With a view of debating the extent to which South African schools and universities are ethical institutions, panellists Dr Sizwe Mabizela, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University and Chairperson of the Umalusi Board and Ms Madeleine Schoeman, principal of Ntsika High School recently participated in a panel debate under the theme, ‘The Ethical Educational Institution’.
With a view of answering why the issue of ethical practices, processes and people ought to be of concern to schools and universities, Dr Mabizela and Ms Schoeman debated what would constitute ethical institutional cultures and structures, and conversely what may drive unethical behaviour.
According to Dr Mabizela, who opted to adopt a “somewhat pedestrian” definition of ethics, steering away from philosophical notions, described ethics as pertaining to “decision making, reason and acting out what may be real or perceived responsibility” and “when one does the right thing for the right reason without any personal concern of the consequences”.
In order to behave ethically, Dr Mabizela said, one must have wisdom, derived from knowledge and the ability to discern right from wrong. “Personal or institutional values shape our attitudes, which in turn influences our behaviour and response to situations,” he said.
Steering clear of providing a categorical answer to the question of whether South African schools and universities are ethical institutions, Dr Mabizela suggested there are many challenges in the pursuit of ethical conduct at universities, the most frequent relating to academic dishonesty such as cheating and plagiarism by students.
“The consequences for this kind of behaviour are very clear as students can miss the opportunity to learn and develop new understandings, and become desensitised to integrity. This kind of behaviour may extend to their personal lives with potentially dire consequences,” he said.
In considering the state of local schools Dr Mabizela said the tendency of local teachers to educate their children in former Model C schools while they teach at government schools is symptomatic of the hypocrisy of unethical behaviour.
“We see lots of problems in our local schools where teachers would rather take their children to other schools than the ones they teach at. These same people will very happily go on strike with unions. What kind of parent would do anything of the sort? What kind of ethics drives such a person?”
In the quest for creating ethical institutions he suggested that one cannot abstract institutions or social structures from the society of which they are part, given that they are influenced by the milieu in which they exist.
He said institutional culture is a reflection of the dominant culture of institutions. Ethical institutional culture includes where decision making at every level of the institution seeks to advance the common good; where staff and students feel a sense of responsibility and account for their actions; where staff feel free to raise issues or concerns without fear of retribution and reprisals; and where practice supports ethical conduct with ethical conduct being rewarded and unethical behaviour punished.
While procedures, controls and policies are important in the pursuit of ethical institutions, they are not a guarantee, he said. Rather, creating an ethical institution “requires deep engagement with staff so they can understand why doing the right thing is important to everyone” and where a “shared sense of purpose around core values is the most critical thing”.
“You need to galvanise everyone and develop a set of core values and engage staff to buy into a shared sense of purpose. Everyone needs to act with courage and integrity if they want to foster ethical institutional culture,” said Dr Mabizela .
Having been principal of Victoria Girls’ High School for many years, Ms Schoeman reflected on her first-hand experience of leading schools in ethical ways despite numerous structural and other constraints. She described an ethical mindset as an “emerging critical consciousness based on willingness to take responsibility of unknowable consequences”.
She shared her view that contemporary schools and universities are not ethical institutions, given their often “selfish, egotistical behaviour”. Since democracy school education hasn’t adapted effectively, she explained, given that poverty and inequality are entrenched through institutional laws and practices. Attempts at redress have involved implementing changes when South Africa was not ready socially, economically or politically, Ms Schoeman said.
Referring to her experience as a teacher and principal in post-apartheid South Africa, she sketched a dire picture of two historically different functioning systems in which 80% of South African schools receive the fewest resources and “still bear the scars of that legacy”.
“The perpetuation of inequity in South African education is nowhere more evident than in funding and infrastructure of schools despite the overarching frame of redistribution of resources. Learners from different backgrounds don’t have equal opportunities. Learners in these schools face a double burden – poverty and attending schools that bare the scars of neglect and underfunding,”she added.
By Sarah-Jane Bradfield
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