Higher education’s contribution to a more ethical world

Christoph Stückelberger is a professor emeritus of systematic theology and ethics at the University of Basel, Switzerland, and a distinguished and visiting professor at four universities in China, Nigeria, Russia and the United Kingdom.

An ordained Presbyterian pastor, he is also president and founder of the Foundation, which has 200,000 registered followers, including 50,000 teachers and professors in more than 200 countries worldwide, and an online library containing more than 3 million documents.

The latter organisation is a partner of University World News. Its mission is to strengthen ethical reflection and behaviour. It involves people from all religious and ideological backgrounds, as well as non-believers and while it previously focused on business ethics, it now focuses on ethics and higher education, particularly access to higher education and the development of values-driven higher education, with a particular emphasis on developing countries, and provides online courses on ethics in higher education.

University World News (UWN) interviewed Professor Stückelberger about his new book, Globalance: Ethics Handbook for a Balanced World Post-COVID, which he started writing after the election of United States President Donald Trump, at the end of 2016, and finished on 20 July 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The year 2020, he says, “stands for disruptions, crises and shifts in many sectors of society. The date symbolises uncertainty, imbalance and world disorder, but it also stands for a push for new solutions and joint efforts.”

In his book he asks how we can transform the disruptions and imbalances of this period through a new dynamic world order and global balances? How can ethics contribute to this transition by a balance of values and virtues? And in a key chapter on education he explores how his concept of ‘Globalance’ can be applied to the benefit of higher education.

The book outlines his personal vision for an ethical world developed through four decades of work in academic research, journalism and global development cooperation and at the Foundation. The book can also be used as a reader and handbook for lectures and seminars and Stückelberger is planning to offer it as an online course by the end of 2021.

UWN: Who is the book for? What is it about and why is it being published now?

Stückelberger: The book is about achieving ‘Globalance’. It is a response to the polarised thinking on globalisation – the division between those who said globalisation is a means of salvation for humanity and others who said no, it is globalisation on the backs of the poor and that is not fair – and the recent shift from a globalised open world to a more segmented world.

I started the book a long time ago but that polarisation and that shift and accompanying disruption has accelerated now with new nationalisms but also with the Trump administration, and growing China-US tension. The pandemic has accentuated the division.

The ethical background is that on a family level or personal or school-university level we all face this challenge of how we can balance values which are seen as opposite and achieve what I call ‘Globalance’. The book tries to apply that approach in the context of COVID-19 and the post-COVID situation.

The book is for decision-makers in politics, economy, business and education, so whoever is interested in this question of how we can have value-driven development. But it is not aimed at one specific audience; I touch on a lot of aspects because one of the key messages is that we need holistic thinking and a multi-stakeholder approach.

UWN: So what is ‘Globalance’? It sounds like something to do with achieving a balance of power, a means of overcoming extremism and fundamentalism, something Henry Kissinger might have advocated.

Stückelberger: Globalance can be read as political power balance, but behind power and money there are always questions of values and we tend to put the emphasis on one value and forget about the others. But my core hypothesis is that values have to be related to each other and not maximised but optimised. This is a relational, holistic approach.

Let’s take the example of the classical opposition between freedom and justice. An extreme interpretation of freedom might be free market economics without regulation. The opposite, an extreme interpretation of justice in an extreme world, would lead to a planned economy with equal distribution forced on everyone.

But there are lots of models in between where the two values are combined and balanced, for instance in the social market economy. The theory is how to find the value poles and balance them and keep them together.

What we see in politics is often the maximising of one value. We see this in the debate between nationalism and globalism. Nationalists say nation above all. Globalisation enthusiasts say nation doesn’t play a role anymore. My approach is that nations have a value but cannot lead to isolation and have to be linked to multilateral efforts, so the question is how to balance national and multilateral interests.

From an ethical perspective I believe we cannot solve today’s big challenges without a multilateral, multidisciplinary approach.

In Chapter Seven I apply this concept to 30 areas including the planet, technology, health, politics, urbanisation, religion and education. So the concept can be useful for different users, from students, to business leaders, politicians and multi-stakeholder programmes.

UWN: You mention the idea of fair and inclusive globalisation. Isn’t the problem that for many people globalisation really hasn’t been inclusive? It has exploited some groups and left others out in the cold.

Stückelberger: Absolutely, that is why I was involved in discussions about globalisation during the hot phase, from 1995-2008, and I always warned globalisation enthusiasts that if it is unbalanced, unfair, there will be a backlash. Nationalism is the bitter answer to unfair globalisation. It is not the right answer, because these problems need to be solved at a multilateral, international level. That’s why we need international rules.

The first big shock questioning globalisation was the 2008-09 financial crisis, where nation states stepped in to support banks, even some seen more as international banks, that were deemed critical to the system. This showed immediately that in a crisis nation states are still an entity that is important.

It’s the same with COVID-19; you need strong national government responses. But there is a danger of going too far and saying only the nation state is relevant. But we see with the World Health Organization, international research programmes and vaccination programmes the need, now more than ever, for international cooperation while respecting national structures.

UWN: Do you see the UN Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs as the means to rebalance that? A framework for making globalisation fair and inclusive?

Stückelberger: Yes, absolutely. They are a framework of values, of equality, freedom, participation, inclusion and an agreement between nations that we want to work for this. So Globalance, as an ethics framework, and the SDGs are compatible and aim at the same holistic human development.

The SDGs are an improvement on their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals or MDGs, because they are more operational, more broken down into sub-targets, measurable targets and methodology to measure progress in that.

In terms of political will to implement them, there is a similar problem as with the MDGs. They are better because they are much more detailed and precise and the methods are more established with new monitoring mechanisms, but the big challenge is the political will to really get behind them.

Another difference is that the whole process of developing SDGs was much more inclusive and in that sense more stakeholders really own them. We shouldn’t be disappointed if we do not reach them all. They still unite humanity around a common vision. They are an empowering and uniting instrument.

UWN: Of course education has a key role to play in achievement of the SDGs but how are education and higher education in particular preventing the achievement of Globalance currently and how are they contributing – and can they contribute more?

Stückelberger: That is a very important question. The philosophy of globalisation means we should look at holistic education. Should we be educating people on the one hand to be specialists in their field? Or should we take a holistic approach that means including ethical, political aspects and balance values and virtues. That would mean education is not just about teaching knowledge; it is very much character education.

Knowledge we know can be learned online, it can be self-learned in many ways, but to become a personality with character and integrity is very much needed. We have too many intellectuals and graduates who morally are crooks and that is not helping humanity.

I have told my four sons you can be an employer, a worker, a craftsman, a farmer, an academic, but whatever it is, do it with integrity. That is a deep conviction. I prefer a farmer with integrity than a PhD graduate who is a crook, a thief or a hacker doing a lot of harm. That is a holistic view of education.

The second thing we need to do is to find a new balance between higher education and vocational training.

I see in developing countries, as in developed countries, a one-sided emphasis on tertiary education, which cannot be the answer. We have millions of unemployed graduates.

In Switzerland we are proud to have a system where higher education was always balanced with vocational training, which is a strong programme. We have been criticised for not having 89% graduates like in France – we have maybe 40%, much lower than in most European countries. But we have a much higher degree of highly skilled young people with vocational training. And we are number one in the global innovation rankings (ahead of Sweden, the US, UK and the Netherlands in the top five).

Analysis shows innovation is not an issue of having 80% graduates. It requires the right balance between university skills, vocational skills, organisational skills and the state of the innovation environment, among other things. This is what makes innovation, not having lots of people with degrees and out of work.

It may be a strange thing to argue for on UWN and not popular – in Nigeria I proposed that churches run a national campaign of giving skills training to farmers, but parents don’t want to send their children to be educated to become farmers or mechanics or to have vocational training; they all want to send them to university – but it is part of holistic thinking. It means looking at the relationship between higher education and society’s needs.

The other important aspect about ‘Globalance’ and higher education is more on the level of values. Education wants to empower people to take their lives into their own hands, become independent, earn an income, build a family, stand on their own two feet. That is very important.

But if higher education leads to the message that you are the excellent person, outstanding, one of the best, and that is not linked to values, then we have all kinds of ethical problems. You try to use unethical means, you cheat, you plagiarise, you bribe, you get marks for sex and as long as you get the exam results, you think that is all justified.

So my message is that ethics in higher education means you have to balance high knowledge and skills with high integrity. Empowerment has to be balanced with responsibility. Without that, you create more injustice and crooks.

I see too many graduates who are morally below what we have to expect from university graduates. We need empowerment, self-confident young graduates, but we must develop a parallel desire to serve society, give back to society, not only be self-interested, but use skills and knowledge from higher education for the benefit of society.

In a ‘Globalanced’ world higher education is crucial because most leaders in society go at one point into the higher education system and that is where they need to learn how to become a responsible leader.

I have had the privilege of travelling around the world to teach on all continents. When I enter universities and enter the main hall and see the values of universities, all want to be excellent, the first and best, but excellence in what? Excellency should be sought not only in skills and knowledge but in integrity.

In India, China, South America and Europe, I asked university leaders what their programme was for excellency in moral integrity, and not just for students but for teachers too, because in reality lack of integrity is as widespread among teaching and administrative staff as it is among students.

UWN: Looking back over recent years, the shift to nationalism seems driven by fear and anger and its effect seems to be a falling back on atavism, a falling away of adherence to many of the values that have been strengthened over the past 50 years through international norms and collaboration. What is the relationship between higher education and that falling away?

Stückelberger: COVID-19 is shaking education and we can use it to reflect on what the ultimate goal of education is. I am of course in favour of empowerment. Education should empower young people to be creative, active, but it must be balanced with integrity and responsibility and benefits for society. Teaching that you are the best and should do what you can to serve self was common in business schools until the financial crisis, when they were heavily criticised.

People wanted answers; they wanted to know what kind of thieves did you train in your business schools that they can engineer the breakdown of the whole financial system and then the public had to repair what you destroyed? That was a shock that jolted business schools and led to some reintroducing ethics as a core subject. That was a lesson learned, but it has not been learned enough.

COVID-19 is a second such shock, where you can see that when you have political leaders who think only of themselves, they aggravate the pandemic. Only leaders who can think of the whole benefit to society are good leaders and successful business people. To be a balanced business or university is in the medium-term a more successful strategy. That is proven in many studies. It is not just a nice idea from ethicists; it is a hard-core concept for successful, peaceful and sustainable societies.

UWN: It is interesting that you raise higher education’s role in developing integrity, as in recent years or rather political campaigns populist leaders have called into question the validity of expert opinion, suggesting you can’t trust what they say or even saying ‘we have had enough of experts’, as one Brexit leader did, or even calling into question the usefulness of facts.

Stückelberger: I have a chapter on the media where I deal with this last question, but it can also be addressed regarding higher education. I think the criticism of experts is one of the tactics of populism to mobilise people against people who have higher education. But it shows exactly the importance of integrity in terms of intellectual integrity of academics.

We need people who are not opportunist and write what the government wants but what in their analysis is true or based on facts and figures and values. So I think an important role of academics in higher education is to train and encourage students who are future leaders to be precise in their analysis and committed to the truth. That is one reason why plagiarism is not acceptable. I think it comes back to ethical values.

The commitment to intellectual honesty and integrity needs the virtue of courage and needs humility and needs the readiness of sacrifice and these are heavy words I use and they look like moral words. But I think I can really say this based on many trainings with university professors to strengthen them in their moral consciousness, because when you are risking losing your job or, more commonly, not being upgraded to full professor, you may make compromises to get to the next level of recognition.

That means that many academic teachers are [pressed] to sell their soul, to sacrifice intellectual honesty. And that is a serious problem and if it is a case of surviving in your job, it is difficult. But what you say is a very key topic. The credibility of higher education is heavily undermined by lack of integrity, just as it can be by sexual harassment and power games.

UWN: You mention the goal of achieving peaceful societies, but currently we are seeing a lot of unrest, especially recently to do with the Black Lives Matter protests against police violence and systematic racism. Do you address that in the book and what should be higher education’s response?

Stückelberger: Black Lives Matter is only briefly addressed, as it broke into the news when I was almost at the end of writing it. But indirectly I discuss the issue of fairness and empowerment and overcoming all the isms, which includes racism, fascism, nationalism; there is a whole chapter on that. Black Lives Matter is an answer to the isms of white superiority and capitalism without fairness, nationalism and others. The Black Lives Matter movement is not all saint, but it is an expression of this polarisation on a cultural, racial and economic level.

It again shows the importance of holistic thinking and Globalance. You cannot just take decisions for your own re-election or increasing power as a company if you are not thinking of the whole of society. You can only succeed in the long term if you are inclusive.

One of the key elements in that is the precondition of respect for human and non-human life . And that’s why I end the whole book with a chapter on love. That sounds soft but it is at the core of the book, which means we need to develop an attitude of respect for the other and ourselves and loving each other is a golden rule of mutual respect.

That is why Globalance can also be a contribution to overcoming this kind of polarisation which leads to this kind of violence, which is not out of the blue but the result of existing polarisation.

UWN: But shouldn’t universities be taking a lead on that? Yet when you look around at university leaderships, you see a distinct lack of black university leaders and women university leaders by comparison with white men and a general imbalance compared to the make-up of society in senior posts in research as well as management.

Stückelberger: You are correct, that Globalance would lead to balanced leadership in universities at different levels up to the board. What we say about white dominance in the US and in other countries we can also say about ethnic dominance in other countries, where for example the vice-chancellor is always from the same ethnic group which provokes similar reaction but along ethnic, cultural and language lines.

So I think it is a warning to say, yes, being inclusive is a condition for peaceful development and for economically viable situations, because countries where you have universities closed for months because teachers are on strike, or because of serious problems of payment or unfair treatment of ethnic groups, these are all severe economic costs for a country.

That is why Globalance is not just a nice idealist moral concept. It has economic benefits – and I say that as someone who studied business ethics as a core subject – and the political benefits of stability.