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Let’s Talk about Money: the Economics of Ethics in Higher Education

Money in education
Let’s talk about money! “Show me your budget and accounts and I will tell you your ethical values” is a simple impact measurement rule. How much does a higher education institution spend on salaries, on buildings, on the discretionary fund of the Vice Chancellor, on marketing, on scholarships for poor students, on community outreach, on travel? And what is the national budget for education of a country? Financial constraints are often at the root of unethical praxis in universities and in the education system as a whole. Therefore, in order to transform higher education to become more ethical, we need to understand and influence its economic foundations.
Let us just look at a few countries where I teach and have direct experience (with thanks to our intern Marie Andreescu for the figures that she has provided in her research report). In Nigeria, the number of universities that have been officially recognized as such has increased exponentially, from 16 in 1980 to 152 in 2017 with the number of enrolled students rising in the period from 2000 to 2015 by 171 percent. At the same time the state budget for education dropped from ten to seven percent under the current government, while the military budget increased by 17% from 2017 to 2018. It is no wonder that professors are on strike and students suffer from not being able to complete their studies as universities are closed. It is no surprise that absentee-ism of teachers goes up as they are forced to earn enough money to live on with other jobs instead of teaching. 
In Russia the number of students has dropped by 3 million since 2010 and federal spending on education decreased between 2014 and 2016 by 8,5 percent. Following a boom in the number of private universities, a university reform introduced in 2017 has reduced the number of universities by 14 percent in order to ensure quality education.  Russia still has universities that are listed at the world ranking level. 
The United Kingdom is a country with universities that are top ranking. However, the seemingly endless struggles and uncertainties of the Brexit process is putting the UK university system in a vulnerable position. In order to remain internationally competitive, the government is forcing its universities to drastically decrease the student fees. This leaves the problem of finding ways to compensate for the missing income? Even world-class universities such as Cambridge and Oxford are facing ethical challenges; a students’ survey on ethics at British universities rated Cambridge in terms of ethics much lower than its high academic rank. 
China is growing fast in terms of the quantity and quality of higher education institutions. The number of enrolled students grew by 480 percent in the period 2000 to 2015, which means that there are 36 million more students in higher education in a country with only 8% population growth in the same period! At the same time professors are more and more limited in their academic freedom as the party doctrine and its socialist values control the education framework that has to be strictly respected in academic teaching and research. 
The academic rating system has also to be developed further in a critical way. Currently insufficient recognition is given to the extremely disparate economic situations of universities in different countries or to the ethical ratings. Let us take as an example ETH, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, which is only one kilometer from my home where I am writing this editorial. Why is it among the top six universities in the world university ranking? One of the main reasons is that it pays among the best salaries and therefore can attract Nobel price-winners and that it invests in the best research technologies. Yale and Stanford universities in the USA were recently exposed in corruption scandals with Hollywood stars paying bribes for the admission of their children. Neither of these top universities were downgraded as a result. Let us add additional ethical criteria and contributions to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to university rankings!
The economics of ethics in higher education can start with you and me as individuals, with a single department, a campus and a whole university. In addition, it needs dialogue and advocacy with national university commissions, parliaments and governments on education budgets. This is part of our Programme on Ethics in Institutions of Higher Education. Let us strengthen our cooperation also on this level. Let’s talk about money and about ethics.
Christoph Stückelberger President of and Academic Dean until Aug 2019Christoph Stückelberger President and Founder