When a positional good drives unethical behaviour

by Ronel Blom: Academic Dean at REGENT Business School.

In South Africa, as elsewhere in the world, education is seen to be a ‘positional good’. According to Fred Hirsch1, the English economist who coined the phrase, a positional good is seen to be something that has value because of its scarcity and its difficulty to achieve, and it results in a perceived or real advantage to the individual who holds it.

Given South Africa’s history of exclusion from education in the past, it is small wonder that education is seen to be a positional good in this country. We know that people with higher levels of education benefit in direct and indirect ways, including achieving higher incomes, gaining more career opportunities and breaking the poverty cycle2. Indeed, in higher education circles, the notion of ‘first generation’ graduates is a well-known phenomenon3. Who can forget the #Feesmustfall campaign, where students fought for their rights to be the first in their families to graduate from university? The positional good of education was the driving force behind the campaign and has also spurred the growth of the private higher education sector in the country.

‘Nothing wrong with that’, I hear you say – societies benefit from an educated citizenry: we see lower crime rates, better health, smaller family sizes, and many other benefits when people have higher levels of education.

However, it is when the desire for these positional goods leads to unethical behaviour and academic dishonesty, that we have a problem. It appears that the direct benefits derived from obtaining a degree (better resources, a better chance at getting and retaining a job), could be encouraging many students to leave their ethics at the door.

Not only has ‘contract cheating’, where non-students are paid to complete assignments, research reports, and even dissertations, become prevalent, it is in danger of becoming the norm4. Likewise, students are finding ever more sophisticated ways to cheat during their examinations. Coupled this with the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, and the scramble to maintain the academic year, universities’ vulnerability to many different forms of academic dishonesty, including cheating during an examination, was laid bare.

So, do we treat the symptoms, or do we treat the cause?

There is no doubt that higher education, and specifically, the technology available to higher education, must be improved to prevent and/or detect academic dishonesty. However, these moves treat the symptoms, and not the cause.

Diego (2017)5, for example, maintains that cheating is a social behaviour, and that it is likely that students who cheat see nothing wrong with it. It therefore follows that where students do not believe that cheating is wrong, they will have no moral qualms in committing such acts. And, if students act in this way, there is no reason to believe that such behaviours will not be carried into the workplace.

One way of addressing the problem is to introduce and reward affirming behaviours, for example by incentivising ‘moral principles which originate from social value’6. This relates to the indirect positional good of education, namely the contribution that education make in students’ critical thinking, in their reasoning skills, thought processes and moral awareness - ethics should be embedded in the curriculum, and should be seen to be an outcome of the curriculum.

Most universities will have Codes of Conduct or Codes of Ethics. However, more often than not, these Codes are part of the student welcome pack, and once the student has agreed to (or ‘ticked’) the form, it is never referred to again. In addition, it is common for a Code of Ethics to be associated with compliance, and risk mitigation7 and is not seen to be part of the taught and examined curriculum. Codes may drive behaviour due to the punitive measures associated with it, but it does not change attitudes. Attitudes can only change when ethics become part of how students think (McDonald, 2004)8.

McDonald (2004) recommends that ethics awareness and reasoning skills be integrated, and says that the curriculum should achieve the following goals: the development of a moral imagination by recognising (and addressing) ethical issues; by eliciting a sense of moral obligation; by developing analytical skills to interrogate moral dilemmas; and, by integrating professional competence and moral competence. This requires more than teaching Business Ethics as a discipline – it is infusing the curriculum with a critical life skill. Ethics principles, concepts and content, ethics assignments and ethics examination questions should become the bedrock, the conceptual framework, for all subject areas and learning fields. This allows for ‘repeated application of ethical concepts, principles, and decision tools as they occur in a variety of discipline-related circumstances and are presented by a variety of different staff, reaffirming the importance of ethics’ (McDonald, 2004).

The pandemic has had, and continuous to have, devastating impacts on the lives and livelihoods of students and their families. It is not difficult to imagine that they may have to make many moral choices daily. It is therefore incumbent on higher education institutions to consider educational praxis that will support students’ thought processes to make ethical decisions. We will know that we have achieved our goal when our students make the right choices ‘when no one is looking’9, because the alternative is that if academic dishonesty is disregarded, the positional good of all higher education degrees is devalued.


  5. Diego, L. A. B. (2017). Friends with benefits: Causes and effects of learners’ cheating practices during examination. IAFOR Journal of Education, 5(2), 121–138.
  8. McDonald, GM (2004). Integrating Ethics into the Academic Business Curriculum. Journal of Business Ethics, Nov., 2004, Vol. 54, No. 4, Business Ethics in the Curriculum: Of Strategies Deliberate and Emergent (Nov., 2004), pp. 371-384

Useful resources:
Regent Business School
With the pressures of a career, family and social commitments on most MBA students, experience has taught us that the quality of our programme materials and student support makes a great impact on not only our students’ careers, but also on time management in their lives, while they study.
Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share on Facebook
Share via Email

Follow Us
Follow us on Twitter
Follow us on LinkedIn
Follow us on Facebook
Get headlines via RSS

Receive the free newsletter:

Send a question to our panel of MBA experts:

©2021 All rights reserved.
Follow us on Twitter Follow us on LinkedIn Join us on Facebook