Monday, September 15, 2008

Ethics and partnerships, where is the OU ethical policy?

From Society Matters
Ethics and partnerships: the OU and the St Athan Military Academy
The Open University now boasts a Centre for Ethics and includes ethical teaching in its curriculum, but it does not yet have an ethical policy guiding its corporate partnerships. The recent link between the OU and the Metrix
consortium has led to protests in Wales and may result in far wider ramifications for the institution
I too believe that universities and their staff should aim to encourage students to ‘think ethically’ and equip them to
confront the great dilemmas and paradoxes of our time. Vice Chancellor Brenda Gourley Independent Open Eye, 1 July 2008

Life at the OU in Wales took a new turn recently, with demonstrations against the University’s involvement in a military training consortium taking place outside our building. Over the past year, the ‘Stop the St Athan Military Academy Campaign’ has been publicizing and attacking the OU’s involvement in the Metrix consortium, which followed its success in being awarded a government contract to run a training agency for all of the British armed forces at St Athan in South Glamorgan.
The OU is a member of the consortium, along with some major arms manufacturers, including QinetiQ and Raytheon. Raytheon
manufactures Tomohawk and Patriot missiles, and missiles capable of carrying cluster bombs; QinetiQ hit the headlines with
criticisms by the National Audit Office of the process whereby, in the privatization of DERA, the responsible civil servants became
multi-millionaires overnight.
Thousands of training jobs from around the UK will be moved to St Athan, just outside Cardiff, where up to 5,500 jobs will be
created. This figure is one that fluctuates and is contested, but it is claimed that the St Athan Military Academy, costing £15 billion,
will be the largest ever public-sector project in Wales. The project is welcomed by local MPs and Welsh Assembly
Members, by the Welsh Assembly Government and by all of the major political parties in Wales. Nonetheless, several Plaid Cymru
members of the National Assembly for Wales have spoken against it, and there are a small but vociferous number of people in Wales opposed to the militarization of the economy. Anti-militarism has been a core element of the nationalist struggle since its inception, and is a perspective shared by many key figures in public life.
Does this new partnership fit with the mission of the OU – to create and enhance life opportunities? There are concerns about any
institution’s associations with the arms trade. Jennie Lee, one of the main founders of the OU, was firm in her stand against arms, in that she was against the UK acquiring a nuclear deterrent.
Various UK universities (including St Andrews and several Cambridge colleges) have adopted ethical investment policies.
University College London, under pressure from students and alumni, is among those that are considering doing so. The School of
Oriental and African Studies and Goldsmiths, University of London and Bangor University have withdrawn investment from arms
companies. The OU has still to decide on whether it needs to devise clear and fully transparent ethical guidelines to steer its business partnerships.
Other institutions have been more forthright. The Norwegian state pension fund, which includes its petroleum fund, and Liverpool City Council are among the bodies that have disinvested from Raytheon, on the basis of its implication in war crimes and killing civilians in Iraq and Lebanon.
Of course, military technology and the armed forces are involved in defence as well as attack, and there are plenty of us who subscribe to notions of ‘just wars’. But the plan is to train not just British troops, but armed forces from around the world. The idea of training troops for the Burmese government is more controversial than training British troops.
Others do not share this political or moral concern, but object on pragmatic grounds: that the OU risks tainting its brand. In a sense,
the greatest asset of the OU is its brand. The brand isn’t just a logo but is a reputation, and the reputations of organizations increasingly are linked to their ethical and environmental policies and practices.
We only have to look to Nike, McDonald’s, Tesco, the Body Shop and the Co-operative Bank to see the centrality of ‘the brand’ to
business performance. Across the economy and around the world there is a huge growth in the ‘corporate social responsibility’ agenda. In one sense, this is recognized by the OU, which recently launched a Level 1 course on Ethics in Real Life and takes very seriously its commitment to development in Africa. At the same time, it is in partnership with the World Bank to develop a private university in Pakistan, in collaboration with Tesco regarding using clubcard points to pay course fees (see Society Matters No.10), and is now linked with the Metrix consortium.

This suggests the need for an ethical, environmental and corporate esponsibility framework for the OU’s relationships with other
organizations. With its deservedly high standing, the OU brand is of enormous benefit to us all. The good reputation of the OU is an asset and needs to be defended actively.
In response to the University’s involvement in the Metrix consortium, the Open University Branch of the University and
College Union (OUBUCU) has formulated a set of ethical guidelines to be applied to the future selection of its strategic partnerships with external organizations. The guidelines set out criteria regarding the arms trade, ecological sustainability, animal welfare and corporate responsibility to ‘filter’ out partnerships which may commercially damage the University’s brand. At the time of going to press, a paper setting out the arguments for their implementation has been presented to the Vice-Chancellor and the Branch awaits a response to its suggestion that a forum be established between union and management to discuss the guidelines. The union believes the University cannot be financially successful in the future unless it is committed to an ethical approach to partnerships.

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