GLOBAL: A question of ethics

During the current turbulence in the Middle East, a storm of public criticism engulfed the London School of Economics after it was found to have accepted a £1.5 million (US$2.4 million) pledge from a charity run by a son of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. LSE Director Howard Davies accepted responsibility and resigned.

Cambridge University's Deputy Vice-chancellor also came in for criticism for being part of a delegation to the Middle East that included representatives of British arms manufacturers. Other universities in France and the United States have been found to have trained Libyan diplomats.

But the LSE affair is only the latest in a long line of ethical controversies that have affected universities. Back in 2000, in what some saw as the ultimate irony in university corporate sponsorship, Nottingham University accepted £3.8 million from British American Tobacco to establish an International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility.

Part of the conundrum for universities lies in the following question: are they public or private sector organisations? According to Oxford University's David Watson the answer to this question is 'both'.

Many universities are state funded, but are expected to increasingly pay their own way in an age when spending on the public sector is shrinking and the higher education market has gone global. This means that universities are now required to be more 'business facing' and look to ways to generate and diversify their income.

The inevitable consequence of this is that universities will occasionally find themselves under fire for who they are doing business with, like any other organisation.

The problem lies in the way that the modern university has to be all things to all people. This is represented in the vacuity of mission statements that proclaim a commitment to a bewildering variety of 'stakeholders'.

Wider society still expects the university to live up to its old role as a trustworthy bastion of scholarly values yet at the same time it must also be a street-smart entrepreneur alert to every money-making opportunity. The result is that the university is forced to be Janus-faced.

But where does ethical responsibility start and finish? The power of the internet to turn an incident viral is making matters harder to contain. The decision of the French fashion house Christian Dior to sack their chief designer after he was caught on film shouting anti-semitic abuse in a bar is a case in point. Both universities and private companies are being judged in the court of public opinion.

Some universities have developed ethics policies that exclude doing business with or investing in certain types of organisations, such as tobacco companies and arms manufacturers. However, it is arguably trickier to decide which countries are off limits. It is not simply a question of which countries are 'democratic' and which are not.

Several Australian and British universities, for example, are heavily involved in higher education in Malaysia. Both Monash and Nottingham University have campuses there.

Malaysia might be a moderate Islamic country with a democratic system of government, but for over 40 years it has had a policy that provides for the preferential treatment of the majority Malay population. This means that nearly all public servants, police and army recruits are Malays who also receive housing discounts, virtually all government contracts and preferential access to universities. This is why for years Malaysian Chinese students have been forced to go abroad to get a university education. Even though ethnic Chinese and Indians have been in Malaysia for centuries they are not treated as indigenous 'sons of the soil' or Bumputras.

One way of looking at this policy is that it provides affirmative action to redress historic patterns of inequality. A less charitable interpretation is that it is an open form of racism against Malaysians of Chinese and Indian descent who make up around 38% of the population. Whereas it is possible to find many affirmative action programmes in other countries for minorities, in Malaysia this benefits the majority over the ethnic minorities.

Malaysia, though, is just one of several countries which might be criticised as having a less than desirable policy that presents an ethical question for anyone wishing to do business there.

University ethics policies are often narrowly construed around research ethics and issues affecting employees such as conflicts of interest. They have little to say about bigger issues involving corporate sponsorship, foreign investment and doing business abroad. This includes sponsorship of university research by pharmaceutical companies that can gag academics from publishing results in a timely fashion for the common advancement of science.

The easy option is to hide behind the blanket excuse of cultural relativism and simply hope that nothing embarrassing will occur. But universities ought to ask themselves whether countries with which they plan to engage have practices that conflict with their own values.

Do such practices relate to a country's relative level of economic development? If the answer is 'yes' then the practice is unlikely to be related to 'culture'. Even if the practice is independent of a country's level of economic development can the university, in good conscience, do business without entering into this practice themselves? And, is the practice a fundamental breach of human rights anyway? If the answer to either of these questions is 'yes', then they ought to think hard before proceeding further.

This is an ethical algorithm developed by Thomas Donaldson, a widely respected writer on the ethics of international business.

Universities could do worse than to use Donaldson's algorithm before getting involved with countries where they plan to do business. Ultimately, they cannot be all things to all people. Universities have to draw the line in the sand somewhere if they are to continue to be respected and trusted as organisations of special character.

* Bruce Macfarlane is associate professor for higher education in the faculty of education, University of Hong Kong.

I'm not sure I follow the logic of the argument. Since Professor Macfarlane finds the Malaysian government's policies objectionable, wouldn't he agree that universities like Monash and Nottingham are doing a good thing by operating in Malaysia? After all, without them, Malaysians who are unable to attend public universities due to affirmative action or who are too poor to go abroad would not have the chance to attend university at all

Eugene Tan

The previous comment suggests that universities setting up in Malaysia are doing good by opening up educational opportunities to minority groups that are discriminated against. Well, firstly let's not kid ourselves. These institutions are making money from being there, not trying to address issues of social injustice. Secondly, these universities are simply reinforcing the divisions within the culture in which they are entering. Arguing that these universities are making a positive contribution to changing the culture mirrors the justification of organisations and governments who invested in apartheid South Africa.

Bruce Macfarlane