Seeing university reform through an ethical lens

Mar 6, 2023
Smart Young People Study.

The current review of Australia’s higher education sector, the Australian Universities Accord (the Accord), aims to drive lasting and transformative reform in Australia’s higher education system’. We propose that this review be undertaken through an ethical lens.

Beside the ethical responsibilities of academics for teaching and research, and the expectation that students will behave ethically, the ethical aspects of the way universities are organised and managed deserves critical appraisal. Why should universities not use a moral compass to guide their organisations?

If higher education in Australia is examined through an ethical lens, several major problems come into focus.

Taking as criteria the four ethical principles long applied to healthcare, which shares with education and research an intimate connection to society, we argue that there are serious gaps between these principles and current practice in higher education. We indicate examples of where the current higher education system fails to honour them. We also offer examples of solutions to improve the ethical behaviour of universities as organisations.

Doing good

Universities have become competitive businesses in many respects. Academics and support staff working in universities generally want the best for their students and for the results of their research to make the world a better place. But their efforts are frustrated where the business of the university takes pre-eminence over societal need.

But despite the clash between business and academic imperatives, universities can, and some do, contribute to the public good, embrace social innovation, contribute to society, and transform neighbourhoods, cities, regions, and nations.

In recognition of these possibilities, the concept of University Social Responsibility (USR) has evolved. The business world is adopting principles of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), although there are differences between what businesses and universities see as their social responsibility.

As a recommendation of the Accord, universities could be asked to publish clear statements of intended social good. If the guiding principles of USR are accepted, what actions do they inform?

Doing no harm

Huge changes are occurring in higher education due to the possibilities opening up with advances in information technology. These may assist universities in many ways, including to have a lower carbon footprint. At present universities have a high carbon footprint from buildings and travel – but there are alternatives.

Among 15 higher education institutions examined in the UK, distance-based education models were associated with an 83% reduction in carbon emissions. In a partnership with a UK University, 128 students enrolled in a fully online master’s programme from 70 cities in 30 countries, mostly African. Rather than students travelling to and studying in the UK, study online was estimated to have saved nearly a million Kg of CO2, and the programme was judged to have led to a number of successful outcomes. As Bob Douglas has argued in these columns, rapid transformative action on major threats including climate change is both necessary and possible. We argue that university reform should be seriously committed to a response to climate change. A pivot to the distributed university, in which education takes place mainly online and in regional hubs, would lead to major reductions in carbon emissions.

A distributed university does not rule out the intangible benefit of face-to-face contact traditionally part of university life. More effective ways of achieving knowledge transfer than the lecture hall are now readily available. Regional University Centres offer examples of the potential of taking education to the people through regional hubs, such as the Country Universities Centre Balonne which serves the rural Queensland populations of St George and tiny Dirranbandi.

Reduction in large, centralised university campuses and the need to travel would have many advantages for the environment. In addition it would unlock other possibilities for educational reform by expanding the reach of the educational offering. For example, collaborations in global research and education using modern communications technology become real possibilities.

Adopting digital educational technology as the foundation rather than an add-on for course delivery is one way forward.

Deriving principally from the business model, surveillance managerialism has proliferated. It imposes a heavy burden of monitoring and reporting on staff and is a major stress to academics. Coupled with the excessive and sometimes exploitative use of contract teaching in the pursuit of the business model, it can cause harm and should be reassessed.

Respecting autonomy

A declaration by the Global Forum on Academic Freedom, Institutional Autonomy, and the Future of Democracy includes the statement that: ‘Academic freedom and institutional autonomy are essential to furthering the quality of learning, teaching, and research…’

In ensuring that Australian universities’ practices are consistent with the principles outlined in the Declaration, the tightness of government control over universities and the compact between governments and universities should be reviewed.

Academic autonomy should be respected, and surveillance managerialism should give way to collegiality and trust. Academics should be empowered to take responsibility for the development, delivery, and evaluation of their courses and for the direction of their research.

Buttoning down courses for students that allow little choice and flexibility can ruin critical thinking: allowing learning by making mistakes is lost. Instead, learner autonomy should be encouraged.


Regional and social inequalities in access to higher education remain even within Australia.

In 2018 UNESCO reported the Gross Enrolment Ratio (enrolment regardless of age as a percentage of the population who are in the five-year age group immediately following secondary school graduation) for different countries:

Australia 77%,

East and South-east Asia 45%

Sub-Saharan Africa 9%.

But global inequalities in access to higher education such as these are largely ignored. Instead, income earned from international students from countries with low enrolment ratios, who nevertheless can afford the fees, cross-subsidises research and teaching in Australian Universities.

Inadequate funding of research infrastructure in Australia is used to justify this questionable practice. It enables Australia to ‘punch above its weight’ in international comparisons of research activity. This is not remedied by offering a few token scholarships.

Instead, Australian universities might consider supporting a regional network for global online learning offered at low cost to make it affordable to those in need. The network would include universities in the Global South and so contribute to institutional capacity-building. This would avoid the charge of colonisation of education. One idea might be to create a scheme of ‘EduOffsets’, the educational equivalent of carbon offsets. Universities would offer one at-cost place on an online course to ‘offset’ the income they gain from each international student on campus.

In conclusion

Higher education participates as a force in society and hence is subject to its ethics. The Accord should therefore interrogate the sector as to its commitment to basic ethical principles.

Universities should not only ensure that the practices of their staff and students are ethical with regard to their interactions and research integrity, but that their organisations are also following ethical principles. Universities are able to be ranked according to their ethical approach to students and academic staff. A similar approach might be developed for the ethics and moral compass of the organisation itself. The Accord should draw attention to these concerns and encourage practical ways to achieve ethical higher education in Australia.

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