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Ethical issue needs clear vision;FE Focus

In the classic line, Lauren Bacall says to Humphrey Bogart, in the film To Have and Have Not "You know how to whistleIjust put your lips together and blow." Well, in the light of the current concern that sleaze is attracting, when does one purse one's lips to whistle, or indeed blow a whistle?

The funding council and Association of Colleges have issued guidance and codes of practice arising from Nolan strictures on standards in public life and the possibility of whistle-blowing. Such advice is welcomed by colleges, bearing in mind the complexity of these difficult ethical areas.

It requires careful and thorough investigation to balance the sensitive areas around the need to conform to the values and standards that are justifiably required of colleges. Key issues revolve around the need to accept the responsibilities and obligations that attach to public service and office.

It is a complex area, touching fundamental human behaviour at an individual and corporate level. Difficulties and tensions occur, especially when institutions are being required to operate in the free market. Even now, with the greater encouragement to collaborate with other strategic partners, many of them are still competitors.

It does not make it easy to honour or realise these ethical imperatives, particularly in the areas of recruitment and the disclosure of information that could be market sensitive. There are, however, areas of malpractice and mismanagement that are inexcusable and which should be investigated, for example financial mismanagement, falsifying travel expenses, taking bribes to advantage one particular tender, fraud, or not declaring an interest.

As many of the codes of practice state, there are areas of uncertainty which must be highlighted and clarified by a particular college. Codes of practice must be as precise as possible. A number of these will need to be dealt with in the colleges. This is particularly true when staff wish confidentially to raise concerns about fraud, malpractice, health and safety or unethical conduct.

By these means, potentially dangerous, damaging or embarrassing matters can be resolved by the institutions. It is a sensitive issue. A delicate balance must be struck between protecting the rights of the individual to speak freely, openly and honestly about legitimate concerns and the right of the college to protect itself against false and malicious accusations that could damage its reputation, if managed in a cavalier fashion.

Another issue is the ethics of student recruitment. The institution has a responsibility to provide prospective learners with honest guidance about the programmes of study that they are interested in. There should also be objective information about the integrity of awards and the possible progression for students. It is very difficult for an institution totally to subvert its need to achieve student target numbers and fully recognise the learner's aspirations and intentions. The charters do allow the student opportunity to call to account the institution's practices on recruiting. But it is a very contentious area in this time of reducing resources and the need for institutions to achieve their student numbers and unit targets. This aspect is particularly important in maintaining the integrity of franchising arrangements. It places a great responsibility on college staff and the careers officers.

Colleges must be encouraged to create a climate of openness and proper ethical practice. It is essential that an institutional statement of ethical practice is implemented to provide a framework for concerns.

Colleges must be seen to be open to hearing concerns and to deal with them within the appropriate guidelines. Whistle-blowing has to be dealt with carefully to make certain that valid concerns are addressed but also there has to be the awareness that possible malicious accusations could be based on personal agendas. There must be a series of checks and balances within the policies and procedures that colleges are now required to formulate. Whistle-blowers need to be confident that they are free from reprisal or victimisation. But they must accept the responsibilities that accrue to them in raising an issue which might be proved to be false or malicious. Whistle-blowing is, by definition, reactive and as a result institutional statements of ethics should be both preventative and proactive. The careful balance has to be struck to protect the individual and most certainly the college.

In addition to the codes of practice that will need to be produced following the Nolan recommendations, colleges should produce a statement of ethical practice which articulates the values of leadership and other essential values and testifies that the governors and senior postholders strive for the highest standards in professional practice.

Dick Evans is principal of Stockport College

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