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Why are professional and ethical standards so important for universities?

By James Page - posted Wednesday, 23 January 2019

One of the remarkable aspects of recent history has been the growth of participation in education around the world, including participation in higher education. For many years higher education has been seen as an elite activity, although it seems difficult to defend that position now. The growth in higher education participation has tended, however, to obscure fundamental questions about the purpose of higher education, and related questions about the importance of professional and ethical standards for institutions of higher education.

Usually institutions of higher education (Universities) have a nominal commitment to professional and ethical standards through Codes of Conduct and Codes of Ethics. However whether those in leadership positions within Universities, or indeed within public institutions generally, adhere to such Codes is another question. It seems appropriate that we should ask why adherence to professional and ethical standards is so important for Universities, and here I want to suggest some basic reasons why such adherence is important.

Firstly, an important function for Universities is the training of future professionals, and an important part of this function is training in professional and ethical conduct. This has both practical and ethical dimensions, in that breaching such standards will often have consequences, but, beyond this, it is important in itself for individuals to comply with accepted standards. How does one teach professional and ethical conduct? It would seem obvious that there is little point talking to students about appropriate professional and ethical standards without an appropriate practical commitment on the part of those teaching adherence to the professional and ethical standards. Put simply, we learn from example.


Secondly, an equally important function for Universities is the search for truth, what we might otherwise call research. Both in the research function and in the teaching function, Universities may well be described as truth institutions. Here too it is difficult not to overstate the importance of adherence to professional and ethical standards. If those in leadership positions, or even those not in leadership positions, are not adhering to professional and ethical standards, then the credibility of the University in its search for and promotion of truth will inevitably be undermined.

Thirdly, there is a very practical reason why Universities ought to comply with professional and ethical standards, in Universities operate in a competitive market where image is crucial. Thus, if Universities are seen not to be adhering to relevant professional and ethical standards, this can only be to the detriment of the University. This importance of image, of course, has only increased with the radical transparency which is part of the internet phenomenon. Pragmatist ethicists are fond of pointing out that doing good can result in good results, and having Universities adhere to professional standards seems to be an obvious example of this.

Fourthly, in addition to the above ethical and practical considerations, there is the established legal obligation for educational institutions to exercise a duty of care. Universities, like other educational institutions, have an obligation to avoid causing or allowing foreseeable harm to persons, and this is fulfilled by exercising reasonable care. There is a strong argument that exercising reasonable care encompasses complying with recognized professional and ethical obligations.

Fifthly, Universities operate as communities. As such, any failure of commitment to professional and ethical standards on the part of leaders of the University can only detract from the overall morale of the institution. How so? Put simply, if those in leading positions are not acting in a diligent, professional [10/11] and ethical manner, then there is often little encouragement for others within a University community to remain committed to such standards. Indeed, if leaders of a University community are not actively adhering to professional and ethical standards, this can only induce a large degree of cynicism within the institution.

Finally, Universities operate as agents of change, in that Universities anticipate and encourage a commitment to the making of a better world for the future. For instance, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, at Article 13, stipulates that education, which includes higher education, should strengthen respect for human rights, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship, and further the maintenance of peace. Similarly, the Declaration and Programme of Action for a Culture of Peace, at Article 4, stipulates that education at all levels is one of the principal means of establishing a culture of peace. If a University is not adhering to standards of professional and ethical conduct, this can only serve to undermine the role of the University in encouraging an ethical vision for the future.

The changing role of higher education, and of the University, poses some special challenges. Yet perhaps the most important challenge is to retain, or in some cases reclaim, the importance of professional and ethical conduct within the University.

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Originally published in Australian Ethics, Summer Edition, No. 2, 2018: pp.10,11.

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About the Author

Dr James Page is a writer and educationist, and a recognized authority within the field of peace education.

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