Ethics and the developmental university

The classical university model has not helped developing countries as they do not produce the kind of graduates who can deal with the developmental problems they face. Instead a different type of university is needed – the developmental university.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

This is a concept that describes a university with the following characteristics:
  • • It maintains intimate relations with society and its economy such that it has a deep understanding of the structures and trends occurring in them;
  • • It engages in developmental research production, transmission and use as its core mission;
  • • It makes developmental knowledge available and accessible to every segment of society regardless of socio-economic status;
  • • Teaching pedagogies, assessment practices and administrative ethos are driven by its core mission;
  • • Both the performance of teaching faculty and students is assessed based on their research activities or output;
  • • It maintains strong relationships with its stakeholders including but not limited to business, government, NGOs and community organisations; and
  • • It promotes and upholds values such as freedom, collaboration, diversity, humanism, democracy and inter-departmental cooperation.
As its core mission is research production and distribution for developmental purposes, a developmental university conducts research among literate, semi-literate and illiterate populations and groups in its country of location. Consequently, a developmental university must have well-crafted research ethical standards anchored in principles of democracy, social justice and human rights.

Research ethical standards are important for three major reasons.

They are guidelines for researchers to follow in conducting research to ensure that specific values like integrity, transparency, respect, objectivity and accountability are strictly observed throughout the research process. That way, researchers are held to high standards of ethics.

Research ethical standards also help to generate confidence in and support for research among both domestic and international research communities. This gives research process and the final outcome a high degree of quality assurance.

In addition, research is a collaborative work primarily between researcher and research participants. Research participants are volunteers who have information in the form of suggestions, knowledge, perceptions or ideas to share with the researcher.

This relationship should be carefully regulated so that power is evenly distributed between the two. Otherwise, the researcher could manipulate this relationship for his or her interest. As a matter of fact, mutual respect, social justice and human rights should dictate this relationship even if research participants do not directly demand them.

Further, benefits that will accrue directly or indirectly to research participants and their communities should also be directly communicated to them. In addition, where a research project has a potential negative impact on an entire community, the nature of the effects and measures designed to mitigate those effects should be made clear to that community.

In addition, any rewards or compensation that would be given to research participants should be equally explained and justification provided. For instance, it may be reasonable under some circumstances for a researcher to provide refreshments, meals or transportation money to research participants. However, such provisions must not be manipulated to extract data that is favourable to the researcher.

Rights of research participants

A developmental university should ensure that any research project involving human subjects that its faculty or students undertake has an information form, letter or brochure explaining in great detail the purpose and nature of the research, the rights of participants and the role expected of them.

The information form should be written in a simple language that is well understood by the sample population. The language of the sample population chosen should be the one it uses in its social setting on a daily basis. A third party interpreter or reader of the information form should be allowed. This is where a potential participant seeks the assistance of a third party, probably a family member, to read and interpret the content of information form.

Most importantly, the information form should also guarantee the rights of participants to confidentiality, anonymity, withdrawal, silence and respect. The researcher or his/her agent should be available to answer any questions that potential participants have about the research, its benefits or risks.

Consent for participation

Where human subjects are involved, consent for their participation must be voluntarily obtained without coercion, intimidation or threat of any kind. However, the procedure that could be used to obtain consent depends considerably on the nature and peculiar situation of the sample population.

The normative approach is for all research participants to sign a consent form after reading the information form about the research project and their rights. Nevertheless, participants may either be illiterate or uncomfortable to sign such consent forms.

In either case, each of the following procedures could be acceptable for consent to participate:
  • • Verbal consent audio-recorded or non-audio recorded but noted on the consent form;
  • • Thumb-print of potential participant;
  • • If the potential participant expressly waives to sign the form, this must be noted on the form; and
  • • A third party, possibly a relation or friend of the potential participant, could sign on his or her behalf.
Again, whatever procedure the researcher used to obtain consent should be disclosed in the research report along with justification.

Research committee

A permanent research ethical committee should be established to review and provide clearance for research proposals. The committee would also have the right to review the ethical research standards of the university; enforce the standards and investigate any complaints against researchers and their agents.

Accordingly, the committee would equally have the power to mete out appropriate forms of punishment for violation of its research standards.

Knowledge for developmental purposes

One of the distinguishing features of the developmental university is its mission to transmit knowledge for developmental purposes. Thus, it must ensure that it uses suitable channels, such as radio and community hall meetings, to communicate research findings or outcomes to the target stakeholders.

Besides, research findings must not be distorted or misrepresented to satisfy sectional interests. Even where researchers use qualitative approaches, they should give larger visibility to the voices of the research participants.

Researcher recommendations should also be separated from the main research data and due credit given to a community or group for its knowledge or ideas.

Finally, researchers must resist internal and external pressure for favourable findings. This would most likely occur in a developing country where the government controls the print media and wants to use the legitimacy of research to support a specific policy goal that is politically unpopular.

In terms of social justice, researchers should rather use their craft to champion the causes of the impoverished masses rather than aligning with oppressive or exploitative political regimes.

Dr Eric Fredua-Kwarteng is a private education consultant in Canada.