Institutional Ethics Paves the Path towards Professionalism

Dec 29 , 2018
By Belay Abera ( Belay Abera is a public health professional and researcher. He can be reached at )

As a university teacher, it is not hard to come by students and, even teachers, that do not abide by the principles and ethics of the higher learning institutions they attend. It goes a long way in explaining the lack of professionalism and integrity that is practised in the work place, in both the private and the public sector.

The problem cannot merely be regarded from the perspective of cultural or religious contexts, for these could be subjective, but professionalism in the workplace that is all too necessary for a productive citizenry.

This problem can seldom be addressed if we are not willing to acknowledge that it has its roots in the higher learning institutions from where the skilled human power is sourced. Students that spend years in institutions that do not observe basic institutional ethics standards cannot be berated for performing without principles when they finally join the labour market.

A starting point for considering institutional ethics are codes of ethical policies and procedures with guidelines on appropriate standards of behaviour. These policies should be part of public universities’ major strategy.

Ethics is the study of moral principles and conduct. Ethicists ask questions about what is right and what is wrong within our social and political contours. It is also about relationships and how we should interact and live with others.

It can be understood as a “set of rules, principles or ways of thinking that guide, or claim authority to guide, the actions of a particular group,” according to Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher.

Institutional ethics is concerned with the way in which people should conduct themselves within institutions. It is based on the assumption that individual responses to ethical issues are “necessarily constrained or supported” within organisations, and it is easier to act ethically in a culture that is deemed ethical than one that is not. Institutional ethics needs to be built into the operations and core decision-making processes of organisations.

In recent times, there has been heightened media and public awareness of unethical behaviours in higher education institutions such as universities. Examples include plagiarism by staff and students, various forms of cheating, sexual harassment in and out of the classroom, misuse of power and bribes. Campus youth are also becoming embroiled in substance addiction as a result of peer pressure and increased availability of the substances in Ethiopia.

The higher education climate is one that has undergone major reform and restructuring in line with managerial practices. In universities, these practices have included the adoption of private sector practices with a strong focus on outcomes, key performance indicators, monitoring and measurement, as well as tighter efficiency standards and accountability.

But poor management persists, and one of its consequences has been the erosion of ethical standards. It derives from the strong focus on bureaucratic rather than moral accountability. It is said that such a climate creates what is known as “morally mute managers,” who assess information through a bureaucratic lens.

Unethical practice is viewed as leaders who fail to support others who question unethical practices that take place within their organisation. Alternatively, unethical conduct by leaders is said to occur when they exert pressure on staff to act in unethical ways.

Ethical dilemmas occur when decisions that require a choice among competing sets of principles arise.

“Their emergence is unsurprising given the pressures and complexities of working within modern organisations. Universities are complex, pressured environments where academic leaders are faced with competing tensions and pressures when making decisions that affect diverse stakeholders such as students, colleagues, the local community, employers and corporate partners,” as the academics Lisa Catherine Ehrich, Neil Cranston, Megan Kimber and Karen Starr assert through references in a paper entitled "Unethical Practices & Ethical Dilemmas in Universities."

Their paper details a number of tensions that lead to universities being unable to either put into place institutional ethics or follow through with them. The most relevant out of the bunch to the Ethiopian context are individual, and it might be added political, demands for higher education against labour market requirements, as well as the aspirations and expectations of individuals against the prevailing economic constraints and established cultural values.

Thus, establishing and strengthening institutional ethics can help battle the ever-growing managerial and academic ethical issues and the conflicts that arise in higher learning institutions. The most important takeaway is that students need to be trained in the path of professionalism, which not only requires their observance of institutional ethics but that managerial staff and teachers also abide by the rules.

PUBLISHED ON Dec 29,2018 [ VOL 19 , NO 974]

Belay Abera is a public health professional and researcher. He can be reached at

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