Ethics also Matter in Higher Education

Academics should revisit their values and ethical standards where it is necessary to do so and remind themselves that they are not masons merely cutting stones but building a cathedral of learning for our society

Last year when the University of Mauritius (UOM) celebrated its 50th anniversary, it was with pride that the people evoked the history of the university. It was recalled that it was a calculated risk and over the years the achievements of the University have surpassed expectations. In the last few weeks, the UOM has caught the attention of the public on account of certain alleged malpractices. Many will deny there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the University, but, then, if everything is so well, why does everybody feel so bad on the campus?

One can debate about the causes of certain malaise which permeates the Réduit campus and come up with a long list of solutions and, indeed, there are numerous issues to attend to. But we all know too well that no institution can tackle all the problems all at once. Prioritizing is essential and changes should be incremental. People may come with their own priorities but, in our opinion, one important disease that has been gnawing at the credibility of the university is unethical behaviour which has been undermining the mission of the institution to provide quality teaching and research to students and society.

Right from the outset, one has to be fair to the group of academics who are dedicated to their teaching and research and would never, out of good principle, accept to do extra teaching. For them, teaching is an ethical undertaking and this is duly recognized by their students and fellow colleagues. There is also a good majority who adhere faithfully and honestly to the mission of the University, and may occasionally take up one or two modules of excess teaching or feel even compelled to do so because of bad programme planning at the level the School, in other words, to cope with programme mounted without even planning for the necessary and appropriate human resources.

There is another group which runs after excess teaching modules for what may appear to be very cupid reasons. Students have allegedly remarked that these mask their inability to cope with classes by unofficially recruiting teaching assistants as guest lecturers. If such practices are true, then there is great cause for concern. In all fairness, one should remember that abuse of excess teaching is not new phenomenon at the University of Mauritius. In the past, it is well known that lecturers have been cashing between one quarter to half a million rupees on excess teaching.

Anyway there was never a golden age at the University of Mauritius as far as ethics are concerned and this applies to a few other institutions as well. It is unnecessary to go and rake up the past, but it suffices to know that the first Vice Chancellor of the University of Mauritius preferred to resign rather than stand up to unethical machinations.

One of the baleful consequences of excess teaching is that the quality of teaching has declined and a culture of quality research across the University has been so far elusive, notwithstanding the fact that there are some excellent researchers on the campus who are the pride of the UOM. Reports of examiners year after year are replete with comments that students cannot do their best in project work because of lack of new equipment or that examination scripts reflect an absence of critical thinking. There are also comments which laud academics for work well done. Obviously not all the criticisms should be laid at the door of academics, for the administration at different levels must also share some of the blame.

What is most disturbing is that classes continue to grow in size making impossible for academics to provide students with a stimulating environment conducive to critical thinking and understanding. One can lecture to 100 or even 1000 students but teaching and learning take place for the majority of full-time students while interacting with their lecturers, in discussions, with proper feedback for assignments and in developing and encouraging critical thinking and in challenging conventional ideas.

In the end, the inflation of programmes, the recruitment of students below the standard that is minimally necessary for them to benefit from a particular programme, has resulted in a high percentage of failure while Heads of Departments and Boards of Examiners prefer to resort to the magic wand of reducing the failure rate to the minimum to avoid further scrutiny at the level of the Senate.

The University is unwilling to fail a high number of students who do not make the grade in the third year or to make them repeat the year. There are both economic and perhaps humanitarian reasons for this and also an unwillingness to admit that certain policies are not working. Even if there were a policy not to fail in the third year, then a rigorous examination at the end of the first year should have provided a general indication of whether students should move to the second year or register for a different course.

The absence of such flexibility during the introductory year means those students automatically and effortlessly move from year to year. They shirk classes, do little work and earn a degree which is justifiably castigated by employers. Worse, the failings of a few departments tarnish the achievements of other hardworking and brilliant students.

In a university where a number of lecturers are exemplary whether by way of teaching or research, where the majority do a honest piece of work, it is sad that a few dozens, even if it includes a few of the best researchers, have decided to teach outside the University in other public and private institutions. Instead of further enhancing teaching and their own research, they use this precious time for private institutions and prevent the latter from building their own teaching capacity. It is true that part-time teaching has been an established practice by academics from the University of Mauritius since there have been in the past a few collaborative programmes with the MIE, the UTM, the MCA and the MGI.

The University administration had been wrong in importing a money-grabbing culture which pervades the whole of Mauritian society and, recently, this practice has reached the limit of tolerance. In one private institution it is being reported that for some full-time courses, crash lectures are delivered for a week or two by foreign lecturers and students are left on their own for the remaining weeks until another batch of lecturers make their appearance. If this is true, the courses look more like distance or blended courses and not the full-time courses that students expect and pay for. Obviously, there will never be a shortage of reasons to justify the unjustifiable.

It is now clear that unethical practices can no longer be perpetuated and action taken by the University of Mauritius will have a positive impact on higher education in general. We have learnt from experience that when implementing the grand strategy for the university from the top, one should not lose sight that such a strategy, to be operational, will depend on tactical operations on the ground which is where battles are fought before wars are won.

It is at this level that tactical strength can be built and consolidated only if academics revisit their values and ethical standards where it is necessary to do so and remind themselves that they are not masons merely cutting stones but building a cathedral of learning for our society.

At this critical juncture, one expects that the academic union of the University will take the lead and come with an ethical framework which restores the reputation of the University. This is the least we can expect at this moment, and university academics can be expected to rise to this challenge.

* Published in print edition on 4 March 2015 

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