As places of teaching and learning, how can universities tangibly create a culture of togetherness and well-being? Here, Jochen Schellinger explains Bern University of Applied Sciences’ efforts to do so through the development of a Code of Conduct based on visionary strategic guiding principles.
The Covid-19 pandemic presented significant challenges for higher education institutions, not least in terms of the additional burden for staff and students. Indeed, this crisis demonstrated the great relevance of mental and physical health and social well-being for the functioning of education. In this sense, the pandemic also revealed the need for deeper engagement with well-being as an institutional responsibility. More broadly, shared values and ways of interacting which facilitate cooperation in everyday educational life are important factors for the well-being of staff and students. They also contribute to a sense of stability, orientation and motivation for learning and teaching. These factors were highlighted by the work of the European University Association’s 2022 Thematic Peer Group (TPG) on “Needs and well-being of students and staff”, of which Bern University of Applied Sciences (BFH) was a member.
At my own university, we set about drafting six guiding principles for wellbeing in 2021. Then in 2022, based on these principles, we developed a Code of Conduct which involves all stakeholders and defines rules of conduct and behaviour, thus creating a framework for interactions between all members of the university community. Both documents reflect the humanistic view that underlies the strategic thinking and actions at BFH.
The six visionary guiding principles formulated in 2021 can be summarised as follows:
These principles represent an overarching set of values and reflect the attitude with which members of the university community should conduct their daily work. This includes staff and students, visiting external lecturers, alumni and external partners, as well as school councils and other stakeholders that contribute to the institution’s functioning. The principles also form the normative basis of BFH’s new strategy for the period 2023-2026. Simply, they outline the university’s purpose and what we stand for. In that sense, they aim to strengthen the common understanding of purpose and values underpinning that underpin our approach to higher education. However, to make the guidelines come to life in an everyday context, further concretisation was required.
To achieve this, the university formulated a binding framework based on the guiding principles, namely a code, that will enter into force in 2023. It constitutes a formal joint commitment to respect and integrity and sets out what kind of behaviour university members can expect from each other. It covers the following topics: cooperation, responsibility, communication, diversity and inclusion, sustainability, scientific integrity and the handling of data and information. Many of these areas relate to well-being and the promotion of a culture of well-being. The code also clearly defines what is not tolerable: discrimination, sexual harassment, bullying, violence and threats, as well as corruption.
Clear and transparent rules of behaviour contribute greatly to employees feeling safe and valued, even in difficult conditions such as those experienced during the pandemic. As such, the central goal of the code is to improve well-being through a positive change in organisational culture and employee behaviour. During the pandemic, for example, that the importance consistent and mindful communication for students and teachers in coping with the changeover to distance learning became increasingly obvious. Regarding communication, the code states the following: “We foster an attitude of mutual appreciation in our interactions and aspire to honest, benevolent communication that does not hurt or exclude anyone. A culture of trust and an openness to constructive criticism form the basis of our daily work and ongoing development.”
The development process for the code lasted roughly one year, starting with an extensive document analysis and ending with its adoption by the university council. The process was set up in a very participatory way to allow for the highest possible level of acceptance among university members. Relevant stakeholders, i.e. staff and students and their representatives, various internal experts, the general secretariat, the executive university board and the university council, were actively involved in the process.
The current and final step in this multi-year process is the establishment of regulations as a legal basis for the implementation of the code. They will define formal processes and internal structures for conflict resolution. In this regard, communication and awareness-raising measures (e.g. courses by BFH’s Virtual Academy will be necessary in the years to come. Members of the university community who are affected by or observe non-tolerable behaviour or themselves have doubts about the integrity of their own behaviour, may refer to internal and external support, counselling and procedures. However, it is crucial that all BFH members jointly take responsibility for the successful implementation of the code. Achieving this sense of joint responsibility will be a major focus of the university’s work for the foreseeable future.
“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.
All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.