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Mainstreaming ethics and anti-corruption in higher education: the Poznan Declaration

In this blog, Marcus Tannenberg from the Quality of Government Institute presents the “Poznan Declaration”, a declaration aiming at mainstreaming ethics and anti-corruption throughout higher education.

In the United Nations Convention against Corruption, university curricula that contribute to a “non-tolerance of corruption” are promoted as one component in a multi-system approach to anti-corruption. Yet, even as corruption is increasingly considered to be one of the major obstacles for meaningful democracy, economic wealth and human well-being, such components are rarely seen.

This realization, in combination with the concern for both the financial and health related consequences of corruption, spurred the idea of an initiative aimed at mainstreaming ethics and anti-corruption in higher education. Embodying this, The Poznan Declaration was endorsed by the 68 member universities of Compostela Group of Universities and subsequently by the World University Consortium, the World Academy of Art and Science, and most recently also by Transparency International. The Declaration provides an argument for higher education in joining governments, business and civil society in the global fight against corruption – and it is high time to do so.

Despite a relative widespread implementation of anti-corruption reforms and institutional solutions, significant changes in corruption levels are relatively sparse and often require long time periods. In other words, it is a sticky issue.  For a successful approach to preventing corruption and its detrimental consequences, it is likely that, in addition to punitive and institutional measures, we also need to understand and challenge the root causes of corrupt, illegal or anti-social behavior.

In higher education the curricula typically lack components that would contribute to a non-tolerance of such conducts. On the contrary, norms of deception and narrow self-interests prevail at many universities, and these values follow students into their working-life. Recently, a group of Swiss economists confirmed popular belief, in an article in Nature, when finding that dishonesty is part of bankers’ professional identities. Arguably the main issue is the values systems already in place, in this case in the financial sector, but if universities could contribute to creating professional identities resilient to corrupt and unethical behavior, these systems may be affected and such behavior, hopefully, reduced.

It is not only of interest to get bankers on track. For example, engineers are often central in public procurement, political scientist and economists will likely face issues of conflicting interests and lobbying in their working life, doctors may be approached to promote certain drugs over others, etc., these are all areas that warrants for ethical consideration.

The substantial endorsements for the Poznan Declaration reflect that there are good reasons for higher education to take on these challenges. But even as support is ample, there are difficulties connected to implementation. For example, because of the independent nature of academia, reaching university management will not suffice. Taking this into account, the goal is not to deliver a ready-made package, but rather to inspire educators, so that they themselves can integrate ethics and anti-corruption how, and if, they see fit.

That said, there are synergies to be found, and reinventing the wheel makes little sense. In cooperation with several university networks as well as with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s Anti-Corruption Academic Initiative (ACAD), we aim to facilitate exchange of curricula and best-practice sharing between educators.  While congestion is an argument against adding components to the curricula, there are complementary effects, and it should also be highlighted that we have largely succeeded in mainstreaming a concern for environmental issues. The same can be done when it comes to a non-tolerance for corruption.

Furthermore, there is a good business case for mainstreaming ethics and anti-corruption in higher education. Governments, businesses and civil society alike are increasingly in demand of graduates, capable of solving ethical dilemmas and critical thinking. Supply is lagging behind.

To make sure that the teaching does not fall on deaf ears, universities must ensure that their own policies for degree awarding, hiring and promotion are based on legitimate, transparent and objective criteria. Thus, the Poznan Declaration is aimed at rooting out corrupt and unethical practices not only in society-at-large, but also within universities – it includes cleaning our own back yards.

A first, yet effective, step to implementing the ideas of the Poznan Declaration is to simply talk about it: which ethical dilemmas do we face in our educational setting, and which are we likely to face in future professional careers? Such discussions can help both faculty and students to identify and respond to ethical issues, and help to create resilient professional identities, that may in turn contribute to better societal outcomes.   

* Marcus Tannenberg is a project coordinator at The Quality of Government Institute at the University of Gothenburg. He authored the Poznan Declaration in cooperation with professors Bo Rothstein and Lennart Levi, and is now working on its implementation together with The Compostela Group of Universities.

Author : Marcus Tannenberg

13 Jan 2015

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