Home About

The Ethics of Learning

Brannavan Gnanalingam



Today’s commerce and law students, tomorrow’s white-collar criminals? SALIENT Feature Writer Brannavan Gnanlingam investigates the ethics training offered to our commerce and law graduates, and wonders just where such a vocational topic fits in at a place of learning.
It is an uncontested fact that university is meant to be a place where people come to learn. However, it’s not hard to understand why someone who’s just spent twenty thousand dollars on a degree would want to put this piece of paper to good use. The rise in popularity of commerce degrees, and the continuing popularity of law degrees can mainly be traced back to one idea. You’re going to get some cool job afterwards that will earn you mega-bucks or, at least earn you more than a religious studies student. You’d have to be slightly naïve to assume that the majority of commerce and law students don’t actually view their degrees as vocational training. But does the university have some sort of responsibility towards students in terms of what they teach? If these degrees do lead to jobs, should the students be properly aware of what these jobs actually entail, or is that even the university’s prerogative? Are students expected to jump into a job and be expected to deal with some of the ethical dilemmas that exist in the workplace?
There is no doubt that most people in the business and the legal world will have to face some sort of ethical problem in their career. Yet one of the joys of working in a corporate environment is the “It Wasn’t Me” Syndrome, you’re able to rationalise some of your more ‘iffy’ decisions in the name of the company. But that still doesn’t mean hard decisions won’t have to be made. A vicious murderer may have to be defended in court. A little old lady might lose her life savings if you make that slight adjustment. It just might be cheaper to pursue a shockingly environmentally unsound policy than a clean, green one. In fact, in a survey carried out by Victoria University’s Career Development and Employment team, employers replaced ‘creativity and innovation’ with ‘professional ethics’ on a wish list for the top 10 graduate attributes.
There are some clear examples of when business and ethics really don’t mix. Enron’s bankruptcy, for example, in the United States in 2001 became a massive corporate scandal (including allegations of insider training, fraud, bribery, and money laundering) and involved big business, accountants and lawyers. However, the publicity surrounding Enron may prove to be an exception. White-collar crime is reputed (because it’s so hard to account for) to cause significantly more deaths and injuries, and have a far greater financial cost than all conventional crime put together. And the massive grey area in this issue suggests that it isn’t actually that hard for people to get away with ethical breaches in a corporate environment.
In fact, the Law School already has an Ethics course, mainly as a response to a national scandal involving lawyers. The Renshaw-Edwards case in the early 90s involved a couple of lawyers who managed to actually rip off millions of dollars from little old ladies, and thus prove the negative stereotype to the general population. The Council for Legal Education, who are responsible for large portions of New Zealand universities’ legal curriculum, responded by making it compulsory for students who want to become lawyers to have to taken an ethics course. Needless to say most law students do ethics in case they, on the off chance, do decide to become lawyers. They take it even if that is never the intention.
However, unlike the name suggests, this course isn’t actually about getting into the finer points of debating Aristotlean ethics, or even really about debating moral problems that may exist in everyday life. Virginia Grainer, a senior lecturer at Law School who teaches one of the ethics papers, explains that it is much more narrowly focused. “Ethics are a very difficult thing to talk about in this context. Because really what we deal with when we have our ethics course here is professional responsibility, as compared to ethics. They are related but not exactly identical.” More attention is paid to legal professional ethics – a code of behaviour that all lawyers are meant to follow in their profession. These include things like not taking on clients where there could be a conflict of interest, and legal professional privilege (that is, not divulging information told to you by your clients). The course is far more focused on what exists in real-life, a working environment where Grainer says: “often the ethical dilemmas that you’ll get into in legal practice and in commerce you have to decide on very quickly and in the spur of the moment”. She firmly believes that ethics are indeed, very important in practice. “Of course it’s a really important part because both lawyers and accountants and commercial people have such an effect on other people’s lives, and in so many ways. It doesn’t matter how commercial your practice is, you’re going to be affecting people all the way down the line. And so for professionals, they need the ethical basics. It’s part of being a professional I would say.”
“It’s very hard to judge. As I tell my class if I don’t see their names in the newspaper in the wrong kind of way, I’d be really pleased.” Virginia Grainer
But is the course itself particularly useful? Ethics is a particularly maligned course among law students. To students that I spoke to it’s seen as “a chore”, “a pointless waste of time” and “annoying to get up for at 8.30 in the morning”. Making a course like this compulsory is also not going to help student enjoyment of it. Furthermore, by isolating the course as stand alone, you’re making the course seem special and important. When students realise it actually is ultimately common sense for most of the time, it may lose its desired effect. Grainer acknowledges that it is very hard to figure out how effective the course really is. “It’s very hard to judge. As I tell my class if I don’t see their names in the newspaper in the wrong kind of way, I’d be really pleased.” However on the plus side of the course, a number of students who summer clerked in commercial law firms felt it was the closest course they’d taken to actually giving some idea of what real-life legal practice is like. Also, as Grainer notes, there is only three months training (a professional course) between finishing at law school and becoming admitted to the bar – so something has to be done to account for that very limited time-frame. All these positives suggest therefore, that law is actually acknowledging itself as vocational degree as opposed to existing for the sake of learning. Its success as such will depend on how the rest of the degree is taught.
It is interesting to compare how ethics operate in the Commerce Department. Unlike at Law School, there is no one compulsory ethics course students have to take if they want to work in a business environment. However the Commerce faculty has built ethics into their degrees. Associate Dean Colin Jeffcoat says degrees like accounting and management have ethical components built into specific papers. He also notes that FCOM 110, a compulsory first year course for anyone wanting do a commerce degree, has an ethical aspect to it too. According to Jeffcoat: “it is quite likely that the Commerce Faculty will soon expand our treatment of ethics as part of our requirements for accreditation to various organisations.” Keitha Dunstan, the Acting Head of the Accounting and Commercial Law School mentions four accounting papers that have ethical components to them. So why the different approach? Shouldn’t commerce students above all, have some sort of specific and compulsory ethical training?
Dunstan talks about the reason why accounting acts the way it does. “We have more of an integrating it into things [approach] as opposed to kind of pulling out and having one specific course. I mean some universities do it that way, but ours is more, ‘let’s reinforce it all the way through’. It’s not just thought of as something added onto the end.” Dunstan also does not deny the importance that ethics play in the commercial world. “Professions are privileged, and the reason that they are privileged is that they do, or are meant to, protect the public in some manner by having these higher standards than the nonmembers of the profession. So it’s a kind of branding. There’s less value to being a member of the accounting profession if we don’t all agree to behave in the appropriate fashion. It’s in the interest of the whole profession to educate students about it.” That’s certainly true, but it would be fair to say the public don’t really have an option on issues like tax and legal advice. Especially when lawyers made it illegal for non-lawyers to be doing legal work.
“I think students sometimes come in with preconception that this is just a meal ticket to a good job and good pay, and that ‘all I have to do is come here and then I’ll go out and be a good accountant.” Keitha Dunstna
But again, are commerce students actually finding this sort of ethical background helpful? Adam Garrett, a recent graduate in Management, Human Resources and Commercial Law almost sums up a feeling about ethical training. “I recall a few classes (Mgmt, Accy & Fcom) being about ethics. They weren’t bad lectures actually… had some pretty mean chicks in them…wait no… that was HR.” Dunstan acknowledges that some students strongly dislike the theory-based approach to teaching ethics. “Some, say at 300 level, have issues that it takes a theoretical perspective, and some of the student feedback is that we spend an awful amount of time talking about theory.” It is hard when a large number of students do view their commerce degrees as purely being vocational, and not actually about learning for the sake of learning. Dunstan says, “we firmly believe education, though it’s an accounting education, is about teaching you how to learn. It’s not actually about giving you a toolbox of things so that you can just go out and be an accountant. To us that’s what you would go to a polytech for, that’s not why you are at a university. So I think students sometimes come in with preconception that this is just a meal ticket to a good job and good pay, and that ‘all I have to do is come here and then I’ll go out and be a good accountant’. But that’s part of our job to make them understand, that that’s not the way it is.” Dunstan, like Grainer highlights they are trying to teach professional responsibility, not actually trying to give a philosophical grounding in ethics.
This perhaps negates the Commerce and Law faculties from having to answer what particular type of ethics they are going to be teaching. By limiting it to professional responsibility, then all they really need to do is apply industry standards as opposed to actually debating what ethics are in the first place – which is a pretty fundamental concept. Another danger is that many of the commerce degrees (such as management) don’t actually have any sort of self-regulating professional rules to fall back in the workplace, or even if you’re in a profession that does, isn’t too difficult to ignore a number of those obligations. All a sudden it becomes personal morality. And any person who’s done any sort of arts degree will recognise that morality is a highly relative concept. And, as both Grainer and Dunstan are quick to point out, the faculties do not want to be interfering into how individuals think. However, they do both recognize that the very point of teaching some form of ethics is trying shape your personal morality in a particular way.
But what role should universities be playing in ethical training? Is it a university’s purpose to shape your morality? That sounds awfully like telling you how to think, as opposed to being an institution where thought is meant to be valued. Also, then why stop with commerce and law students? If you a science degree for example, shouldn’t you be having ethical training too – I sure as hell would hope a scientist creating viruses etc has some sort of forthright morality. Or should art students who end up working in the commercial world follow suit too? (This happens too, despite what you might think in first year with your copy of Marx.)
Within all this, how much can universities actually teach? Garrett says, “can you really teach moral obligation? It’s just common sense. Don’t be a greedy bastard. Don’t work for Enron. Be compassionate. Give to get. Simplistic shit really.” His own experience at his workplace is that “a degree can’t teach you how to be street smart. You’re either a shark or a pussy, and people will realise this about you pretty damn quickly.” A L aw graduate I spoke to said they had no idea of workplace ethics when they first began working. “Law school doesn’t prepare you for what it’s like working in a legal firm.” It is even debatable that ethics courses actually proving helpful in getting people ready for what they’ll face.
Yet despite this, universities continue to pay lip service to this idea that they should be teaching some sort of ethics. Underlying all this, perhaps courses like these are an acknowledgement of that universities are no longer entirely about learning for the sake of learning. Students, and a large majority of students who do subjects like commerce and law, are actually just here to walk in the door, grab a degree and walk back out again. Degrees like law and commerce are there to help people get a job, with a better-looking piece of paper than what you’d get from a polytech. Yet we still persist with this idea of university being an elevated place of learning. Both Grainer and Dunstan highlight these degrees aren’t meant to be vocational – they are about learning. Yet, is this how students are viewing their learning process?
All this would be all right depending on how the rest of the degree is taught and each person will have their own view on the worth of their degree. It’d be fine to acknowledge that people view this degree ultimately as a ticket to a job, if the rest of your degree is about actually learning. However two examples stand out to question if the university is even getting this right in some respects. The first I remember from sitting in on a compulsory economics class in first year. The lecturer was teaching the class about wealth re-distribution methods – and didn’t mention socialism once. You don’t have to be a cardcarrying lefty to acknowledge that socialism is one of the most influential wealth re-distribution theories in human history and responsible significantly for a large part of New Zealand’s social make-up. This lecture proceeded on a highly decontextualised and ahistorical basis to create abstract models, proving the claim that this particular paper is one of learning to be slightly suspect. Another example is tendancy amongst law lecturers to try and out-do each other by forcing students to write as much is possible in exams in as little time as possible. As one law student said: “it’s not actually about learning in exams like that. What’s the point if you don’t have time to think? You just end up trying to say exactly what the lecturer would want you to say, so you can try and get an A. Everything’s forgotten the next day.”
Universities find themselves in a hard position. The workplace outside of university throws up many ethical dilemnas. As white collar crime and Enron could attest, it isn’t hard to see how ethics have often been subservient to things like profit. Therefore, it is understandable that universities feel an obligation to teach ethical training. However, it is debatable whether the ethics training that students do get will do much to alleviate some of these other public concerns. But the very fact that degrees like accounting and law bother with teaching ethics highlights another quite different shift in the very idea of learning. Perhaps university for many is no longer about learning for the sake of learning. For many students, it is indeed the aim to get a better job than an arts student, for example, that attracts them to degrees like commerce and law. And ethics, for all its flaws, show just how universities have been forced to keep up with that demand.