8 June 2011

Are universities just another big business – committed to fiscal rewards rather than intellectual aspirations? The Vice Chancellor of Macquarie University (Sydney) seems to be of that view. According to a report in Australian media, he considers that universities, with an eye to profits, are “losing sight of their ethical function”. A focus on making money rather than benefiting society has led to an erosion of public trust. He appears disillusioned; “Education is, or should be, a moral enterprise”.

“The purpose of university research was the discovery and dissemination of knowledge for the benefit of society”.  He illustrates this with the ethics underpinning the work of Jonas Salk, the university researcher who developed the polio vaccine in the 1950s. The drug was effective and Salk gained recognition. But he did not become rich because the University of Pittsburgh, despite being a private university, licensed the vaccine to anyone who wanted to manufacture it.

New Zealand universities are Crown Entities – their staff are State sector employees. The Cabinet Manual integrity obligation applies equally to them. “Employees in the state sector must act with a spirit of service to the community and meet high standards of integrity and conduct in everything they do. In particular, employees must be fair, impartial, responsible, and trustworthy.” In all other parts of the State sector there are tight constraints on secondary employment. Prior consent of the employing agency is necessary, and potential conflicts must be carefully managed. Universities by contrast, appear not only accepting of secondary employment directly relating to an academic’s specialty but seem to encourage the exposure it brings. The environment seems shaped around the profit motive, not the simple, ethical premise that drove Salk’s work.