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No, class, it's not okay to cheat David Furlonger     | Financial Mail Friday, August 1, 2003
Ethics is the flavour of the month at business schools around the world. Corporate scandals like those at Enron and Arthur Andersen have convinced schools they should teach students what’s right and what’s wrong.

Not everyone goes to the lengths of a US school which, as part of its curriculum, takes classes to a state prison for the day. It is hoped that the experience of meeting inmates and seeing conditions at first hand will focus students’ minds on where they could end up if they break the law.

SA schools, too, are adapting courses. Ethics and corporate governance subjects, once optional, are steadily becoming compulsory.

Not before time. Market research conducted for this MBA cover story shows that employers consider MBA graduates to be far less ethical in their business activities than non-MBA colleagues. They may not always break the rules, but they certainly bend them.

Given the increasing amount of time they spend in trying to reshape the mould, business school heads are disappointed that so many of their graduates are seen as “ethically challenged".

Milpark Business School director Linda van der Colff, though, isn’t surprised. “You must look at the sort of people who are drawn to MBAs. They are generally driven and competitive,” she says. “Also, MBAs teach people an extreme level of competitiveness. They learn loopholes. It’s the way business is done, the rules of engagement.”

Natal University business school’s Bill Harrison adds: “If students get the sense that there is an opportunity to take advantage of the system, they will do it.”

One reason that schools downplayed the importance of ethics in the past is that students and the business world didn’t take it seriously. “We’ve offered electives in business ethics but enrolment has been low because students don’t see it as important,” says Wits’ Adele Thomas.

“Companies, too, thought it wasn’t a problem until they saw how it affected the bottom line. The fall-out from international ethical disasters has created a demand for this to be addressed by business schools,” Thomas adds.

But is it enough to teach ethics and corporate governance as understood internationally? At one SA business school, where the main sources of students are a private-sector multinational and a local government body, the director says the two groups “could have come from different planets” when it comes to understanding ethical issues.

The particular government body is notorious for the activities of its officials, and the MBA students are influenced by what they see. For them, the sin is often not in acting wrongly, but in getting caught.

Edwin Tjale, CEO of the Business School of the Netherlands, where many students come from government and parastatal bodies, confirms that the difference between right and wrong is often blurred.

“If you see something happen every day, you accept it as the norm. The whole issue has not been addressed properly in the past. It’s up to us to teach people what they should and shouldn’t do,” Tjale says.
 
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