The Ethical Regimes Necessary to an 'Idea' of a University' in a More Global Era
Published on: Oct 10, 2006

I am researching the identity, potential and capacity of research-intensive universities, including their scope for autonomous strategy making. Within the discussion of ‘values and ethics in higher education’, my interest lies in the question of what might be the ethical constituents of the ‘Idea of a University’ in this more global era. It is research-intensive universities, rather than all institutions, that I will discuss here. The paper goes back to first principles and discusses the question in four steps. First, it nominates two ethical regimes seen as essential to the self-determining institutional personality of universities. Second, it locates the governance necessary to those ethical regimes. Third, the impact of globalization on the problem. Globalization has expanded the potential for the goods that universities effect, particularly the global public goods of knowledge and of human association via education. At the same time globalization has partly disembedded universities from regulation by nation-states, in that they deal directly with each other across national borders and have more plural sources of funds. Finally, the implications of these global changes for the governance of the ethical regimes at the heart of the University.

Two ethical regimes

Research universities are many things and they vary across the world, but what makes them socially distinctive is that they are self-reproducing knowledge-forming organisations. Universities have multiple and diverse activities, connections, obligations and stakeholders. Notions of ‘public good’ and democracy in higher education, of the proper economic role of the sector and of the balance between public and private interests, vary greatly around the world. There is some convergence, but there is no foreseeable prospect of consensus in these areas across the nations and no possibility of a comprehensive set of common values. A universal claim about the good served by higher education, proposed as a worldwide model, is cultural imperialism by another name. This becomes more obvious when we move from Western Europe and North America, where the traditions are fairly similar, to East and Southeast Asia which are emerging as zones of world importance in higher education. Most values and ethical regimes are situationally nested and highly relative. Even within each nation, personnel practice an enormous range of values and ethical regimes, subject to continuous change, a range that varies by type of institution, discipline, profession of training, and the preferences of the diverse individuals and groups themselves. If universities attempt agreement on a comprehensive set of values and ethics, constraining this internal diversity, they would inhibit internal intellectual freedoms or fly apart amid competing claims about the good.

Yet people from universities all over the world also readily find common ground, particularly in science, and to a lesser extent in university management. So what holds all of this together? What is it that universities share? What is it that a multilateral gathering like this, acting in common, might seek to enhance?

As I see it, two domains of practice are essential to research universities as knowledge-forming organizations. All research universities must embody these domains to at least some extent, to fulfil their functions. The two domains are:

  • The domain of communicative association;
  • The domain of secular intellectual practices

By the domain of communicative association, a notion that owes something to Jurgen Habermas and to Craig Calhoun’s reading of Habermas, I mean the zone of liberal human conduct: the right to speak, dialogue on the basis of honesty and mutual respect; and relations within and between universities grounded in solidarity, compassion, cosmopolitan tolerance, empathy for the other.

In the domain of secular intellectual practices, a more precise way of saying ‘academic freedom’, I include support for, and freedom for and of, the practices integral to productive intellectual activity, such as curiosity, inquiry, observation, reasoning, explanation, criticising and imagining; and the free and open exchange of ideas and knowledge.

The domain of communicative association provides conditions necessary for the domain of secular intellectual practices. Arguably, it is in this second domain, in which new knowledge is formed, that we find the ultimate heart of the contemporary ‘Idea of a University’. In forming knowledge we remember what we know, and we think of something new, which is the thing that scholars and researchers seek. To develop something new requires (1) an independent intellectual identity, (2) the capacity for the epistemological break (a process vectored by criticising and imagining) and (3) the capacity to express and to systematise that something new. Without the domain of secular intellectual practices universities are no different to other educational institutions, such as schools and vocational institutes.

This suggests that within universities, the essential organisational objective should be to protect and enhance the domain of intellectual practices, located as it is in the different fields of inquiry. And from the broader viewpoint of policy, it suggests that research universities will maximise their social, economic and cultural contribution to the extent that human association within and between them is free, open and inclusive, and able to accommodate difference, not just on the national scale but the world-wide scale; and also the extent to which academic practices, are free, independent and robust. Once first mover advantage has expired knowledge becomes non rivalrous and non exclusive, a classical public good. As we know commercially controlled research, to the extent that it constraints the flow of knowledge or distorts the truth, inhibits the University. This does not mean that there should be no commercial funding, or no hiring out of university facilities to commercial research, but such activities should be firmly separated from the terrain of academic freedom and basic research. For the optimum functioning of secular intellectual practices, first mover advantage should be confined to the status benefits accruing to the discoverer. And in 99% of global research and scholarship this is the case and will continue to be so.

So where does ethics fit into this? The core ethical components of the research university are the ethical regimes necessary to advance and protect these two essential domains of practice: the ethical regimes – the codes of conduct and their governance and regulation - guaranteeing civilised communicative association, and academic (intellectual) freedom. The more rigorous the practice of these two ethical regimes, the more these essential domains will be advanced, and the better the Idea of the University and its many contributions are served.

The governance of these ethical regimes

These regimes can only work successfully when they are normally practised on the basis of self-responsibility as reflexive conduct. But there is potential for conduct to fall short of requirements, and for tensions within and between the domains, for example researchers may enter into free associations with commercial companies that inhibit the mobility of research findings or doctoral theses. So how are these regimes of conduct to be governed and regulated?

Here there are three possible candidates: the nation-state, the professoriate, and the executive leadership of the university. The agent that takes this responsibility must be sufficiently robust to protect the university against external threats, sufficiently understanding of the character of academic discovery across the range of disciplines, and able to be held to account as the guarantor of the two ethical regimes framing communicative association and academic freedom.

In his 2003 book Universities in the Marketplace Derek Bok wrestles with this problem. After a long discussion of the dilemmas of commercialisation in research, with several examples of the cooption of faculty by drug companies and the perversion of intellectual integrity and intellectual exchange, Bok concludes the academic mission of American doctoral universities is in jeopardy. He sees university presidents as caught between two conflicting responsibilities: the need to augment economic relevance and revenues, and the need to safeguard the academic mission and free inquiry. He finally concludes that only the faculty can effectively defend the domain of secular intellectual practice. But by then, Bok’s book has already shown that the faculty is not robust enough to play this role in the face of powerful corporate interests. In conditions of economic and institutional weakness, unaided individual faculty will continue to be bought.

Faculty support for academic freedom and honesty in research remains crucial but by itself this is not strong enough to uphold the two domains. The trend everywhere is to professionalised administration. Though faculty remains a player in academic governance, particularly at unit level, at institution level budgetary and strategic control has shifted from professors to executive managers. In addition, the faculty is at least as motivated by the different ethical regimes within the disciplines and professions, as by the general principles of communicative association and intellectual freedom. The ethics of a business school are different to a physics department. They have some common conditions but do not always acknowledge it.

Nor is government able to guarantee communicative association and academic freedom. It is too remote and clumsy, it has too many other agendas and interests to serve, and too often it has breached these same principles. We can demand that government support university autonomy but not make it the final arbiter.

That leaves the executive leadership of universities. And I believe that in a more corporate era, where the institutional personality of the University is more significant than before, and essential to sustaining it within a web of external engagements, Ethical Institutional Leadership steps onto stage front. It becomes the crucial element. The executive is more robust than the faculty at the level of the institution; more connected and instrumental than the board of trustees; more sensitive, and potentially more accountable from below, than is government. The bottom line is that the executive must become the guarantor of communicative association and intellectual freedom, because only the executive can do it.

Many will disagree. My suggestion does not pander to sentiments about wise faculty, bumbling managers and the heroic resistance of the collegium against an abstracted administration. I have no illusions. I know that the executive is not always right; and that it can be a source of the very infringements under discussion. Faced with a choice between research revenues from privatising a medical breakthrough, and the global public good gained by disclosing the results, some executives will choose the former. But it does not have to be so, and I can see no alternative agent. Leadership is tough but at least some of its dilemmas can be solved. As John Kenneth Galbraith once said, ‘politics is not the art of the possible. It consists of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable’. To forgo the private revenues from the medical breakthrough would be unpalatable. To block the global public good would be a disaster.

I should emphasise however that for the university executive to be sensitive to the conditions of intellectual practice, the ethical regimes should normally be self-regulating not continuously directed from above, and rectors, presidents and vice-chancellors should normally come from the faculty ranks.

Globalization and the Idea of a University

Now let’s bring globalization properly into the picture. By ‘globalization’ I mean simply ‘the widening, deepening and speeding up of world wide interconnectedness’, as David Held and his collaborators put it in their fecund book Global Transformations (1999, p. 2). Of the many implications of globalization for higher education, three are pertinent to this paper.

First, globalization is associated with a remarkable enhancement of the contribution of communicative human association and intellectual freedom to public knowledge goods – explosive growth in research collaboration and worldwide publication, in cross-border collaboration and in the mobility of faculty and students between national systems. Ideas move at lightening speed to every part of the world. Global knowledge transfers are at the heart of social and economic innovation and a more diverse set of cultural encounters. The benefits of those core ethical regimes that uphold the University are enhanced. The free movement and exchange of ideas, knowledge and people on the basis of openness and access; and the intellectual processes of curiosity, inquiry, observation, reasoning, explanation, criticising and imagining; are at the same time essential global public goods in their own right, collective goods that we all hold in common; and they are also conditions for the creation of a range of many more situated public and private goods in the different parts of the world.

In this way globalization has entrenched the ethical constituents of the research university. And this is furthered by those actions of individual universities and their staff, those policies and regulations of national government, and those programs of international organizations that enhance cross-border mobility. This includes systems and protocols that improve cross-border recognition and mobility such as the Washington Accords in Engineering, the Bologna Declaration’s higher education space; and the cross-border movement of doctoral students, postdocs and others, and joint research projects. Likewise globalization highlights the need for reforms in and between national systems that will better facilitate communicative association and intellectual freedoms.

Second, it is not all so rosy, especially if you are based in a university in a developing nation, and in a non-English-speaking country. Global exchange is by no means symmetrical between universities in the different nations. It tends to be dominated by the stronger national systems, and particularly by the English-speaking nations, above all by institutions from the USA. Net brain drain is an issue in most nations and a serious difficulty for poorer developing countries. Research and scholarship that originates in languages other than English is largely excluded from the common global conversation in English. The exclusion is compounded by the fact that approximately ten times as many books are translated from English to other languages, as are translated from other languages into English and so made broadly accessible. These limitations place in question the values of mutuality and equality of respect integral to both communicative association in general and to secular intellectuality in particular.

Third, globalization is also associated with the partial ‘disembedding’ of research universities from their national and national governmental contexts. This is happening in several ways. One relates to funding. In some though not all countries, universities draw on not just domestic students but foreign students as a source of income. For example in Australia 15 per cent of university revenues are provided in this manner, in the UK 10 per cent. Likewise many universities seek research funding from extra-national sources. A second area is offshore operations, in both face-to-face and virtual modes. Here universities are operating in the jurisdiction of another nation. Both the original nation, and the nation in which they are operating, have limited control over their activities so that they start to look more like self-serving multinational companies. A third area is accreditation. An increasing number of institutions seek accreditation to operate on the terrain of other nations. In all these examples the sphere of operation of the individual institution is no longer congruent with the policy and regulatory space controlled by national government.

Implications of Globalization for the Governance of Ethical Regimes

So what then are the implications of globalization for the governance of the core ethical regimes that I have argued are at the heart of the idea of a University?

First, globalization and partial disembedding from the national context enhance the role of the executive which manages much of the global strategy. University autonomy and identity are enhanced on one hand in relation to government, on the other hand in relation to faculties and disciplines. This argument should not be pushed too far. All universities are affected by official funding, some remain tethered to government, and in most the disciplines operate across borders with a good deal of autonomy. But the trend is unmistakable. The more the growth of activities in the global sphere, the more the potential for ‘disembedding’, and the more the accumulation of corporate weight and executive activity, in turn creating more space for global activities. The tendencies are self-reinforcing.

Second, in the global environment there are new issues that turn on cultural diversity. Issues of cultural identity are mostly on the margins of national policy, but they are the building blocks of global relations that are designed to enhance communicative association and the broad, inclusive organization of intellectual work and publishing. The weakening of cultural diversity in intellectual life subtracts from the common global good and the potential for more such good in future. This suggests the need to enhance multi-lingual publishing and translation and for English-language nations in particular to fund the sending of many more students and faculty into non English-speaking environments. 

Third, a number of present and future issues turn on blockages to the cross-border mobility of people, messages, ideas and technologies. Like the loss of cultural diversity, breaches of academic freedom and the conditions of communicative association in particular nations subtract from the global public good of all nations and universities. This suggests for example:

So what then are the implications of globalization for the governance of the core ethical regimes that I have argued are at the heart of the idea of a University?

First, globalization and partial disembedding from the national context enhance the role of the executive which manages much of the global strategy. University autonomy and identity are enhanced on one hand in relation to government, on the other hand in relation to faculties and disciplines. This argument should not be pushed too far. All universities are affected by official funding, some remain tethered to government, and in most the disciplines operate across borders with a good deal of autonomy. But the trend is unmistakable. The more the growth of activities in the global sphere, the more the potential for ‘disembedding’, and the more the accumulation of corporate weight and executive activity, in turn creating more space for global activities. The tendencies are self-reinforcing.

Second, in the global environment there are new issues that turn on cultural diversity. Issues of cultural identity are mostly on the margins of national policy, but they are the building blocks of global relations that are designed to enhance communicative association and the broad, inclusive organization of intellectual work and publishing. The weakening of cultural diversity in intellectual life subtracts from the common global good and the potential for more such good in future. This suggests the need to enhance multi-lingual publishing and translation and for English-language nations in particular to fund the sending of many more students and faculty into non English-speaking environments. 

Third, a number of present and future issues turn on blockages to the cross-border mobility of people, messages, ideas and technologies. Like the loss of cultural diversity, breaches of academic freedom and the conditions of communicative association in particular nations subtract from the global public good of all nations and universities. This suggests for example:

  • The need to highlight and where necessary campaign across borders against infringements of freedom of association and intellectual creation, at the hands of both governments and commercial companies;
  • The need to better protect the social and economic security of the staff and students of higher education institutions who have crossed borders and so forgone some of the practical rights of citizens on their own terrain, without gaining the protections afforded to citizens in the foreign nation. This issue can be addressed in both bilateral and multilateral forums;
  • The need to highlight the negative effects of national government interference with the free operations of the Internet;
  • The need for foreign aid facilitating the extension of Internet infrastructure (with its plethora of free knowledge goods) in developing nations.

In concluding, I suggest there are fruitful prospects for a global organization dedicated to enhancing of academic association, exchange and freedom within and between nations, in higher education and scientific research. The essential premise of such an organization is that we all gain from the enhancement of these freedoms. Here it is easy to demonstrate that academic freedom is a more clear-cut common global good than is the freedom to trade, which has been considered worthy of its own multilateral organization, the WTO. However in higher education a multilateral approach based on governments seems less appropriate. After all nation-states are the agents most likely to infringe the core conditions. This, together with the tendency to ‘disembedding’, suggests it would be better if such a global organization was based primarily on institutional and individual members, including associations of universities.