The Clash between Ethical Leadership and Corporate Agendas in Higher Education

University education in Australia is becoming increasingly competitive and now exists in a global market. The structure of universities has shifted to include competitive funding, student fees, performance reporting and corporatisation (Marginson, 2013). Western universities are often private enterprises that use market positioning strategies to attract international students and increase market share (McGettigan, 2013). Their income relies on enrolment, and enrolment relies on student attainment. Friedman (1955) argued that an economic structure based on free market competition in education would lead to an increase in productivity and innovation. However, modern operations in universities demonstrate that, although universities are continually attempting to innovate as a strategy to entice consumers, they are also compromising the academic integrity of their institutions by allowing misconduct to go unchallenged. The ethics component of leadership in education will become increasingly difficult as universities continue to evolve into businesses.


As globalisation continues, so does the consistent increase in international students studying in Australia. According to the Department for Education and Training (2017), as of February 2017, there were 457, 243 international students studying in Australia; this is a fourteen percent increase on February 2016. In the sphere of international education, universities predominantly exist as revenue focussed corporations. It is in this area that leaders are most likely to experience conflict between their own moral compass, the organisation’s policies and procedures, and the organisation’s aims and objectives. It is possible that educational leaders will allow a main aim of the organisation – to increase market share – to override both leaders’ inner feelings on justice and fairness, as well as the organisations policies. When increasing revenue becomes a driving force, cracks in the academic integrity of education can begin to appear. Leaders cannot solely be focussed on equity in education when corporate agendas exist.


Ethical leadership is a fundamentally subjective ideology that is largely dependent on both internal morality and external pressures. Leaders can adopt a systematic approach to tackling ethical issues. However, in education, there are often situational factors which command attention and inclusion in the decision making process. With the rise of globalisation and competitive industry, leadership decisions in education have become much more complicated. Awareness of this new educational landscape must be increased and considered in order to facilitate transparency in decision making and equity in education.




Marginson, S. (2013). The impossibility of capitalist markets in higher education. Journal of Education Policy, 28(3), 353-370. doi:10.1080/02680939.2012.747109

McGettigan, A. (2013). University Finances and Overseas Income. The Great University Gamble (pp. 113-124): Pluto Press.

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