Ethics for Managing Study Abroad

Membership organization releases a set of standards for the field against the backdrop of more intense scrutiny from without.
March 3, 2008

The Forum on Education Abroad today released its code of ethics for the field, a set of “aspirational” but not prescriptive guidelines covering six main areas: truthfulness and transparency; responsibility to students; relationships with host societies; observance of law and good practice; conflicts of interest; and gifts, gratuities, discounts, rebates and compensation. The guidelines are meant to apply to program providers and college study abroad offices alike, and they come at a time that the field is facing more scrutiny than ever before.

“These principles and guidelines -- these are for the field, but by the field,” said Brian Whalen, president and CEO of the Forum, a membership group designated as a Standards Development Organization for study abroad by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2005.

"This work really represents what is going on in the best programs in study abroad. It may not be that one organization embodies all of the elements but collectively this is really reflective of the way in which the field operates in its best form – which I think is really what we were after,” said Whalen.

Forum members accelerated the process of developing the code after an influential August New York Times article on conflicts of interest in study abroad and subsequent government investigations cast scrutiny on a variety of practices, including exclusive agreements between colleges and program providers, commission and rebate systems, and so-called “familiarization” trips in which college study abroad staff and advisers assess overseas program sites, their expenses paid for, at least in part, by program providers.

Addressing that latter issue, for instance, the new ethical guidelines would allow subsidized familiarization trips under certain circumstances. They make clear that college officials should not accept subsidized travel “unless substantive work, such as program assessment or program development, is required.” The code also lays out a set of more specific guidelines for the formal program site visits. The code stipulates that “The visit, hospitality, or any honoraria do not imply, require or guarantee endorsement or approval of the program," and states that evaluations should be based on pre-determined criteria. It also offers a list of materials that the visiting evaluator may solicit (including course evaluations, syllabi, faculty and staff backgrounds, and emergency plans).

Under the code’s transparency section, criteria for approving study abroad programs should be fully disclosed along with any benefits that staff or the college may have received from the provider, like subsidized site visits or advisory board service (the code also includes a section on guidelines for advisory board service, specifically).

Relative to gifts and gratuities, the code states, “Individuals should not accept gifts, services, or other favors under circumstances from which it might be inferred that such actions were intended to influence or impair the performance of their duties or their ability to exercise objectivity in their professional responsibilities.”

But is it possible that that a subsidized familiarization trip -- even if “substantive work” is happening and it’s otherwise in accordance with the forum’s ethical guidelines -- could prompt inferences, especially perhaps from those outside the field, about undue influence?

In a perfect world, universities would fully foot the bill for sending staff abroad to assess programs, conceded Jerome Bookin-Weiner, director of study abroad and outreach for America-Mideast Educational and Training Services, Inc. (AMIDEAST). “But they don’t, and they can’t." He cited the rising focus on containing college costs happening in parallel with the push to send more students overseas as reasons why not – and likened the subsidized trips to the common practice of host universities paying the costs of outside teams charged with evaluating academic departments.

“Over the years, there have been a variety of different practices in the field that have grown up and nobody’s ever really sat down to take a look at them and say, ‘From the point of view of the field, are these things that we believe should be going on?’ What this does is create a set of guidelines that people in the field can use in order to do precisely that and make up their own minds about whether or not what they’re thinking of doing would be seen by others as being ethical,” said Bookin-Weiner, who was involved in drafting the guidelines.

“There was a lot of discussion around each issue, and a very concerted attempt to make it clear that just because somebody on the outside may look at something from a totally uninformed point of view and think that it’s unethical, in fact there are good reasons why things are done that way that actually benefit students and that’s the bottom line.”

At the same time, however, Bookin-Weiner said that the practice of a provider offering a program visit to college officials under the condition that a certain number of that college's students participate in the program -- a practice highlighted in the Times article -- would be inappropriate. He also referenced another practice described in the Times story that he believes clearly would not be acceptable under the field's new ethical standards: colleges accepting financial incentives in exchange for forming exclusive agreements with providers. Among the ethical principles in the code: “allowing for free and fair competition among programs and avoiding the denigration of programs offered by other institutions or organizations.”

Below are a few other examples of ethical principles included in the code:

  • Relative to relationships with host countries, colleges and providers should demonstrate an "awareness of the program's impact on the local community, a commitment to creating sustainable local relationships that are mutually beneficial, and an effort to minimize any negative effects on the host society." There should also be effective orientations offered to help students, faculty and staff understand the host society and applicable ethical and legal practices.
  • Entities involved in education abroad should abide by all relevant laws, in the U.S. and internationally, avoid employment discrimination and respect intellectual property rights. They should pay "fair and locally-appropriate wages to employees."
  • In addition to disclosing the processes behind an institution's study abroad policies, colleges and providers should update program and marketing materials regularly to ensure maximum accuracy.
  • Potential conflicts of interest should be externally reviewed and, when identified, addressed and disclosed or eliminated. The code defines a potential conflict of interest as existing "when the financial or non-financial interests of an institution or organization (or an employee of either) may be seen as competing with the interests of the student."
  • On that note, the code states, "As an educational endeavor, education abroad should keep students' academic objectives, personal growth, and best interests foremost in mind."

The Code of Ethics is meant, Whalen explained, to provide general guidelines to colleges and study abroad providers that they can use to develop their own standards or assess how closely their current policies align with those promulgated by the Forum. "It is not meant to substitute for an institution's specific policies and practices but to inform the development of them," said Whalen. The Forum, which now has more than 300 members, is immediately beginning work on collecting examples of more tangible best practices for a “toolbox” intended to complement the code. Some examples of what will be included, Whalen said, are itineraries for familiarization visits and correspondence between a provider organization and college dictating the terms of the trip.

“I think this is pretty much a landmark document,” said Al Balkcum, director of the Learning Abroad Center at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus and a member of the Forum’s Board of Directors. “I do think that this is a good roadmap on how to do things and do things right."

“There is a lot of leeway within any code of conduct. From the inside, it will be a number of years before the field will really be able to struggle through the issues. What does this code mean when it comes to marketing study abroad programs? What does it mean when we’re trying to figure out what is the best study abroad program for a particular student or major?”

“This is a set of guidelines. We need to hash through it in the next few years,” Balkcum said. “But this is such a major jump for a field where there was virtually nothing before.”


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