isn’t discussed enough among university leaders. 

“People can feel very exposed at having to make a decision when you don’t have a clear committee that looks at some of these issues and can make institutional decisions; few of us have these,” she said. 

“In the end, we tend to make a pragmatic decision as best we can and go on with the consequences, but often are left feeling uncomfortable, wondering if there’s something that we could, or should, have done differently.”

Establishing collaborations with institutions that have proven human rights violations; sending students or researchers to countries experiencing political unrest; or allowing photographs to be taken of a vice-chancellor with a representative from a dictatorial regime, are among some of the ethical dilemmas that university staff and academics face, according to the presenters.  

“How do you know what they’re [the photos are] used for later on?”, asked co-presenter Gunilla Carlecrantz, a senior adviser for external relations at Lund University in Sweden. 

Other polling from the session revealed a two-track approach to handling complex relations. Responding to a hypothetical situation, 35 per cent of participants said that they would advise their vice-chancellor to not send any person from a university with a national delegation to a country where international human rights agreements have been violated and academics have reportedly been killed and imprisoned. 

Meanwhile, 23 per cent said that only researchers should participate, while another 21 per cent said that only university leadership should participate. 

Bart Hendrickx, head of academic diplomacy at KU Leuven in Belgium, said that only researchers should participate in such exchanges. 

“If researchers stop talking to each other, we’re much further down the drain and all hope is lost,” he said. “So, we do think that in terms of academic freedom we need to exert our influence where we can, without having it be used for propaganda purposes.”

Similarly, James Kennedy, an adviser on international education at the University of Yangon, argued that staff and leadership should engage with countries that have violated international principles of human rights and academic freedom.

“We would potentially be in receipt of that type of delegation in Myanmar and I would encourage full participation because isolation of the universities in those countries can only lead to further problems,” he said.

“One of the main ways of opening up countries to international considerations is through academic contact, whether it’s students or researchers.”

The presenters suggested that institutions draw from the university traditions outlined by the 1988 Magna Charta Universitatum, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948, or the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights adopted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation in 1997 when establishing a code of ethics for global partnerships.

sara.custer@timeshighereducation.com 

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