September was an active month for the SEFI SIG Ethics Community. At the annual conference…
Alison Gwynne-Evans (Professional Communication Studies, University of Cape Town, South Africa)
In South Africa, the accreditation of engineering programmes at undergraduate level is formulated by the Engineering Council of South-Africa (ECSA) in terms of three criteria, positioned at different levels depending on the qualification: (1) programme design and credits, (2) knowledge profile and (3) a set of graduate attributes (ECSA E-02-PE, 2019).
In the first two criteria there is a noticeable emphasis on scientific, mathematical and engineering science with a lack of explicit reference to ethics and no attempt to define how ethics is to be understood or incorporated in the programme. In the eleven graduate attributes, which define the expected levels of competence for graduates, the two graduate attributes most clearly relating to ethics are GA 7, relating to sustainability and impact of engineering activity, where students are required to show “critical awareness of the sustainability and impact of engineering on the social, industrial and physical environment” and GA 10, that of Engineering Professionalism, requiring students to demonstrate “critical awareness of the need to act professionally and ethically and to exercise judgement and take responsibility within own limits of competence” (ECSA E-02-PE, 2019). In contrast to the other graduate attributes which require the demonstration of competence that includes knowledge, skill and attitude (ECSA R-08-PE, 2018), the specific formulation of these graduate attributes appear to exclude the demonstration of attitude or self-knowledge from the assessment process. This allows accreditation of ethics to focus on the assessment of knowledge of content and process rather than of values or attitudes, such as would be required in the demonstration of the development of ethical judgment or ethical responsibility within a context appropriate for graduate engineers. This encourages the assessment of ethics to measure knowledge about ethical process and codes of conduct rather than requiring the student to engage critically with their own developing self-knowledge or to give evidence of developing ethical awareness.
As the graduate moves into the next stage of registration as a candidate or professional engineer, the ability to demonstrate attitude and values will be required in order to engage meaningfully with ethical judgement within engineering. Restricting undergraduate level engagement with ethics to “objective” content knowledge precludes a focus on the values and attitudes that are indispensable for a practising engineer.
The accreditation process should be responsive to the engagement of practitioners and educators and the changes in the formulation of accreditation standards over the years, provides evidence of this. Currently, the formulation of graduate attributes is under review and it can be anticipated that changes profile a more nuanced understanding of ethics that will enable accreditation to address ethics in a more integrated way.