Are Conflicts of Interest Really Booming?

May 27th 2014 at 4:15pm, By Dave Guerin

Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne and Highlanders players Craig Millar and Ben Smith. Photos: Sharron Bennett.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne and Highlanders players Craig Millar and Ben Smith. Photos: Sharron Bennett.

There have been three claims of conflicts of interest over the last week, each with quite different contexts. It seems people are getting a bit free with their accusations, but practice could be improved.

The weakest allegation related to Otago Uni’s sponsorship of the Highlanders rugby team. 2 of the 3 people on the standing committee that approved the sponsorship had links to rugby (they were the Chancellor and Pro-Chancellor). One used to chair the Highlanders (but left in 2009) and one was on the trust that built the new Dunedin stadium (he also left in 2009). Quite rightly, the Uni said there was no conflict of interest, as there are no current (or recent) interests. One of the two has had no formal relationship with the team for 5 years, and the other never had one.

Otago Uni has an Ethical Behaviour Policy that applies to the council “where the personal, academic or financial interests of an individual improperly affect or could improperly affect” their duties within the Uni. It would be a stretch to say that either of the council members had any interests here (as defined in the policy).

A TEU rep, Shaun Scott, was quoted as saying that it created a “perception” issue, and he’s right. It would probably have looked better if others had been involved in the decision, but overall it’s a beat-up by the ODT (and the Sunday Star-Times).

The second set of allegations was in an article that suggested that AgResearch board members (and a whole bunch of others) were conflicted over restructuring decisions. In relation to tertiary education, the article noted that:

  • Lincoln’s VC was a former AgResearch CE (but of course he hasn’t been CE since 2010, so didn’t make any of the AgResearch board decisions);
  • AgResearch director Andrew Macfarlane was a Lincoln council member (the Lincoln issue is a real conflict and was presumably managed); and
  • AgResearch’s chair used to chair AsureQuality (till Oct 2013), which has a facility at Lincoln that may benefit (we couldn’t see any obvious boost to relevant research at Lincoln under the plan, and a similar AsureQuality lab in Auckland would be further away from the new main AgResearch sites).

Oddly, the article omitted the fact that the AgResearch board included the Hamilton City Council CE (the AgResearch campus in his city will be downgraded). If he voted for a decision that disadvantaged his other interests, maybe it was just a reasonable decision… Overall, the article threw around accusations, but didn’t provide any smoking guns.

The strongest case for conflicts of interest (if still minor) was over academics assigning their own textbooks for their classes, as covered this week by Otago Uni’s student paper Critic. Key quotes are noted below.

The University does not have a policy regarding when a lecturer has a vested interest in the suggested or required textbooks for their paper. Professor Vernon Squire, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic and International) explained that, despite the lack of direct policy, each new paper at the University must pass a “rigorous approval process,”…

Nanette Cormack, Deputy Secretary of the Tertiary Education Union, says, “I would have thought that the institutions would have policies that resources recommended to students would be checked.” Cormack believes that as long as someone else in the department is checking over the materials recommended to the students, she does not see it as a conflict of interest. She says that given the “nature of expertise within New Zealand Universities,” it may well be that the academic staff are the experts in their field, making it “quite appropriate” to recommend their own text.

Otago’s department of physics had several lecturers involved with writing an Introduction to Biological Physics for the Health and Life Sciences. … Head of the Physics Department, Associate Professor Pat Langhorne, says “it was never seen as a money maker” and that there is often a reason lecturers will work on writing textbooks. She explains that lecturers were spending an extensive amount of time writing more comprehensive notes for their students “because no textbook was on the market that fitted [the course],” …

Associate Professor Kenneth Deans is one of the authors of the recommended texts for a 100-level Marketing Management paper. Deans receives the profits, explaining he doesn’t write the book on university paid time, and “I am taxed on it.” He says the financial benefits are “no more than a couple of days of consultancy.” He sees it irrelevant that he authored the book because whether a student buys his book over another book, “it’s still an added cost [for the student].”

While the DVC mentioned that there wasn’t a relevant policy, the Uni’s general Ethical Behaviour Policy provides a clear guide in my view (see s.3). If an academic financially benefits from textbook sales after they assigned a text (as some have admitted above), then there’s a clear risk that it could, or did, improperly affect their duties within the University.

Usefully, Otago Uni’s Policy has a straightforward response, requiring non-conflicted superiors to be advised, and a clearly documented decision to be taken. That gets things out in the open and, in most cases, would probably lead to the same decision being made (ie assigning the academic’s book).

What strikes me most about the Otago Uni situation though is the confusion. The DVC didn’t cite a policy, and two academics seemed unaware of the potential conflicts of interest. The TEU’s Nanette Cormack, however, had a sensible suggestion that pretty much mirrored Otago Uni’s policy.

Given the council and staff issues in this post, it’s probably a good time for a memo to go round Otago Uni about managing interests. The main lesson for me though is that accusations of conflicts of interest are more common this week than the conflicts themselves.

ED Blog is changing and will be providing views on tertiary education, rather than a roundup of news links. Most posts will be shorter than this one!

This is the last edition of the ED Blog news post – from Monday we will be running a similar email as part of our ED Insider service. If you would like a free 2-week trial of ED Insider, contact us for details. Over 70 organisations and over 1,110 people currently use ED Insider in the tertiary education sector, and we’d love to have you join us too.

ED Blog will develop in a different direction. It will become more like a blog again, focusing on interesting tertiary education ideas and events in NZ and offshore.  We will probably publish new posts around the middle of the day and there may be 2-4 posts a week. The frequency of the news posts has limited what else we can do, so we’re looking forward to the change.

Thanks again for your loyalty over the last 52 months of the free news post service – it’s been a good ride!

Dave Guerin

Policy, Management & People

  1. WITT Council Ross Dingle, Cassandra Crowley, and Allie Hemara-Wahanui are new members of WITT’s council board.
  2. Copyright Battle Universities NZ and Copyright Licensing NZ (CLNZ) are engaged in a legal dispute over licensing fees.
  3. Library Loans… of printed books and material at Auckland have fallen from 1.2m in 2005 to 700,000 last year.
  4. Student Loan Repayment NZUSA president Daniel Haines says student loan repayment policies are unfair.
  5. Extras: the TEU’s Lesley Francey criticises budget cuts to public education; SIT’s cleaners and custodians will benefit from a TEU-negotiated collective agreement.

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Research & Innovation

  1. African Food Safety Massey and Otago Uni researchers working with global coalition of researchers on $8.8m study of food safety in Africa.

Teaching & Learning

  1. Indigenous Development Canterbury to offer indigenous economic development course.
  2. Extras: a Myanmar refugee family praises Wintec’s Centre for Languages;  NMIT offering free computer classes.

Policy, Management & People

  1. Apprentice Training MESNZ secretary Craig Carlyle on the training of apprentices and an interview with MIT’s Modern Apprenticeship coordinator Larry Wiechern.
  2. University Bill Auckland and Otago Uni V-Cs Stuart McCutcheon and Harlene Hayne were critical in submissions on the Education Amendment Bill.

Students

  1. MUSA Charges Massey’s student association is considering charging a membership fee.
  2. Pay Dispute UCOL president Miranda Orpin says students are pleased that employment negotiations have ended.

Stakeholders

  1. Health Precinct Canterbury, Otago Uni and CPIT have signed a formal collaboration agreement with CERA and the Canterbury DHB to form Christchurch’s new Health Precinct.
  2. Apprentice of the Year…competition to undergo format changes.
  3. Extras: the CLL Educational Publishing Award winners were announced; Lincoln held an Open Day to celebrate its collaboration with Northland College.

Teaching & Learning

  1. Organic Education A review of the organic education options available in NZ.
  2. Sustainability Course Otago Poly and The Natural Step offering 20-week course on “Adding Sustainable Value”.

Policy, Management & People

  1. Pay Rise Offer UCOL has offered its staff two pay raises over two years of 1.25% each (Fairfax).
  2. Cheating Stats 2.6% of international students and 0.3% of domestic students at WelTec were caught cheating last year.
  3. Otago Uni Aquarium Otago Uni’s plan to build an aquarium in Dunedin Harbour has been put on hold.
  4. Extras: interview with AUT’s Andrew Bancroft; op-ed by Fran Wilde on public transport for Wellington students.

Research & Innovation

  1. New CoRE Otago Uni and Auckland will co-host a new Centre for Research Excellence focused on the ageing brain.
  2. Callaghan Funding Callaghan’s funding has undergone some technical adjustments.
  3. Dean’s Medal Otago Uni’s Prof Richie Poulton won the Dean’s Research Medal.

Students                                                      

  1. Sexual Violence VUWSA organised a march against sexual violence (Fairfax, 3 News) and VUWSA president Sonya Clark wants a coordinated response to recent sexual assaults.
  2. OUSA Birthday OUSA celebrated its 124th anniversary.

Stakeholders

  1. Conflict of Interest Otago Uni’s sponsorship of the Highlanders is criticised for a potential conflict of interest in the approval process.

Teaching & Learning

  1. Paediatrics Award Auckland’s Prof Jane Harding was awarded the Howard Williams Medal for 2014 (Radio NZ).
  2. Foreign Policy School Otago Uni’s latest Foreign Policy School to focus on international tensions over resource scarcity.

This is a shorter email today, as we shift to the new style of posts that will run next week on our subscription site, ED Insider.

Policy, Management & People

  1. National Poisons Centre The Otago Uni-run National Poisons Centre is 1 of 7 the MOH wants to merge into a mega phone service and Labour opposes the idea (3 News).
  2. Think Tank Role Canterbury’s Eric Crampton has been appointed head of research at the NZ Initiative (NBR).
  3. Extras: a new part of Hamilton’s $84m ring road opens today and will take traffic off roads around Waikato Uni; Auckland has appointed JWT NZ as its comms agency (Stop Press); Auckland District Law Society is concerned about govt proposals to reform university councils.

Stakeholders

  1. Careerforce… is hosting a conference on the health and support industry.
  2. Ed Tech Expert… Jennifer Carolan says NZ is an entrepreneurial hotspot for the education technology sector.
  3. Extras: Waikato held a Community Open Day; EIT holding free taster classes.

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News 19/5 – ED Blog is Changing.

May 19th 2014 at 9:55am, By ED Staff

ED Blog is going to change from this week, as we develop a daily email for the ED Insider subscription site. Over this week we will be reducing the coverage of the news email to reflect the focus of the new ED Insider daily email. That means we’ll be ceasing coverage of new research, and academics commenting on public issues, among other things. From next week, we will stop publishing a weekday news post on ED Blog.

ED Blog’s weekday news posts have run as a free service since Feb 2010 and we appreciate all those who have accessed the site. ED Insider, however, pays the bills and we have to look at ways to boost subscribers’ benefits. We’ve noticed that the links in the ED Blog news post that are most clicked are those that we currently include in a weekly ED Insider newsletter. We’d like to get those links, with extra analysis, to our paying subscribers sooner. ED Insider has over 50 subscribing organisations and over 1,100 users (many more than ED Blog) and we felt that the time was right to shift the news across.

ED Blog will continue, as we will go back to commenting on tertiary education issues (probably once a week), rather than just sending out links. We’ll have more on that next week.

Policy, Management & People

  1. Building Upgrade Otago Uni’s St David 2 building to get $9.65m upgrade and house the applied sciences department.
  2. Nitrogen Losses The Lincoln University Dairy Farm’s self-imposed nitrogen loss target cost it almost $100,000 in potential lost profits this season.
  3. Science Funding Auckland’s Siouxsie Wiles compares science funding in Australia and NZ.
  4. Extras: Critic interviews Dunedin-based National MP Michael Woodhouse; VUWSA president Sonya Clark, the TEU (Radio NZ) and Workbase on the 2014 Budget; Otago Uni’s “campus cop” Max Holt to become deputy head at Toroa College hall of residence; Auckland is increasing its literacy requirements for undergrads.

Research & Innovation

  1. New CoRE Funding The Govt announced that three additional research centres will receive CoRE funding from 2016 (Radio NZ). Waikato’s Linda Tuhiwai Smith and NPM welcomed the news that one will be focused on Maori research.

Students

  1. Feral Party A “feral” student party was shut down by police in Dunedin yesterday.
  2. Climbing House Prices… are costing students as financial support lags, says NZUSA president Daniel Haines.

Stakeholders

  1. EQC Action Canterbury law students are volunteering to help court action against the Earthquake Commission for their clinical legal studies programme.
  2. Adventure Tourism Audit…programme OutdoorsMark has been sold to Skills Active.
  3. Extras: Waikato held a community open day on Saturday; Otago Uni’s Volunteer Centre has established a regular stall at OUSA Market Days; Otago Poly hosting FoodShare Cooking For a Cause; Canterbury’s Student Volunteer Army held an Ilam-Riccarton community day; AUT hosting The Original Art Sale; BOP Poly’s Aidan Galloway launching Real Foodie business.

Teaching & Learning

  1. Animal Dissection Two Auckland students are calling for the removal of animal dissection from first year courses (Yahoo).
  2. Trades Academy Taratahi is helping Te Aute College students succeed through the Primary Industry Trades Academy programme.
  3. Top Urologist Auckland’s Peter Gilling was ranked among the world’s top ten experts in three research and treatment of prostatic enlargement (BOP Times).
  4. Boot Camp Nine Maori and Pacific EIT students with leadership potential attended a five-day bootcamp.
  5. Extras: Awanuiarangi is developing a new undergrad business degree.
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